Stanford sociology professor discusses causes of income inequality

By TRISHA PARAYIL | April 4, 2019

David Grusky, a professor of sociology at Stanford University, led a discussion about current research on socieoeconomic inequality in the U.S. and moderated a workshop on social policy and inequality on Thursday, March 28. Grusky also serves as the director of the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality.

The event was hosted by the 21st Century Cities Initiative at Hopkins, which aims to solve economic, health, education, safety and housing inequities by bringing together stakeholders and researchers to inform policies aimed at socioeconomic challenges in cities like Baltimore. 

Grusky’s discussion focused on his work with the American Voices Project (AVP), a collaboration between the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, Princeton University’s Center for Research on Child Well-being and the American Institutes for Research that aims to collect data on upward mobility in communities across the United States. 

AVP seeks to understand the mechanisms that underlie poverty in America at the level of individuals and the community. The investigators hope that the data will be used to determine the effectiveness of current policies in providing economic and social opportunities for Americans, as well as to inform future forms of those policies. 

Grusky is a co-principal investigator of the study along with Peter Cookson, a sociologist at Georgetown University, and Kathryn Edin, a sociologist at Princeton University. 

Grusky argues that projects like AVP are necessary because one-size-fits-all policies are ineffective in helping for some people struggling with poverty.

Robert Moffitt, Krieger-Eisenhower professor of economics at Hopkins, agreed with the notion that policies are not catered to the variety of issues which the poor encounter. However, he stressed that the impact of current policies such as Medicaid and Food Stamps should not be underrated.

Grusky noted that measures like the poverty line only take into account income. AVP, Grusky argues, will help identify non-income variables of poverty. 

Grusky hopes to change the way that policies addressing social inequities are crafted. Rather than developing policies which address the biggest causes of poverty in isolation, Grusky proposed a more holistic diagnosis of poverty. 

“Maybe we should do something more radical like revise the entire social net in terms of flexibility. I think this kind of data [from AVP] will enable us to analyze those options with more precision than might otherwise be the case,” he said.

To promote a holistic view of poverty, the investigators created a unique study design that combines elements of qualitative and quantitative research.

Grusky described it as a “qualitative census” – it is a qualitative study with a stratified random sampling design.

“The hope is that we will be able to connect outcomes to the qualitative data by connecting it to administrative data,” he said.

He argued that combining qualitative and quantitative experimental methods avoids the pitfalls of using just one method alone. He believes that quantitative studies do not reveal everyday experiences of poverty, while qualitative studies cannot be systematically compared across different types of poverty.

Stefanie DeLuca, a Hopkins professor of sociology and social policy, called the design “breathtaking”. One of the strengths of the qualitative component is in revealing where researchers’ assumptions fail. According to DeLuca, the depth of information gleaned from listening to life stories is invaluable.  

“Entire human civilization rests on the idea that what people say to one another is valuable,” she said. 

Another notable feature of AVP is its scope. Researchers plan to interview 5,000 individuals in 200 communities in all 50 states, as well as in Puerto Rico and Native Nations.

To put the scope of the project into perspective, Deluca described a study which she participated in, in which researchers interviewed 1,147 Baltimore parents, landlords and residents. The process involved 16 years’ worth of data-collection.

The AVP investigators plan to finish their interviews in one year.

The communities selected for the study are intended to be representative of a wide variety of neighborhood types. Individuals will be interviewed in urban communites, suburban communities and exurbs, which are defined as less populated, typically wealthier versions of suburban communities. The study will also investigate deindustrialized neighborhoods, low-mobility neighborhoods and rural communities, as well as mining hubs across the Rust Belt and neighborhoods which have been heavily affected by the opioid epidemic.

Interviewing individuals in these different types of communities is meant to reveal the different ‘types’ of poverty in the U.S.

A study that DeLuca is currently conducting exemplifies this point. Seattle residents often struggle to find affordable housing, but safety is a non-issue. In contrast, Baltimore residents can easily find cheap housing, but these houses are often in neighborhoods with high rates of crime.

Despite the AVP’s merits, however, Moffitt expressed his concern that the results of AVP may be used to make broad claims about poverty. 

“Sociological work is not intended to be generalizable, the American Voices Project should not be generalizable, but it seems like it is intended to be,” he said.

Once the study concludes, the qualitative data will be available publicly. 

According to Grusky, this means that AVP can be used to generate and test hypotheses about poverty and social inequities in America. 

“If, say, someone makes a crazy comment about poverty, as they often do, they can go to AVP and test it,” he said. “I think that there is a capacity for hypothesis-testing.” 

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