Recent Poverty, Race, and Inequality Research


Race, Interracial Relations, and Prejudice

The Origins of Affirmative Action
As debate over affirmative action continues, little remains known about the origin of such policies. IPR sociologist Anthony Chen is continuing work on his book manuscript on the subject with New York University’s Lisa Stulberg. Through extensive archival research, he is chronicling the social, political, and intellectual origins of race-conscious affirmative action in college admissions in the early 1960s. He finds affirmative action originated as college and university leaders drew inspiration from the civil rights movement and began seeking new ways to racially integrate the Northern, Midwestern, and Western universities over which they presided. The book will help to clarify the circumstances under which affirmative action emerged and developed in the United States. Chen hopes that having a clear understanding of the past will help policymakers make sound decisions about affirmative action policy today—and in the future.

Anthony Chen
IPR sociologist Anthony Chen is currently working
on a book detailing the history of affirmative
action at colleges and universities.

How Many Racists?
IPR social demographer Quincy Thomas Stewart continues to work on his book examining the history of racial inequality from 1865–1965, as well as the social organizations involved in maintaining inequities between whites and African-Americans. The book, tentatively titled “How Many Racists? How Everyday People Contribute to a System of Social Inequality,” seeks to shed new light on the widely held belief that a large number of racists is needed to maintain institutional inequalities. Stewart puts recent research into context, pointing to a significant decline in the number of people who hold racist beliefs. However, parallel declines in racial inequality have not been registered, as statistics seem to refute the idea that the number of racists is what counts. Stewart’s investigation demonstrates that a system supported by biased social institutions, even when they are run or used by nonracist individuals, can maintain racial inequality with a few, or even no, racists.

The Persistence of Racial Discrimination
Many assume that racial discrimination in hiring has decreased, but IPR sociologist Lincoln Quillian discovers levels of hiring discrimination in the United States remain largely unchanged over the past 25 years. Reviewing the literature, Quillian and his colleagues identify 28 field experiments of hiring discrimination, representing more than 55,000 applications submitted for about 26,000 positions. Their ensuing meta-analysis reveals that since 1989, whites received 36 percent more callbacks on average than African-Americans, and 24 percent more than Latinos. These ratios in callbacks have held steady since 1989. In another meta-analysis, Quillian examines how rates of hiring discrimination vary in six European countries, Canada, and the United States. Examining 81 field experiments, he finds considerable variation in hiring discrimination across these countries: France has the highest rates of discrimination, followed by Sweden, Great Britain, and Belgium. People of African and Middle-Eastern descent experience the highest rates of discrimination, closely followed by people of Asian ethnicity. The researchers also discuss the findings’ implications for theories of discrimination.

Children’s Understanding of Race, Gender
How do children perceive their social identities in middle childhood, ages 6–12? IPR developmental psychologist Onnie Rogers explores the importance and meaning children assign to their racial and gender identities in Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology. Together with Andrew Meltzoff of the University of Washington, Rogers interviewed 222 African-American, white, and mixed-race children at three racially diverse schools. Overall, the children rate gender as a more important piece of their identity than race, but African-American and mixed-race children rank race as being more important than white children. In addition, children who state that race is not important are significantly more likely to define racial identity as “colorblind,” arguing that everyone is the same regardless of race. But children who say that race is important to them define their racial identity as creating a sense of pride and an awareness of group differences. The results highlight the ways that children engage with social categories, shedding light on how school curricula and parenting can address issues of race and gender.

Racing Toward Equality
Youth get messages about who they can and cannot be through many channels, including their school curriculum, peers, parents, and media. One way to address the potentially harmful content of these messages is by building youths’ capacity to engage in conversations about race and gender. Toward this goal, Rogers created two online learning modules for teachers, parents, and community members. The modules, offered free of charge through the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, address what adolescents know about race and how their understanding of it evolves over time. They also give advice on how to talk to kids about race and discuss how societal ideas about race can affect children’s ideas about themselves, drawing on Rogers’ interviews with school-age children. To “race toward equality,” the modules urge parents and educators to talk about equality, surround children with diversity, and be positive role models.

