Accumulating Disadvantage and Its Consequences


By Michelle Maroto and David Pettinicchio

People with disabilities face deeply entrenched normative and attitudinal barriers in the labor market, despite protections provided by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Yet, they remain a comparatively overlooked minority group in sociological studies, even those employing intersectional analyses of inequality. This has left empirical and theoretical gaps in our understanding of how race, gender, and class intersect with disability in shaping economic outcomes and perpetuating cumulative disadvantage. It has also inspired us to address these gaps with an intersectional perspective in our recent research.

Intersectionality has since become a buzzword both in academia and in popular culture. This should not lessen its importance as a mechanism revealing the multiple and layered aspects of social stratification. Intersectionality shows us how overlapping systems of oppression structure social interactions across organizations and institutions. When socially constructed statuses interact, they can contribute to the accumulation of disadvantage where certain minority groups continually experience the worst outcomes and the greatest levels of disadvantage. Viewing unequal labor market outcomes through an intersectional lens, for example, highlights how women with different types of disabilities distinctly experience economic disadvantage evident in their much lower employment rates and earnings.

And, while intersectional studies of employment outcomes have revealed much about how disability and gender interact to keep women with disabilities at the bottom of a hierarchy of disadvantage, economic inequality expands far beyond the labor market. Thus, a key objective of our work has been to widen our gaze upon the effects of intersecting statuses on economic insecurity. We do this by taking into consideration the consequences of risks and shocks within stratification systems, which often depend on the amount and nature of economic resources — beyond employment wages and earnings — available to weather financial hardship.

Applying a feminist disability perspective, our recent study uncovered hierarchies of disadvantage present across three measures of economic insecurity — poverty levels, total income, and income sources. We analyzed 2015 American Community Survey data and found that less-educated minority women with disabilities had the highest rates of poverty, earned the least income, and relied more on government sources, as opposed to savings or wages, for most of their already limited income. Disadvantage was particularly apparent among persons identifying as non-Hispanic American Indians or Alaska Natives. We see that disadvantage, therefore, accumulates across social categories, which further demonstrates a need account for the particular experiences of individuals with overlapping group memberships.

Our findings also reveal important dimensions of inequality that can only be adequately explained through an intersectional framework. As the figure shows, the relative effects of disability on poverty were strongest for women, racial minorities, and individuals with less education. Disability’s effects on poverty were 40 percent larger for non-Hispanic white women than for non-Hispanic white men across education categories, and disability’s effects on poverty were approximately 55 percent larger for non-Hispanic black women than for non-Hispanic white men.


These findings, although depressing, were largely expected. We were, however, more surprised when it came to explaining total income, which includes income from employment, savings, social assistance, and other sources. In the case of total income, disability presented some of the strongest effects on total income among more advantaged, not disadvantaged groups. This was especially true for non-Hispanic white men with higher levels of education who experienced large disability-related income losses of 20-26 percent. We believe that this in part can be explained by how dominant notions of masculinity can make disability more limiting for men who are seen as less able to inhabit masculine roles in economic and financial arenas. It may very well be that white highly educated men have more to lose by being disabled.

By examining income sources in addition to total income, we also show how privilege works to maintain inequalities between groups. We found that more advantaged groups primarily relied on wages for their income and livelihood. But when wages were low, women and men with higher levels of education, regardless of disability status, were better able to take advantage of savings to make up for limited income. Less advantaged groups, however, needed much more help from the government in order to survive. This was especially true for people with disabilities.

Taken together, these results point to important class distinctions that compound inequality by race, gender, and disability. Employment is the primary way for individuals to earn income, but savings are critical when weathering economic downturns, especially in a context of declining social safety net. Pushed out of the labor market and with limited wealth, people with disabilities had few options, making public assistance a valuable source of income. Without assistance, poverty rates would be much higher for people with disabilities. Cutbacks to social assistance at the federal and state levels will only exacerbate the problem.

Bringing a feminist disability perspective to bare on our analyses helped us underscore the ways in which disadvantage is reproduced in all social organizations within a “disability/ability system” that associates disabled bodies, much like female bodies, with inadequacy and weakness. An explicitly gendered analysis of disability sheds light on how categorical disadvantage contributes to inequality’s durability in linked areas such as income, health, wealth, and education, where members of already historically marginalized groups continue to face economic insecurity. It also reminds us of the importance of the particular experiences of individuals with overlapping group memberships in understanding cumulative (dis)advantage.

Michelle Maroto is an associate professor of Sociology at the University of Alberta. Her research focuses on inequality and economic insecurity across credit and labor markets with an emphasis on the accumulation of disadvantage across households and time.

David Pettinicchio is assistant professor of Sociology and affiliated faculty in the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. His forthcoming book Politics of Empowerment: Disability Rights and the Cycle of American Policy Reform (Stanford University Press, 2019) investigates how and why seemingly entrenched policies like the ADA succumb to retrenchment efforts and the important role of both political elites and everyday citizens in mobilizing against these political threats.

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