Research Findings

Meatpacking work: Creating structural precarity and sacrifice zones in COVID-19

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October 21, 2021

In the early weeks of the pandemic, it became clear that meatpacking workers would bear a heavy burden, along with other frontline workers. In the meatpacking and food processing plant sector, nearly 92,000 workers have tested positive for COVID-19 and 466 workers have died from COVID-19, as of September 2021. Available data show that workers of color account for 80% of confirmed cases in an industry in which people of color comprise 80% of the workforce.

In a recent article in Sociological Perspectives, we drew on case studies of meatpacking facilities in three Midwestern states to analyze how industry consolidation and the hiring of marginalized workers affected worker safety and food system stability during the pandemic. We find that the meatpacking industry’s hyper-concentration and exploitative labor strategies created precarious structural conditions which COVID-19 deepened, producing two inter-connected processes:

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Research Findings

The Dispossession-Versus-Exploitation Dilemma for Informal Worker


October 14, 2021
informal worker

Defying stereotypes, millions of precarious informal workers have mobilized for labor rights over the past 40 years.  Yet, as my research on Bogotá’s recicladores (informal recyclers) movement demonstrates, organized informal workers may confront structural dilemmas as they seek to improve their working lives. As informal workers gain a measure of power to reshape the structure and conditions of their work, but continue to face constraints due to their subordinated positions in the broader political economy, tensions may emerge between the imperatives of combatting exploitation and dispossession.

Until recently, most scholars in the Marxist tradition viewed neither exploitation nor dispossession as significant threats to informal workers. Rather, such workers were dismissed as marginal outcasts, whose labor and assets were superfluous to the needs of capital. Indeed, Karl Marx categorized many workers who would come to be known as “informal” such as rag pickers, organ grinders, knife grinders, tinkers, and porters as part of the “lumpenproletariat,” an underclass of vagabonds and criminals.

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Research Findings

Another reason organizations need to support mothers returning to work: they are critical members

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October 7, 2021
Baby, Ouderschap, Hand, Vinger, Moeder, Vader

Mothers’ transition back to work after maternity leave is intense. It can be strenuous for mothers as they navigate new routines, relationships, and even identities. As Daisy Wademan Dowling, founder and CEO of Workparent, stated, “reentry is a transition that’s like no other … everything is changing.” In the United States, reentry may be especially challenging due to the absence of federal support and, on-average, shorter maternity leaves than in other developed nations.

We know that mothers need support from their employers during this critical transition. Yet, our understanding of the impact of organizations’ support on mothers’ as well as their partners’ personal and professional lives is less clear.

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Research Findings

Governing platforms by managing relationships

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September 30, 2021

As the power of digital platforms grows, tensions between platform companies and their users are increasingly making headlines. Prominent content creators have been “deplatformed” for spreading misinformation and hate speech. Uber and Lyft drivers frequently organize to resist exploitative policies.

These and other controversies are rooted in the fact that every platform company has to balance its own interests with the interests of its varied users. This is often called the problem of “platform governance,” or how platforms control the terms of users’ participation.

Existing studies of platform governance emphasize how platforms’ rules are set, implemented, and enforced. One strand of research emphasizes the role of algorithms and digital interfaces, which dictate how users interact with content and with each other. Another focuses on the human labor involved in implementing policies pertaining to user-generated content.

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New book

When the moral economy became a political economy


September 23, 2021
Trade and Nation

History shows that the standards by which societies judge economic activity change over time. As these moral frameworks evolve—or devolve—many of the changes make their way into law. For example, modern anti-trust law is grounded in the widely accepted belief that monopolies depress competition and growth and encourage unscrupulous behavior.

However, in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the state explicitly sought to protect large trade monopolies, which were commonly regarded as good for trade. The slow transformation of the moral status of monopoly over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries figured prominently in a larger cultural transformation, which might be thought of as the shift from a moral economy to a political economy, and ushered in the birth of classical economics. Appreciating how and why this shift occurred reveals interesting links between power, political representation, and economic theory. It may also allow us to recover some important moral ideas about exchange that were lost along the way.

