Welfare And Poverty Essay Questions

NPR-Kaiser Family Foundation-Kennedy School of Government Poverty Study

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These are questions that have been used in exams in the past. The reading and class discussion this semester will cover many but not all of these. There will also probably be some questions added to reflect new material this semester. Nevertheless, these are a good study guide for what you should be learning. You will be in good shape for the exam if you:

  • Read these questions before each section in the course so you know what it is you are supposed to learn in that section; and

  • Try to answer these questions at the end of each section in the course. Working in study groups will help greatly.



The objective of the essay questions (and thus your answers) is to pull together material from different topics in order to identify common themes and patterns. Your answers will be evaluated in terms of your ability to see these similar patterns across different topics. A second important criterion will be how specific your answers are. Broad generalizations are not sufficient. You should cite specific examples or data that support your arguments for general patterns.

Five essay questions reflect the major themes in the course:

  1. We have discussed many  trends over the last four decades in the structure of the American stratification system. Select at least three distinct trends that you feel are important to describe what has been happening in American stratification. First, describe the changes over time. Then, for each trend, identify two possible causal forces that might explain these trends. Explain why each is a plausible causal explanation. Finally, what is the empirical evidence over time that these are really macro-level causes (i.e., do the trends show similar or dissimilar patterns)? [It is not important that you select possible explanations that turn out to be supported by the data; what is important is that you can use the evidence to evaluate how true the explanation is.]

  3. We have distinguished between  "micro" and "macro" explanations of various topics in stratification. Choose three issues we have discussed in different sections of the course (e.g., women's labor force participation, poverty, welfare, racial inequality, unionization, elite power, voting etc.) and for each, describe a plausible micro and and a (different) plausible macro explanations of that change/difference. First, review the micro-level evidence that the micro cause actually describes which people are more likely to be in the labor force/poor/in unions, etc. Then, review the macro-level evidence whether the micro explanation also works at the macro level? Finally, evaluate the (macro-level) evidence regarding the macro level explanation.


    Skipped in 2000:

  5. One of the major theoretical controversies in sociology is to what extent people have control over their lives or are just the objects of larger social forces that structure their lives and determine their behavior. A more middle ground suggests that the degree of control varies across actors and time and one of the major tasks of sociology should be to study who has relatively more control and what circumstances lead to more or less control. Consider any three groups we have discussed thus far: men/women; racial/ethnic groups; the poor, the working class, and the elite. For each group, what circumstances contribute to the ability of the group to alter society or their own situations within society? For each, what larger social forces outside their immediate control have had the most impact on their relative position in American society?


    Done for midterm:

  7. In many of the issues we have considered, education has been a central, if not the central factor in understanding inequality in America. Explain the role that education plays at the micro (individual) level in determining different outcomes and accounting for the effects of different origins (class, race, and gender). What aspects the education are the most important for understanding inequality? consider the roles of (and cite evidence concerning) years of schooling, quality of schools, what is learned in school, and the economic status of classmates. How does education explain the macro (national) trends in inequality by class, race, and gender?
  8. For causal analyses in sociology, the concept of intervening variables is crucial for explaining why or how some cause has an effect on some consequences. Choose three causal process from the three different parts of the course. For each causal process, identify the cause and consequence to be explained and review the evidence for this causal effect. Then, describe at least two intervening process that are plausible explanations of why that cause has an effect on that consequence. Explain how the cause would affect the itnervening variable and how the intevening variable would affect the consequence. Choose one of the intervening variable explanations, and review the evidence whether the intervening variable actually explains (or does not explain) how the cause affects the consequence.



These short answer questions are divided into several themes:



  1. How have differences in occupational status/prestige been measured?
  2. Identify two sources of income other than earnings: one source which is more typical of low income families and one which is more typical of high income families.
  3. Besides inflation which we always adjust for, what are two problems with family incomes as a measure of the economic well-being of Americans? What adjustments can be made for these problems and how do these adjustments change our conclusions about time trends in Americans' well being during the 1970s and 1980s?

  5. Both the parental status of the family in which people are born and the amount of education that people attain are determinants of people's eventual occupational success. Explain how sociologists evaluate which one is more important and describe the results of that evaluation.

  7. A cliche often repeated by motivational speakers is that you can be anything you want to be. What is the sociological evidence that a persons' aspirations actually plays a role in helping people be successful? Then identify at least two causes of higher (or lower) aspirations.

  9. What is the theory concerning the role of others' expectations in determining occupational success? Describe at least two causes and two consequence of others' expectations.

  11. Why do children of affluent parents have a better chance of going to college? Identify two possible reasons and explain which one receives more support from research.

  13. Describe two differences in family structures and explain to what extent these family structure differences explain childrens' eventual occupational attainment.

