Urban inequalities and social mobility

Most American cities commonly look a lot like the poverty map of Cleveland above, when it comes to the spatial distribution of poverty and affluence.  There is a high-poverty core, in which residents have low income, poor health, poor education, and poor quality of life; there are rings of moderate income; and there are outer suburbs of affluent people with high quality of life.

We can ask two different kinds of sociological questions about these facts: What factors cause the reproduction of disadvantage over multiple generations? And what policy interventions have some effect on enhancing upward social mobility within disadvantaged groups? How can we change this cycle of disadvantage?

The persistence of inequalities in urban America was addressed in a special 2008 issue of the Boston Review in a forum on “ending urban poverty.”  Particularly interesting is Patrick Sharkey’s article “The Inherited Ghetto.” Sharkey begins with a crucial and familiar point: that racial inequality has changed only very slightly since the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968. The concentration of black poverty in central cities has not substantially improved over that period of time, and the inequalities of health, education, and employment associated with this segregation have continued. And the association between neighborhood, degree of segregation, and income and quality of life is very strong: children born into a poor and segregated neighborhood are likely to live as adults — in a poor and segregated neighborhood.

Sharkey documents these statements on the basis of his analysis of the data provided the University of Michigan Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the first major statistical study of several generations of families in terms of residence, income, occupation, health, and other important variables. Using a computer simulation based on the two-generation data provided by the Panel Study, Sharkey indicates that it would take five generations for the descendants of a family from a poor, black neighborhood to have a normal expectation of living in a typical American neighborhood. (That’s one hundred years in round numbers.)  In other words: the progress towards racial equality in urban America is so slow as to be virtually undetectable.

Particular frustrating is the persistence of segregation in the forty years since the passage of the Fair Housing Act. Sharkey argues that this fact is partially explained by the fact that the policy choices made by federal and local authorities concerning housing patterns have more or less deliberately favored segregation by race. Beginning with the initial Fair Housing legislation — which was enacted without giving the Federal agencies the power of enforcement — both federal and state policies have reinforced segregation in housing. Sharkey notes that federal housing programs have subsidized the growth of largely white suburbs, while redlining and other credit-related restrictions have impeded the ability of black families to follow into these new suburban communities. The continuation of informal discrimination in the housing market (as evidenced by “testers” from fair housing agencies) further reinforces continuing segregation between inner-city black population and the suburban, mostly white population.

So racial segregation is one important mechanism that maintains the economic and social inequalities that  our society continues to embody.

How about policies that would work to speed up social progress?  It is commonly agreed that improving access to higher education for disadvantaged people is the best way to speed their economic advancement.  The theory is that individuals within the group will benefit from higher education by enhancing their skills and knowledge; this will give them new economic opportunities and access to higher-wage jobs; the individuals will do better economically, and their children will begin life with more economic support and a set of values that encourage education. So access to higher education ought to prove to be a virtuous circle or a positive feedback loop, leading to substantial social mobility in currently disadvantaged groups.

This theory appears to be substantially true: when it is possible to prepare poor children for admission to college, their performance in college and subsequent careers is good and lays a foundation for a substantial change in quality of life for themselves and their families (link).

However, most of our cities are failing abysmally in the task of preparing poor children for college.  High school graduation rates are extremely low in many inner-city schools — 25-50%, and performance on verbal and math assessment tests are very low.  So a very substantial number of inner-city, high-poverty children are not being given the opportunity to develop their inherent abilities in order to move ahead in our society.  This is true in Detroit (link), and much the same is true in Cleveland, Oakland, Miami, Houston, New Orleans, and dozens of other cities.  (Here is a survey of the issues by Charles Payne in So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools.  And here is a striking report from 1970 prepared by the HEW Urban Education Taskforce.)  High poverty and poor education go hand in hand in American cities.

One important research question is whether there are behavioral or structural factors that predict or cause low performance by groups of students.  Here is a fascinating graph of high school graduation rates broken down by freshman-year absenteeism (MDRC report).  Important research is being done at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins on the dropout crisis in urban schools (link).  (Here is an earlier post on CSOS and its recommendations for improving dropout rates from urban high schools.)  The topic is important because research findings like these may offer indications of the sorts of school reforms that are most likely to enhance school success and graduation.

