course: Social Inequality

This course examines inequality in American society with an emphasis on race, class, and gender.  Lectures emphasize the mechanisms through which inequality develops and comes to be seen as legitimate, natural, and desirable.  We will also examine the economic, social, and political consequences of rising inequality.  We will place special focus on poverty and inequality in Native North America.


course: Class and Culture

Course covers economic, social, and political causes and consequence of class in America.  Topics include: class culture, education, recent social protests, including Occupy and Tea Party, and the 2016 presidential election.  Emphasizes ways that social class shapes the background and experiences of current Northwestern students and what their future will hold.

Syllabus 2016

Syllabus 2017

  Quotes From Students

“This course was a lesson in critical thinking and opening your eyes.”

“This course should be a requirement for attending Northwestern, or being a human in America.”


“Beth is my favorite woman ever and her dog is even more incredible.”

“You walk out actually knowing things about the world.”


“It really changed my perception of the world.”

“Engaging, honest, knowledgeable, relatable, clear, concise, communicative, smart, structures class well so we learn most we can, challenges class to engage with material.”


“Prof. Red Bird sometimes had trouble getting technology to work but honestly it was quite funny so I wasn’t complaining.”

paper: The New Closed Shop? The Economic and Structural Effects of Occupational Licensing

During the past few decades, licensure, a state-enforced mechanism for regulating occupational entry, quickly became the most prevalent form of occupational closure. Broad consensus among researchers is that licensure creates wage premiums through creation of economic monopolies. This article demonstrates that, contrary to established wisdom, licensure does not limit competition, nor does it increase wages, but rather encourages participation by institutionalizing the entry process. While these systems create barriers, they also standardize entry, creating a codified and publicized method of entry that increases access while stagnating quality, thus eliminating any net wage benefit. This paper is published in the June 2017 American Sociological Review. « Read It »    «Summary»    «ASA WIP Blog»

chapter: Rent, Rent-Seeking, and Social Inequality


The compensation paid out to workers reflects: (a) the value of their contribution to the firm or organization; and (b) a possible premium because of restrictions on competition. The latter restrictions, which may take the form of corruption or monopolies that preclude labor from freely flowing throughout the economy, allow for extraction of various types of rent. This article addresses the way rents are created, the sectors of the labor market that are gaining new opportunities to extract rent, and the sectors that are losing the capacity to extract. Although it is typically argued that all forms of rent are gradually withering away, the available evidence suggests, to the contrary, that rent destruction is mainly occurring at the bottom of the class structure. At the top of the class structure, new opportunities to collect rent appear to be emerging, a process that raises earnings among the already-privileged and thus increases income inequality. The foregoing characterization of the evidence, although not without support, is necessarily controversial, because of intrinsic difficulties in distinguishing the true marginal contribution of workers from returns that are attributable to market failure. « Read It »

2015. Red Bird, Beth, & David B. Grusky. “Rent, Rent-Seeking, and Social Inequality”, in Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, edited by Robert Scott and Stephen Kosslyn. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.

chapter: Occupational Licensure and Changing Barriers to Immigrant Workforce Incorporation

Immigrant Jobs


For migrants arriving with little financial capital, or for those arriving as adults after the acquisition of education credentials in their countries of origin, licensing requirements can act as substantial barriers to entry. On the other hand, licensing institutionalizes entry, which may have the effect of enhancing accessibility for immigrants, and particularly for recent arrivals, who may otherwise lack the occupational social networks necessary to find and obtain jobs or the cultural capital to follow typical informal paths to entry. We show that licensing eases access into occupations for immigrants, but the effect is limited to those who are in the high-skilled primary labor market. Left behind are the most vulnerable immigrant labor groups – those who recently entered the country, and those who make the transition after achieving educational credentials that are not recognized by licensing bodies in their chosen occupations. With Koji Chavez.

Published in: 2015. In How Global Migration Changes the Workforce Diversity Equation, edited by Tayo Fashoyin, Michele Tiraboschi, Francesca Sperotti, Chris Tilly, and Pietro Manzella. Cambridge Scholar Publications.

Native American Inequality in the 21st Century

I am currently engaged in a systematic assessment of Native American inequality, a setting in which the forces of rent and closure are again substantial. This project responds to a regrettable lack of examination of Native socio-economic well-being.