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Research Findings

“Women’s work” and the welfare state: New analysis quantifies how gender, class and social policy shape unpaid care work

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September 16, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened inequalities in unpaid care work, with increased childcare and housework burdens disproportionately borne by women. Across Europe and North America, women have been pushed out of the labor market, while mothers are increasingly suffering from stress and burnout.

Social policy might be able to reverse these trends – and the Carework Network has been urging the Biden-Harris administration to take decisive action now and reinvest in care infrastructure to “build back better”. Similar campaigns have been launched internationally, including in Canada and the UK.

But what can data tell us about the potential for welfare programs to address the gender gap in unpaid care work?

In our recent article in Gender & Society, we quantify the connections between social policy spending and inequality amongst unpaid care workers across 29 European countries.

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Research Findings

Geographic disparities in student debt by rural, suburban, and urban background


September 9, 2021

American youth from rural backgrounds are making the most of the college-for-all era. Despite long-standing inequalities in access, rates of both college enrollment and completion have risen faster in recent years for rural youth than for youth from suburban and urban areas.   

These successes both reflect and reinforce contemporary challenges facing rural America. Rising enrollments stem in part from structural shifts in the economy that have reduced the number of decent-paying jobs available to less-educated rural workers. And rural sociologists have documented the family and community costs of college-going, highlighting tensions between the desire to stay close to home and the hope of future economic security.

Yet it is also important to consider how rural youth are financing these college gains, especially given the high costs of college, rising student debt, and longstanding spatial inequalities in the resources students have to pay for college.

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Research Findings

Consumer redlining at Dollar General


September 2, 2021

“We are awakening to a dollar-store economy,” the New York Times declared in 2011, a culture of fear-induced bargain hunting spurred by the 2008 market meltdown and jobless recovery. More than ever before, anxious consumers are looking to stretch a buck due to the shrinking middle class and a widening gap of economic inequality. Dollar stores thrive in climates of economic uncertainty. In fact, their success is built on the death of the American middle class.

Yet all Dollar General stores are not equal. That was my conclusion in a recent article, after conducing six months of ethnographic fieldwork investigating service relations between dollar store managers, low-wage workers, and their customers. Of the nineteen stores in the district I worked in as a low-wage sales associate, three standout stores emerged as the very worst. Conditions there were dirtier and more hazardous than the rest, with barren shelves, slower customer service, and a tense atmosphere for those who worked and shopped amidst the squalor. I identified these Dollar General locations as consumer redlined stores. 

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Research Findings

Misery has company:how predatory investors have exacerbated and exploited the coronavirus crisis

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July 15, 2021
pink and blue pig figurine

A once-in-a-century pandemic has sparked an unprecedented crisis. With over 167 million cases and 3.5 million deaths recorded worldwide and entire economies in turmoil, the fallout has been felt by all—but unevenly so. Public attention has rightfully focused on curbing COVID-19’s spread and alleviating economic hardship.

But lurking behind the headlines of vaccines and new variants are predatory financial investors whose work has placed many workers at risk and exploited those very vulnerabilities to profit from the pandemic.

In a recent article in American Behavioral Scientist, we examine how the rise of U.S. “shadow banks”—less regulated, private credit intermediaries such as private equity, venture capital, and hedge fund firms—has impacted the course of hardship and inequality during the crisis. These shadow banks play an instrumental role in how executives manage companies, which has important ramifications for societal responses to crises, the wellbeing and livelihoods of workers, and inequality throughout the labor market.

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Research Findings

Economic loss causes greater mental harm for immigrants during the COVID-19 pandemic


July 8, 2021

Although many studies have shown that inequalities have widened in many ways ever since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the discussion has focused on objective measures, such as numbers of confirmed cases and deaths, access to healthcare and medical treatment, or unemployment/poverty. Less attention has been paid to inequality consequences in connection with subjective experience.

Objectively, studies have shown that chances of physical as well as economic survival are not evenly distributed across class, racial and ethnic groups, as well as residential areas and regions, with the disadvantaged vulnerable to more severe consequences. Subjectively, however, it is unclear whether disadvantaged population groups also bear more psychological burdens.

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