  15. How do single parent families have an impact on children's outcomes? Identify three consequences of single parent families that are obstacles to status attainment.

  17. Explain how mental ability (i.e., intelligence) has an effect on future occupational attainment.

  19. Identify three major factors that help determine adult poverty other than intelligence and the social background in which people grew up.

  21. Explain why students in schools that spend more money and have smaller classes score higher on standardized academic tests.

  23. How has the situtation changed over the last few decades in poor inner city neighborhoods that makes them more difficult places to grow up in?
  24. For each of the three models (in the attached diagrams):
    A. How big is the parental social status effect relative to other effects?
    B. According to the model, how does parental social status affect the outcome? How much of the parental status effect is explained by the intervening variable(s)? Evaluate the importance of the paths in order of how important they are.
    C. Cite one other intervening variable that might explain the remaining direct effect of parental status on the outcome.

    Income inequality

  25. Describe one specific measure of family income inequality. What has been the trend in income inequality since World War II?

  27. How does income inequality in the U.S. compare to income inequality in other industrialized countries? How do the changes in inequality in the U.S. compare with changes in inequality in other industrialized countries?

  29. What is the difference between family income and family wealth? Which is distributed more unequally?

  31. What has been the trend in median family income in the four decades since 1950? in average workers' earnings?

  33. What has been the time trend in the Gross National Product (GNP) in each decade since 1950? What were the consequences of these changes for the average American family in the 1950s and 1960s? in the 1980s and 1990s? Why?

  35. What are the time trends in earnings inequality among women? and among men? When are these two earnings inequality trends similar and different?

  37. How has the income premium for a college degree (i.e., the difference between the incomes of college graduates and of those who aren't college graduates) changed in the 1980s? How has the income premium for years of work experience changed in the last two decades?


    Causes of rising inequality

  39. What has been the time trend in the government-guaranteed minimum wage since 1960? How does this trend match trends in overall earnings inequality?

  41. What is the trend in unionization since 1950? How might unionization reduce income inequality? How might it increase income inequality? On balance, has the trend in unionization made inequality greater or smaller in the last twenty years?

  43. What has been the trend in immigration rates since 1950? In what way has immigration affected earnings inequality? What is the evidence that immigration is not a complete explanation of changes in earnings inequality?

  45. What is the usual relationship between unemployment rates and inequality? Explain why unemployment affects inequality. How has this relationship changed since 1980?

  47. Explain how increases in deindustrialization would cause declining median earnings and more earnings inequality. How do the time trend data fit with the theory?

  49. Describe one measure of the growing globalization of the American economy. Describe two ways that globalization might affect earnings inequality. How does this theory fit the time trend data?

  51. Cite one specific technological change that might help explain the increasing earnings inequality in the last twenty years? What data are used to evaluate this explanation?


    Racial inequality

  53. What is the trend in the ratio of black to white family incomes since 1960? In black to white education differences? In the number of elected African-American public officials?

  55. How has the race gap in high school and college education changed over time? How do the high-school and college race gaps show somewhat different trends?

  57. What is one aspect of black-white inequality that is better explained by white racism? Describe the evidence .

  59. What are trends in attitudes about racial inequality? Give an example. Describe one problem in why these attitude trends may not explain changes in economic differences by race.


    Gender inequality

  61. When are time trends in median earnings for women similar to the time trends in median earnings for men? When are they different? What has been the trend in the gender earnings gap since 1960?

  63. What are trends in attitudes about gender inequality? Give an example. Describe one problem in why these attitude trends may not explain changes in economic differences by gender.

  65. How has the gender gap in education changed over time? the gap in post-college professional training?

  67. Explain what is meant by occupational segregagtion by gender. How is it measured? What has been the time trend in this measure since 1950?

  69. What has been the time trend in women's labor force participation rate in each decade since 1950?

  71. What is the evidence for AND against increasing economic need as a cause of women's labor force participation?

  73. What is the evidence for AND against increasing divorce as a cause of women's labor force participation?

  75. What is the evidence that the growing size of "female" occupations (e.g., clerical and service work) is a cause of women's labor force participation?

  77. How is the gender earnings differential between black women and black men different from the gender earnings differential between white women and white men? between Hispanic women and Hispanic men compared to white women and white men?

  79. How has gender equality in politics changed in the last quarter century? What is the evidence?

  81. What proportion of housework time is spent by mothers? How has this changed over time? Who has changed most -- mothers or fathers?

  83. What is meant by the feminization of poverty? What are two reasons why there is a gender gap in poverty? What is the empirical evidence of the trend over time?


    Poverty and welfare

  85. What has been the trend in the standard poverty measure in the last 40 years? What are two problems with the standard poverty measure? and what effect do these problems have on the level and trends in poverty you describe above?