This project provides the largest comprehensive examination in three decades of the social and economic standing of American Indians. Analyzing the Decennial Census, the American Community Survey, the Current Population Survey, and the General Social Survey, I theorize that key structural shifts during this time brought about fundamental change, with an as-yet-unknown effect on Native inequality. The purpose of this project, then, is to put forth and adjudicate among three competing accounts.

Upward mobility model. This model posits a shrinking gap between American Indians and whites, as the overall well-being of American Indians improves. The Bureau of Indian Affairs relegated some control to the tribes, allowing them to take a more active hand in their own tribal social and health services. Additionally, through the tribal recognition process, the Department of the Interior promoted formalized tribal structures. Of equal importance, the advent of tribal colleges increased access to higher education.

Rising inequality model. Gains experienced by American Indians may be concentrated principally among a small number of beneficiaries, as a result of new forms of closure and new opportunities for collecting rent. The advancement of sovereignty and self-determination allowed tribal governments greater control over resources, resulting in the advent of development initiatives, such as Indian gaming, energy, and diversified use of tribal land. Some tribes have been able to take advantage of these trends, while others remain mired in situations reminiscent of the Indian experience from half a century ago. If the model holds, results will show an increase of within-Indian inequality, particularly by tribal affiliation. The analyses decompose between- and within-tribe inequality.

Stasis model. This model suggests that tribal services and development initiatives may prove to be too narrow to overcome the entrenched institutional problems facing Native Americans. Many key indicators of economic well-being suggest that Natives still show signs of an economic disadvantage similar to that of African-Americans. Indian labor market participation is lower than it was in 1980, and wages have declined relative to whites. These continued inequalities may partially result from continued Indian residential segregation, which not only reduces contact between whites and Indians, but also increases the distance between Indians and the goods, services, and jobs that compose the larger economy.

With a broad but thorough understanding of the social and economic impact of internal and external forces, it can be determined which interventions are successfully improving tribal well-being and which are insufficient to overcome greater institutional forces.

The thread tying all of this together is the simple proposition that boundaries both create inequality by generating rent and alter the relationships within and between bounded groups. Just as licensing alters the very structure of an occupation, Native boundaries, including industry closure resulting from gaming and energy projects, alter the relationship between tribe and state, and the change is amplified by simple geographic isolation. In a simple supply-demand framework, we might hypothesize that such projects would increase tribal revenue because tribes hold a monopoly on the activities, but there is little evidence of the effectiveness of such monopolies. As with licensing, it is unclear that this form of closure provides a direct economic advantage, but it does demarcate barriers between tribe and state in a way that can completely restructure relations between the two. The study of both generic rent-generating processes like licensure and highly-specific and tailored closure forms such as those at work in the Native context reveals the startling truth – that these are not simple economic devices, but fundamental institutional forces.

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Loneliness of Affluence

Individuals live simultaneously in a variety of social worlds.  Micro groups such as neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, churches, and associations, which are embedded in meso communities and macro societies.  Individuals are not passive in their choices of which of these worlds to inhabit; they seek out some environments while avoiding others.

From decades of research, sociologists know a lot about human relationships.  We know about your friends, your co-workers, and your neighbors.  Strangely, social scientists know very little about who you actually talk to every day or how well you know them.  In the course of your Saturday, you might spend five minutes with a neighbor and an hour with a friend, but what happened during the rest of the time?  When you exchanged money at the Starbucks or nodded at another parent at your child’s soccer game, you casually interacted with others, but we know virtually nothing about the collective mass of these micro-social exchanges or how they shape your perception of the world.

The proliferation of inequality has had profound consequences for segregation in social networks.  Americans are more likely to live in neighborhoods segregated by income and to form families with people from similar class background.  While Americans are not as isolated as the most extreme recent estimates suggest, trust across social classes is low.

Social network analysis was supposed to provide revolutionary insight into the cause and consequences of interactions, but massive data requirements limited its utility.  There is good news, though – the right tools exist to take apart these interactions and study them.  By capitalizing on the wealth of data sources inherent to modern technology, we can track the connections between people, not just relationally, but experiential.

The project asks two major questions:

How do inequality and social class impact micro-social interaction?

I propose that segregation in micro-social exchanges is important to an advanced understanding of how connections and interactions shape large-scale outcomes.  Thus, I ask the simple question: “Who do you actually talk to?”  I want to know who you see every day, even if only for five minutes.