Poverty and Income Inequality

Wealth Inequality among Dependents
How does wealth inequality affect “America’s dependents”—the elderly and households with children? Using Survey of Consumer Finances data from 1989–2013, IPR social demographer Christine Percheski and Christina Gibson-Davis of Duke University find the wealth gap between elderly and child households increased substantially over the period, and diverging trends in wealth accumulation exacerbated pre-existing disparities. Widening gaps are particularly pronounced among the elderly and child households with the least wealth. Percheski and Gibson-Davis also discover increasing wealth inequality within child households, as well as the rise of a “parental 1 percent.” The study, supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), suggests the elderly have been able to maintain or increase their wealth, while many less wealthy households with children have experienced wealth declines. The findings imply that a lack of wealth assets in many households with children could inhibit the next generation’s success.

Racial Inequality in Wealth
Not only were unemployment rates during the Great Recession higher for African-American and Hispanic workers, declines in housing values and mortgage foreclosures were also higher in primarily minority neighborhoods. Did these changes lead to widening racial gaps in wealth during and after the Great Recession? In work supported by the NSF, Percheski and her colleagues use the Survey of Consumer Finances to examine racial differences in several measures of wealth from 2004–13 for families with children. They discover that by most measures, the Great Recession increased racial wealth inequalities. While the recession had almost no impact on the net worth of the wealthiest white families, it halved the net worth of the wealthiest African-American and Hispanic families. Wealth differences were also greater between white families and minority families in 2013 than before the recession, even after considering differences in earnings and demographic characteristics. As wealth is a strong predictor of health and educational attainment, the findings suggest increases in racial inequality in these domains, as well.

Measuring Multigenerational Mobility
Studies of intergenerational mobility in the United States focus almost exclusively on the transmission of advantage or disadvantage from parents to children. But what about earlier generations—do grandparents and great-grandparents matter? In an IPR working paper, economist and IPR associate Joseph Ferrie links family lines across data from 1910–2013, measuring mobility across generations using educational attainment. Ferrie and his colleagues discover that conventional measures, which look solely at parents and children, have underestimated mobility by 20 percent in contrast to their more extended measures of three generations or more. According to their study, a child whose parent has one more year of schooling than another child’s parent is between 50 and 70 percent more likely to pick up an additional year of schooling. Because extra schooling leads to better opportunities and increased wages, social inequality is more likely to persist over time than previous estimates implied. The data also suggest grandparents matter in predicting the educational outcomes of children, but great-grandparents do not have a discernible effect.

Class Dynamics and Social Mobility

Public Opinion and Inequality
What are the political and policy responses to inequality in the United States, and how do they line up with public opinion? In a chapter in The Dynamics of Opportunity in America (Springer International Publishing, 2016), IPR sociologist Leslie McCall describes three approaches: “equalizing opportunity,” “equalizing outcomes,” and “equalizing outcomes to equalize opportunity.” She explains that the “equalizing opportunity” approach, which places greater emphasis on equality of opportunity than on outcomes, is one that conservatives tend to identify with more than liberals, but it has had broad appeal for much of U.S. history. Meanwhile, liberals strongly identify with the “equalizing outcomes” approach, which uses government tax and transfer policies to reduce disparities in disposable income. The last approach, which fuses concerns about both opportunity and inequality, is the most consistent with public norms today. McCall argues that the way forward is to eschew a one-sided focus on either equal outcomes or equal opportunities to better reflect Americans’ views.

Medical Students and Minority Patients
Studies suggest that physicians contribute, often unintentionally, to racial healthcare disparities via biases in their decision making and poorer quality communication with minority patients. Psychologist and IPR associate Sylvia Perry and her colleagues test whether white medical students’ readiness to care for minority patients is positively associated with their individual and school-level learning orientation environment, or whether they are encouraged to learn from their mistakes during interracial interactions. The researchers gave questionnaires in the first and last semesters of medical school to almost 2,400 white medical students in 49 U.S. medical schools. Only part of the difference, they find, is attributable to school-level learning orientation. White medical students who perceive that their school places more emphasis on learning how to interact more effectively benefit more from their training to address disparities and feel more prepared to care. The results, published in BMC Medical Education, suggest medical school faculty should present interracial encounters as opportunities to practice bias-reducing skills, and faculty and students should be encouraged to learn from mistakes in interracial encounters.

