Workshop on inequality



7 June 2010 - 8 June 2010

This workshop brought together leading scholars from the United States and Australia to explore different dimensions of inequality. The aim was to begin a conversation across continents and disciplines in order to encourage future scholarly collaborations.

In order to further the understanding of the United States among the wider Australian public addition, there was also a public forum. In addition, the American guests gave numerous interviews on TV and radio.

Following is a summary of each of the sessions:

The session “Statistical Construction of Social Categories” featured three speakers: Kenneth Prewitt, Gary Segura, and Maggie Walter, who discussed the construction of social categories, change in those categories, and the congruence – or lack thereof – between official categories and the identities that individuals choose to appropriate. Prewitt discussed changes in official Census designations of racial categories, focusing on the 2000 Census and the “other” racial category. He noted the complexity of racial categories and the challenges posed to the U.S. racial system by the presence of new groups. Segura continued the discussion of racial identity with emphasis on the growing diversity of the Latino population. His work highlighted the recent controversies over race and immigration in places like Arizona. Walter discussed the diversity of lived experience among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia. Her work suggests the difficulty of using official government categories and statistics to describe the aboriginal experience.

The second session, “Labor Markets and Inequality” featured a discussion of contemporary developments in the United States and Australia from Jeff Borland and Henry Farber, focusing particularly on the effects of the recent economic downturn. Henry Farber’s talk addressed earnings, hours, and employment consequences of the economic downturn for different sociodemographic groups. His talk compared the consequences of the current economic downturn to those of earlier downturns, noting that the U.S. labor market had changed substantially as this downturn affected a different set of workers than earlier downturns. Jeff Borland focused on changes in the Australian labor market, highlighting unemployment, the earnings distribution, and unionization rates.

In the session titled “Attitudinal Data on Racial Prejudices,” Jennifer Hochschild, Simon Jackman, and Karen Stenner discussed political and racial attitudes. Jennifer Hochschild reflected on the fact that black and white attitudes on inequality and race have shown remarkable convergence over time, although neither have become particularly positive. Simon Jackman showed data on the 2008 presidential election. Through a comparison of white voters’ preferences for other candidates in the primary compared to Obama, Jackman demonstrated a substantial influence of attitudes of racial resentment on Obama’s white support. Karen Stenner focused on authoritarianism and its effects on political attitudes. She argued that authoritarianism produces extremist political views, particularly in situations with high diversity, presenting evidence from a variety of national contexts.

The session, “Dimensions of Racial Inequality” showed the persistence of disadvantage through different mechanisms in the context of the U.S. and Australia. Bob Gregory presented data on life circumstances among Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians showing substantial disadvantages on a variety of dimensions for Aboriginal Australians. While there has been some improvement over time, gaps remain substantial. Bruce Western’s talk focused on the role of the U.S. prison system in creating a unique form of disadvantage in the United States. As imprisonment is an extremely common experience among low-educated African-American youths, it constitutes a new form of disadvantage among this group, and suggests the importance of the U.S. prison system in creating inequalities which are difficult to observe using conventional measures of inequality.

Andrew Leigh and Sabino Kornrich discussed the role of changes in top incomes in contemporary income inequality and the potential consequences of these shifts in the session “What’s Happened to Inequality (and Should we Care)?” Andrew Leigh examined economic indicators such as income data in the U.S. and Australia to chart changes in inequality since World War II. As other data have shown, inequality has grown substantially in recent years, and much of this growth is accounted for by growth in top incomes. Sabino Kornrich then explored how income inequality has influenced spending on housing and other goods, testing theories which suggest increased spending motivated by competitive bidding markets or pressures to engage in display and emulation.

“Political and Policy Consequences of Inequality” featured discussions by Jason Casellas and Deborah Brennan of policy innovations in Australia and the United States in response to forms of inequality. Casellas discussed the history of United States educational policy, focusing on educational attainment among Latinos, which lags substantially behind that of whites, with lower graduation rates and worse test scores. The talk discussed the history of bilingual education in the United States but suggested that in general there has been little policy attention to the problems of Latino education. Brennan’s talk focused on a different policy arena – the creation of paid family leave in Australia. Her work suggests that many of the traditional reasons proposed for family leave failed to motivate policy makers to pass proposals to create paid family leave.

In addition to the workshop sessions, there was also a public forum, “Race in America, Race in Australia” in which Glenn Loury and Waleed Aly discussed the distinctive features of race relations and racism in their two countries. Loury emphasized issues confronted by African-Americans in terms of both social policy and their own moral responsibilities as a community to combat disadvantage. Aly raised similar issues of a “double-bind” faced by Australian minority community members who criticize practices of their own groups as well as those of the larger society in an effort to overcome disadvantage and combat racism. Both agreed that it is important to understand stigmatized communities within the larger national culture that contributes to the stigma and problems. Bob Carr, former premier of New South Wales, moderated the forum.