It is clear that finding ways of dramatically increasing the effectiveness of high-poverty schools is crucial if we are to break out of the multi-generational trap that Sharkey documents for inner-city America.  Here is a specific and promising strategy that is being pursued in Detroit by the Skillman Foundation and its partners (link), based on small schools, greater contact with caring adults, and challenging academic curricula.  This turn-around plan is based on a specific set of strategies for improving inner-city schools developed by the Institute for Student Achievement, and ISA provides assessment data that support the effectiveness of the plan in other cities.  With support from the United Way of Southeast Michigan, several large high schools are being restructured along the design principles of the ISA model.

But the reality is that this problem is immense, and a few successful experiments in school reform are unlikely to move the dial.  Somehow it seems unavoidable that only a Marshall Plan for addressing urban poverty would allow us to have any real confidence in the possibility of reversing the inequalities our cities reveal.  And none of our political leaders — and few of our taxpayers — seem to perceive the urgency of the problem.

Disaffected youth


Every city seems to have its floating population of disaffected youth — school dropouts, occasional workers, drug users, skateboarders, hooligans, street people. How much of a problem is this? What are its dimensions? What are the social causes that influence the size and nature of this population in Detroit, Manchester, Cologne, or Novosibirsk? And are there social programs that can significantly diminish the number of young people who wind up in this category?

As for the importance of the problem, there are at least two aspects. In some times and places this population becomes a source of violence — youth gangs, football hooliganism, shop window breakage, and skinhead attacks on racial minorities, gays, or other targets. But second, whether violent or passive, the precipitation of a sub-class of young people with no skills, no jobs, and no futures is a huge social cost for the societies that produce them.

Here I’m mostly interested in the processes of neglect and social-economic disadvantage that play into the mentality of some young people, leading to the formation of an individual social psychology that brings about the low-level anti-social behavior that is observed. Basically — why do some young people drop out of the process of gaining an education, building a career, forming a family, and looking forward to the future, and instead spend their time hanging out in the streets? The skinhead phenomenon adds another element that is also worth understanding but is not the primary interest here — a degree of organizational effort by political entrepreneurs who work towards mobilizing disaffected youth around racist and nationalist agendas. This falls under the category of social mobilization studied by people such as Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, or Charles Tilly. But here I’m more interested here in the process of socialization at the individual level that leads to the phenomenon of disaffection. (Several earlier posts have addressed the mobilization part of the story — for example, here.)

Here is a very interesting academic study by Robert MacDonald of the making of a “youth underclass” in the UK. Here is how MacDonald frames his problem of research:

Most young people in the UK make relatively ‘successful’, unproblematic transitions from school to work and adulthood. What do we call those that do not? Labels imply explanation, not just description. Terms with academic and policy currency tend to define such young people by something they are not or by their presumed social and economic distance and dislocation from ‘the rest’. How we might best describe, explain and label the experience and problem of so-called ‘socially excluded’, ‘disconnected youth’ is the focus of the paper.

To use the term “disaffected” is to bring a Durkheimian mindset to the table; it is to offer the beginnings of a diagnosis of the problem as well as a description. The phrase “disaffected” (or its cognate, “demoralized”) presents the problem as one of disconnection from prevailing social values and alienation from a set of moral ideas about how to behave. The “disaffected” no longer believe in the old chestnuts about working hard, listening to one’s parents, showing respect to others, obeying the law, and conforming to society’s expectations. So on this line of thought, the anti-social behavior of young people in this category derives from their “demoralization” — their failure, or society’s failure, to absorb a compelling set of normative standards about personal and social conduct.

But here is a slightly different tack we might take here. Perhaps disadvantaged youth disbelieve because they have lost all confidence in the underlying promise: conform to these norms and you will have a decent life. In other words, maybe the psychological cause of these forms of youth behavior is economic rather than moral; they are deeply discouraged about the possibility of a pathway to a better future than the world they seem around themselves at the moment. “Hopeless and angry” is a different state of mind than “disaffected.”

And what about the factor of motivation and personal ambition? To what extent is normal youth development propelled by internal factors of motivation and aspiration? And how much of a role does a social context that “demotivates” young people play in this picture?

Another line of thought has emerged out of research on youth gangs — the idea of the positive forms of solidarity and community that are provided by the gang as a welcoming social group. Young people who have lost the social support of their families and other traditional organizations may find that the street gang is the closest thing to “home” that they are able to locate. These are social groups with their own codes of behavior — even though their largest effects are profoundly anti-social.

A common recourse when it comes to trying to explain these kinds of outcomes is to refer to various “breakdowns” — breakdowns of the traditional family, of schools, of religion, of community organizations, or of public values. These are the institutions through which young people form their social psychologies, their identities, and their basic values. But if the young person lacks an emotionally meaningful connection to adults through some of these institutions, where will those positive social values come from?