Licensing and Occupational Access
Researchers have traditionally believed that occupational licensing—like medical licenses for doctors—reduces the number of people entering the field, leading to increased wages for those who make it in. Yet IPR sociologist Beth Redbird finds the opposite: Using more than 15 million observations over 30 years of the Current Population Survey, she discovers that the licensing process increases access, particularly for women and racial minorities. Serious occupational entry standards, like the bar exam for lawyers, might be expected to make entry into the occupation more difficult, but these formal procedures are replacing informal barriers that tend to encourage discrimination and homogeneity, such as how “who you know” can affect job chances. These formal procedures are more colorblind, as they can be standardized, measured, and publicized. Redbird concludes that following the decline of unions, the “free market” of labor has given way to a new institutional form of closure that has a startling effect on who gets which jobs.

Sociology and the Great Recession
Has the Great Recession fundamentally transformed poverty, inequality, and employment in the United States? In the Annual Review of Sociology, Redbird and Stanford University’s David Grusky examine the main trends in these outcomes, the causal effects of the recession on individuals’ behavior, and the recession’s influence on narratives about the labor market and its dysfunctions. Redbird and Grusky explain that sociologists have played a limited role in researching this “moment of cultural turmoil,” which they compare with the Great Depression. They call on sociologists to focus on cultural and political discussions during and after the recession. The Great Recession, they explain, has cast long-standing labor-market problems in sharp relief, while also uncovering new problems and worries, like rising credit-based consumption. They argue that the resulting narrative might reorient policy in the 21st century, just as the narrative of macroeconomics by economist John Maynard Keynes reoriented policy in the mid-20th century.

Social Role Theory
IPR psychologist Alice Eagly is extending social role theory—which describes how a society’s division of labor influences gender stereotypes and fosters gender differences—to examine other social group stereotypes such as racial or socioeconomic ones. She demonstrates how social group stereotypes are generally accurate as generalizations about groups because they reflect everyday observations of group members’ behaviors in their typical roles. Despite this accuracy, stereotypes are offensive to many groups and can have negative ramifications for individuals, including for women in leadership roles. Eagly’s research has shown that women in power often need to reassure people that they can take charge, but they can also face backlash for being “too tough.” Eagly points to the implications of social role theory for leadership behavior, as well as for other phenomena of gender. Eagly is James Padilla Chair of Arts and Sciences.

Women in Leadership
Eagly continues her exploration of gender and leadership, aiming to increase the understanding of women’s slow rise into major leadership roles. As editor of a special issue on the topic in Leadership Quarterly, she writes that interventions to increase women’s representation in leadership are likely to be more effective when guided by sound social science. Eagly highlights inconsistencies between research and the claims of advocates and policymakers, such as the belief that women’s participation in high-level corporate leadership enhances corporate performance. She argues that such simplistic messages are problematic, as they discourage research revealing the complexity of gender diversity’s consequences and can lead to disappointment, such as when positive outcomes of women’s presence fail to emerge. In related work in the Journal of Social Issues, Eagly calls for scientists to serve as “honest brokers” by communicating consensus scientific findings to advocates and policymakers in an effort to encourage the exploration of evidence-based policy options.

The Discourse of Deservingness
“Deservingness” is one of the main narratives used by government officials, the media, and the public to classify the poor. The groups characterized as undeserving of public assistance have changed over time, but stories of moral failings consistently provide a basis for the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. In a chapter in The Oxford Handbook of the Social Science of Poverty, IPR sociologist and African-American studies researcher Celeste Watkins-Hayes explores the concept of deservingness and how it fits into popular explanations of poverty and the distribution of public resources. Together with recent Northwestern PhD graduate Elyse Kovalsky, she highlights how race, gender, and citizenship have shaped narratives of deservingness in two key areas of social provision: cash assistance and healthcare. The researchers conclude that what political leaders and the public believe about the poor shapes whether they support a strong social safety net to protect the vulnerable or a free market to encourage the poor to improve their own situation.