  87. In comparing Black-White differences in poverty, what are the differences in the percent of the poor who are Black and White? in the percent of Blacks and Whites who are poor?

  89. How has the proportion of high school drop-outs changed over time? What effect should this have on changes in poverty rates?

  91. How has the racial/ethnic composition of the population changed since 1950 and what impact has this had on poverty rates?

  93. What was the trend in poverty rates between 1950 and the mid-1970s? Evaluate how well the following hypotheses explain that trend:
    • single parenthood
    • economic prosperity
    • welfare generosity

  94. What is the evidence that rising poverty in the last quarter of the century can be blamed on average economic decline or stagnation in the country? What other economic explanation is there?

  96. What was one family structure change that pushed for increased poverty in the last twenty-five years? What one family change pushed for declining poverty?

  98. Identify two different kinds of government transfer payments (welfare) targeted to different populations. What has happened to poverty in those two different populations?

  100. What are two specific types of evidence that higher AFDC payments do not increase birth rates among single women? What do high AFDC benefits affect?

  102. How does the level of poverty in the U.S. compare to poverty levels in Europe? What explains the differences in poverty rates between the U.S. and Europe? What is the evidence for this causal explanation?

  104. What is the U.S. evidence that welfare payments are (or are not) mainly an attempt to keep the poor pacified (i.e., a reaction to poor people rioting)?

  106. What is the U.S. evidence that welfare payments are (or are not) mainly a response to growing economic need of the poor?


    Unions and the working class

  108. What is an important structural change in the labor force that helps explain the decline in unionization? What is an empirical weakness of this explanation?

  110. What is an important cultural difference that separates the working-class labor movement from middle-class American culture? What effects does this have on differences in economic activities to get ahead?

  112. What is the evidence regarding whether imports helped kill the steel industry? What is the evidence regarding whether high union wages help kill the steel industry?

  114. What are the three major benefits workers get from being in a unionized firm? What advantage do non-union workers get from being in an industry where most other workers are unionized?

  116. Explain why the differences between the average earnings of union members and workers not in unions are a poor indicator of the causal effect of unions on earnings. What do more careful studies show is the causal impact of unionization on workers' earnings?

  118. What is the main weakness of grievances and arbitration as a means for workers to get justice at work? What alternative means have not been used as much in recent years? What accounts for the shift to grievances and arbitration?

  120. What has caused the growing bureaucratization of unions and the importance of legal training as opposed to recruiting members and leading strikes?

  122. Explain the tactical advantage of the sitdown strikes of the 1930s (as compared to walkout strikes of the 1990s) that made it a successful weapon for labor. Why is it no longer used?

  124. What is the usual relationship between strike rates and unemployment rates? Explain the reason for this relationship. How did this relationship change in the 1980s?

  126. How have unionization rates varied during the 20th century? Cite two legal changes that help explain this variation.

  128. What are two strategies employers use now to weaken labor solidarity. Why are these strategies not effective in Canada?

  130. Describe one reason why unions lower worker productivity and efficiency; one reason why they raise efficiency. On balance, do unions increase or decrease productivity? increase or decrease company profits?



  132. According to C.Wright Mills, what three institutions dominate American society? What are three other important institutions that have to adapt to these dominant three?

  134. What are three specific indicators of belonging to social upper class institutions? What is the indicator of being in the corporate inner circle?

  136. What evidence do we have that about the trends since World War II about the share of U.S. industry controlled by the largest corporations? What has been the trend in the role of entrepreneurial individuals? How have these trends changed during the second half of the century?
  137. What is the managerialist theory about shifts in who wields economic power in the U.S.? What is some evidence for and some evidence against the theory?

  139. How are the sources of incomes of the richest 1% qualitatively different from the incomes of most other Americans? How do the corporate rich benefit materially from their position even beyond their large incomes?

  141. What are two types of taxes that disproportionately come from lower income people? two types that come more from elites and high income people?

  143. How have the shares of different types of federal taxes varied over the last 50 years?

  145. What are two recent non-tax federal Congressional outcomes that have benefited elites? One that has benefited the working class more?

  147. What are three types of influence that the social upper class and corporate elites have over the political process that increase their political power?

  149. How does Mills claim the role of outsiders in government has varied over time? What are two alternative sources of government leaders?

  151. What is the main benefit corporate elites get from making large campaign contributions? What is the evidence that campaign contributions influence votes in Congress?

  153. Why would political policies need to fit with the interests of economic elites even if elites had no special access to government leaders?

  155. What is the trend in political alienation (i.e., mistrust) since the 1950s? What best explains this trend?

  157. Cite two ways in which working-class and middle-class Americans differ in their voting. How is this different from most other industrial democracies?


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