The first part of this project is an attempt to understand the class differences of the pattern of micro-social interactions.  How often do the wealthy and the poor actually interact? Beyond simply charting the frequency of interaction, we seek to understand the context of those interactions.  Do the rich only talk to the working class when they are being waited on, catered to, or served by them?  How much class segregation is there in everyday interactions?

I examine two types of interactions.  Respondents provide information about the context of their most recent interactions.  This includes demographic information on the alter (and a measure of certainty, as respondents may not know the demographics of someone they just met in passing), as well as questions about the quality and content of that interaction.  Respondents also provide information on their own family, friends, neighbors, and workplace interactions, including both .  These types of interactions include more data about the relationships history and than questions about their most recent interactions.

Preliminary Initial results from a seed study of 3,000 respondents shows that individuals experience the highest levels of income segregation among friend relationships, and the least among co-workers.  Income segregation in interactions is greater among high-income earners than low-income respondents.  Preliminary analysis also suggests that area segregation has a greater impact on the class segregation among recent and friendship interactions than among work interactions.  The results are similar when looking at segregation by level of education.

How does social interaction create the basis for economic opinions and attitudes?

From a practical standpoint the economy is an objective phenomena.  Unemployment is rising or it is not.  Jobs numbers are up or down.  Discussions of the economy, both from researchers, policy analysts, and the popular media all make this same assumption.

In truth, economic reality is not identical to all of us.  Humans create and maintain an understanding of social reality through social interactions with other people and institutions.  Some facts are brute, physical or biological facts;  others are social facts we construct out of language and institutional agreements. But they seem entirely real to those experiencing them: “Everyday life presents itself as a reality interpreted by men and subjectively meaningful to them as a coherent world”.

While it appears objective, knowledge of the economy is grounded in these social facts – and therefore in the inequalities that are knitted to them. Even objective facts, what we “know” as true, is derived from these spaces of inequality.  Differences in economic knowledge are the result of other inequality processes, have the potential to create inequality in outcomes, and are a form of inequality themselves.

Because such objective knowledge derives, at least in part, from social position, there is a relationship between economic knowledge and other inequality processes.  Where you sit in a larger tapestry of economic positions determines what you “know” about the economy at large.  Who your friends are, where you live, and the condition of your neighborhood all influence the objective facts that individuals “know”. This project seeks to understand the unstudied and under-defined relationship between interactions, economic knowledge, and attitudes.


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Occupational Closure and Inequality

Over the last three decades, there has been a weakening of institutions that historically allowed workers to capture rents, in particular the loss of collective bargaining power once held by unions, and the stagnation of the minimum wage. Rent exists wherever demand for labor exceeds supply because that supply is artificially restricted, typically through social or political barriers (termed closure).  The destruction of rent at the lower end of the wage distribution has been cited as one of the primary causes of the significant rise in income inequality. This narrative is not entirely complete.

During the past fifty years, licensure, a state-enforced mechanism for regulating occupational entry, quickly became the most prevalent form of occupational closure. Today, a higher percentage of workers hold an occupational license than worked in unions during the heyday of collective bargaining. Thus, over the last half-century, rent destruction at the lower end of the wage distribution has been coupled with the development of new rent-generating processes.

Established wisdom suggests that licensing should limit competition and raise wages. This might follow if unlicensed environments were purely competitive and all prospective occupational entrants have an equal opportunity to enter any given occupation. However, I demonstrate that licensing does not raise wages. Instead, once licensing is enacted, several important institutional changes occur. First, legal requirements create a publicly-accessible codified path of entry, replacing informal methods of entry such as social networks. Second, the enactment of a licensing law promotes the development of other institutions, such as vocational schools, complete with support systems like exam-oriented coursework, licensure application assistance, career counseling, job fairs, and networking opportunities, all of which are designed to make licensure requirements and employment outcomes manageable and attainable. Third, upon achieving licensure, newly-credentialed workers become entitled to use the state-endorsed signal of quality, a device which functions to bypass initial questions of employability and overcome any problems of ‘fit’, such as a race, gender, or age mismatch, that might otherwise keep a qualified worker from being selected. The net result of these processes is that labor supply actually increases following enactment. This is particularly true among traditionally disadvantaged workers such as women and minorities.

The larger contribution of this work is the examination of wage inequality outside the narrow supply-demand framework, and the conclusion that drawing boundaries does more than create monopoly rents. Instead, closure creates broad structural changes within an occupation and fundamentally alters the way the occupation works, both for its members and to outsiders.

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