Economic Opportunity and Growth

The ‘Aid Curse’
Scholars have recently argued that foreign aid actually hinders development, instead of contributing to it. However, East Asian countries developed rapidly in the 1960s despite receiving large amounts of aid. IPR sociologist Monica Prasad examines this disconnect with Northwestern University’s Andre Nickow in The Journal of Development Studies. They compare the mechanisms of the “aid curse” in South Korea and Pakistan, both countries that have been among the world’s largest aid recipients. Yet while South Korea has become a developed country, Pakistan continues to depend heavily on foreign aid and scores poorly on key development indicators. Prasad and Nickow discover that South Korea’s high levels of corruption did not hinder its development. Meanwhile, Pakistan had a strong bureaucracy, but this did not help the country grow. Prasad and Nickow pinpoint the key difference between the two countries as the strength of their tax systems: Foreign aid in the context of underdeveloped tax administration leads to increasing cycles of debt that undermine development. When foreign aid arrives in the context of strong taxation, a country can avoid the “aid curse.”

Lori Beaman
IPR economist Lori Beaman attends a
policy outreach conference in Burkina
Faso. Much of Beaman's work focuses on
Africa, from women's participation in
the labor market to adopting new
agricultural technology.

Increasing Farmers’ Technology Use
How can researchers and policymakers increase technology adoption among farmers, particularly in less-developed areas like sub-Saharan Africa? To identify seed farmers to train in a new technology, IPR economist Lori Beaman compares social network targeting approaches with other strategies. Her work in 200 Malawian villages confirms that social network targeting can work, but most farmers need to learn about the technology from multiple people before they adopt it themselves. In additional work on how agricultural information spreads within social networks, Beaman is examining data from a composting study in Mali. She finds the spread of information decreases with social distance, or how socially close or far apart the member of one social group is to members of another. In addition, cumulative knowledge about composting does not increase when targeting people who are the most socially connected, and women are particularly disadvantaged in this respect. The results highlight a disadvantage of using social networks to spread ideas and information: Isolated individuals might be made worse off.

Agricultural Investments in Mali
Do farmers who take out loans have higher returns to capital than those who do not borrow? Beaman is measuring whether such a difference in returns exists through a two-stage loan and grant experiment. Beaman, Dean Karlan and Christopher Udry of Yale University, and Bram Thuysbaert of Belgium’s Ghent University partnered with a microfinance institution that offers loans in randomly selected villages in Mali. In the 88 villages receiving loans, agricultural profits increase, and this persists into the next agricultural season. Profits, however, do not increase in villages that are not offered loans. Beaman and her colleagues uncover similar results for farmers offered grants: They have large positive investment responses and returns to grants. The results support providing microfinance loans for agriculture where they have not traditionally been offered.

Cynthia Kinnan
IPR economist Cynthia Kinnan
focuses on how people use
financial products in developing
countries to cope with risk.

Savings Accounts and Social Networks
Savings accounts are becoming increasingly common in underdeveloped countries, but how do these accounts affect social networks? Through a partnership with Tanzanian mobile phone operator Zantel, IPR economist Cynthia Kinnan, Alfredo Burlando of the University of Oregon, and Silvia Prina of Case Western Reserve University distributed mobile savings accounts to about 1,500 participants in 33 rural and peri-urban areas of the country. In preliminary results, Kinnan and her colleagues reveal that such accounts are not for everyone: 40 percent of people who expressed interest and were visited by a marketer signed up for an account, but only half of those actively used the account. This shows that costs are not the only—or perhaps even the main—barrier to adoption.  The researchers are now completing an analysis of how savings accounts might affect adopters’ social networks, such as by allowing account holders to either share cash with—or “shield” cash from—their friends and family.

The Role of Microcredit
How did India’s 2010 “microfinance crisis,” in which the state of Andhra Pradesh stopped all microcredit lending, affect the rest of the country? In an IPR working paper, Kinnan and Emily Breza of Harvard University use this “natural experiment” to show how the microcredit crisis rippled throughout the nation, affecting average borrowers via lenders’ balance sheets. The inability of institutions to finance creditworthy borrowers outside of the district led to nationwide decreases in lending, consumption, earnings, wages, and agricultural yields. Even those who did not borrow were affected by the fall in wages, suggesting that evaluations that only focus on “likely borrowers” might miss significant impacts. In a related project with Breza, along with Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kinnan is evaluating whether microcredit’s effects persist once loans are no longer available. Results show that microcredit access leads to sustained increases in small business investment and gains in consumption, but only for a subset of borrowers. The researchers conclude that better targeting of microcredit might substantially increase its potential benefits.