About the Project

William Julius Wilson, along with his colleagues Lawrence D. Bobo, Matthew Desmond, Devah Pager, Robert Sampson, Mario Small, and Bruce Western has launched a major new project at the Hutchins Center, entitled “Multidimensional Inequality in the 21st Century: the Project on Race and Cumulative Adversity.”  This Project will feature three key activities: (1) conducting cutting-edge inequality research involving several inaugural studies in years 1 and 2 and a collaborative innovative, mixed-methods study of multidimensional inequality in years 3 through 5; (2) coordinating executive sessions with thought leaders and policymakers; (3) training the next generation of poverty scholars.

Conducting Cutting-Edge Inequality Research

The Harvard scholars involved in this project are considered to be among the nation's leading experts in their respective fields, including urban poverty, race and ethnic relations, criminal justice, employment and housing discrimination, community and social supports, as well as social policies affecting the poor. By integrating different knowledge dimensions that reflect these areas of expertise, as well as sophisticated methodologies, the project intends to pioneer a new kind of policy-oriented research, one that will play a prominent role in public conversations and policy debates and that will have long-term implications.

The project will target three fundamental areas that will be crucial for informing policies affecting the lives of low-income families, and that present the biggest challenges and opportunities for combating economic and racial inequalities in the next decade:

1) The Spatial Organization of Urban Poverty: Neighborhoods and Housing

2) The Nature of Opportunity: Work and Low-Wage Labor Markets

3) Urban Violence and the State’s Response: Criminal Justice and Child Welfare

Each area has the potential to yield considerable insight into important structural as well as human and social capital deficiencies that contribute to cumulative hardship. These domains will serve as the core substantive areas for mutual collaboration on key research studies that will yield a broader understanding of poverty and inequality in America, and evidence-based policy recommendations to address it.

1) The Spatial Organization of Urban Poverty: Neighborhoods and Housing

The research will be centrally concerned with the interaction between neighborhood conditions, housing stability, and the social context in which opportunities are shaped. Concentrated poverty and the lack of affordable housing remain among the most important problems facing the poor, and black low-income families are among the most affected. How does neighborhood context promote or undermine successful transitions to school or work? How and why do neighborhood poverty and its consequences vary dramatically from city to city? Why are rents and utility costs rising at such a fast rate? What are the implications of the growing suburbanization of poverty or the increasing racial and ethnic diversity of cities? How does the lack of decent, affordable shelter affect children, families, and communities? These questions are complex, require the employment of multiple methods, and are of fundamental importance to designing effective anti-poverty policy. The research will have implications for the wide-sweeping legal and policy changes currently in place, such as President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” program, the Supreme Court’s upholding the “disparate impact” standard of the Fair Housing Act, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $41 billion affordable housing plan for New York City, and the spatial restructuring that is part of Detroit’s urban renewal. We also hope to point to new areas for reform that take into account the correlated adversities of race, space, and concentrated disadvantage.

2) The Nature of Opportunity: Work and Low Wage Labor Markets

Critical to the economic and social well-being of individuals, families, and communities is the opportunity for work. Broad structural transformations over the past four decades have left low-wage workers struggling to make ends meet. The shift from manufacturing to service work, declines in the real value of the minimum wage, and the dismantling of labor unions have contributed to an environment of increasingly precarious employment prospects facing lower-skilled workers. Add to this the persistence of labor market discrimination, the barriers to finding work facing those with criminal records, and stalled educational progress (especially for men), and we see an opportunity structure in which those at the bottom are falling increasingly behind. Understanding the costs and consequences of these economic forces is critical. How has the structure of opportunity changed over time and how does it vary across metropolitan context? How prevalent is discrimination in the job market, and how does it affect job seekers and employers alike? What protections can be offered to support low wage work, and what actions have or could cities, states, and federal policy makers take to improve economic stability and pathways for mobility? These are questions we plan to engage in the upcoming years.

3) Urban Violence and the State’s Response: Criminal Justice and Child Welfare

The state plays a dual role in the lives of the poor, a supportive role through welfare and social service programs and a punitive role through the criminal justice system. Both systems disproportionately affect the wellbeing and life chances of black low-income families, and many such families are touched by multiple arms of the state—corrections departments, parole offices, TANF caseworkers, child protective services, Head Start, public housing agencies, Medicaid, and many others. As striking examples, one in ten black children will pass through the foster care system at some point in their lifetime; one in three black men will spend time incarcerated; and half of black children born to high school dropouts have a father who will go to prison. How do these dynamics affect the family and larger communities? What unintended consequence does this high level of state contact have? How does the work of these institutions affect one another? These questions come at a critical time. Bloated state correctional budgets and skepticism of government overreach on the right and the left have brought us to a moment of reform. Our research will pay particularly close attention to the roles of Child Welfare and the Criminal Justice System, assessing their immediate and long-term consequences and pointing to strategies for positive reform.

The value added of this project is that team members—the leaders in their fields—will come together to collaborate across these three substantive areas to develop research and ideas addressing the linked ecology of social maladies and poverty institutions and the role it has played in the normalization of inequality. Too often researchers focus on a narrow range of policy-relevant issues and do not have the resources or substantive expertise to account for a fuller range of relevant factors that a comprehensive approach with greatest impact would require. The Project on Multidimensional Inequality will harness the collective potential of all of the scholars involved in this enterprise by creating regular opportunities for the exchange of ideas.

Years 1 and 2 will be dedicated to implementing several inaugural research studies in the three substantive areas that are not only designed to provide important insights into multidimensional and cumulative adversity, but will also lay the groundwork for an even more ambitious new project beginning in year 3. Bridging the respective and overlapping expertise of the Harvard scholars, this new project will focus broadly on the racial dynamics of poverty, the reproduction of inequality, and the institutional contexts of severe hardship. The project will not only combine research on multiple and mutually reinforcing institutions and processes of poverty typically studied in isolation—neighborhoods, the labor market, social networks, housing, criminal justice system, racial discrimination—it will also draw on multiple methods to collect and analyze new data: original surveys, ethnographic data featuring intensive interviews and field research, administrative data, and experimental data. This combined effort will apply a mixed-methods investigation to overlapping spheres of inequality with a breadth and depth unmatched by any study to date. Such an endeavor is only made possible by the collaborative format of the Harvard Hutchins Center Project on Multidimensional Inequality.

The approach advanced by the Hutchins Center initiative will appeal to program providers, communitybased organizations, and policymakers seeking a supplement to conventional evaluative tools, like randomized control trials. Researchers will also access “big data” in the form of large-scale administrative records, allowing them to visualize and interrogate complex policy problems from multiple vantage points and with unprecedented computational power. And through ethnographic explorations and longitudinal interviews with low-income people who often lack a voice in the public conversation, researchers will collect “small data” that provides penetrating insights from the ground level. “Small data” combined with “big data” can render a rich, layered corpus of research directed at a problem that deserves to be studied with all possible methods and from all possible angles. By the completion of our initial five-year start-up phase, we expect to have laid the foundation for becoming the premier, interdisciplinary, action-oriented, evidence-based policy-driven research program in the country.

Building a Research and Policy Network

In the first twelve months, the project will establish a supportive and cohesive network of the nation’s leading research and policy experts on poverty and racial inequality. Our aim is to establish a close working relationship with these nationally recognized think tanks to work with us in crafting recommendations based on the research to be conducted.

Training the Next Generation of Poverty Scholars

A key component of this initiative will be the preparation of graduate students with an interest in poverty and social policy. Students will receive “on the job training,” playing an active role in the research and policy process and be poised to assume the role of the next generation of policy scholars who are committed to fighting poverty.


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