Finally, it is worth noting that poverty and socio-economic disadvantage are not the only settings where youth disaffection occurs. Many observers in the United States have written about the use of drugs by affluent suburban high school students and other forms of involvement in anti-social activities. Wayne Wooden’s Renegade Kids, Suburban Outlaws: From Youth Culture to Delinquency documents some of this behavior.

Why is this an important problem for “understanding society”? Because the social processes through which the next generation of citizens — children, teenagers, and youth — is shaped are deeply influential on the nature of the society that will develop in twenty to forty years. If “disaffection,” “anger,” “demoralization,” and a propensity for anti-social behavior are inculcated in a large minority of the youth cohort, then society is likely to go through some very hard times in the coming decades.

It’s relatively easy to find some dimensions of these issues on the web. Here is an interesting report on “football hooliganism” prepared by Dr. Geoff Pearson of the Football Industry Group. Here is a blog posting from the UK on youth gangs and terrorist organizations. Here is a quick report on skinheads.

Agendas for Chinese sociology

The challenge for Chinese sociology is the challenge of Chinese society. Chinese social sciences are presently in a period of deep uncertainty. Marxist ideas about method and theory are no longer governing, and new paradigms have not yet taken full form. This transition is especially important because of the magnitude and novelty of the social changes that China is experiencing today. Now is an important time for engagement between innovative Chinese and Western sociologists and philosophers in an effort to arrive at models of social research and explanation that work well for contemporary China.

Here is a brief inventory of some of the many social processes and challenges that are underway in China today, and that constitute an agenda of research for a distinctive China-centered sociology of the future.

Most visible among China’s current social changes is the economic transformation associated with market reforms in the past two decades. The reform of agriculture in the 1980s had massive effects that continue to reverberate in Chinese rural society. The reforms in the 1990s of the institutional setting of manufacture and international trade have created large currents and pressures in Chinese society: smashing of the brass rice bowl, stimulus to massive internal migration, creation of new ensembles of powerful players, creating of wealth, immiseration of some workers, …

Seen from a narrowly economic point of view, the question is this: How can China sustain 10% rates of economic growth? What further policy changes and institutional reforms will be necessary in order to both support and accommodate rapid economic growth?

Seen from the broader point of view, the question is: What are the social implications of this massive economic transformation? What changes have occurred within factories? How do workers reason about the choices they are faced with when privatization occurs? What is happening to displaced workers? What implications are emerging for public health, for the care of the elderly, or for access to education? What are the conditions of social well-being across China? How much inequality is resulting from these reforms, and how is it distributed across region and sector? How are these circumstances changing over time?

Something like 70% of China’s population is rural, with a sizeable percentage swinging back and forth between rural residence and low-paid urban work. The transformations that are underway in the countryside are very important. There is a profound readjustment of property rights underway, with a corresponding struggle between farmers and power-holders over ownership and control of land. The inequalities that have commonly existed between city and countryside are evidently more extreme than ever since 1949; incomes are rising rapidly in the urban manufacturing and service economy, and farmers’ incomes are stagnant. Western provinces such as Shaanxi continue to witness rural incomes in the range of $300 per year—the World Bank’s standard of extreme poverty. And farmers’ access to social services is very limited, including access to education; so opportunities for inter-generational improvement are much more limited than those presented to urban people.

Corresponding to some of these points about rural property ownership and inequalities, is a dramatic increase in the volume of rural protest and collective action. Tens of thousands of instances of collective protest and unrest occur every year in the countryside—and the incidence is rising. The state is concerned about conditions in the countryside; but its response is muted and confused. At some points the rhetoric of the state has been pro-farmer in the past few years; but there is also a “law and order” thread that offers the stick rather than social reform. Complicating the issue is the disconnect between the central government’s policies and the actions of local and provincial governments. The interests of the local and provincial governments are often tilted towards “development” and modernization – with corresponding lack of support for farmers’ rights. The central state appears to lack the ability to control the use of coercion by local authorities in putting down peasant collective action and protest.

A common cause of rural unrest is the fact of local corruption and abuse of the powers of local authorities. The study of corruption, and the institutions of state and market that might help to control corrupt practices, is an important subject for Chinese social scientists. Parallel to corruption is the question of the extension of the system of law. To what extent are players able to appeal to their rights and to gain access to processes of law enforcement? Are there emerging non-governmental organizations and other independent organizations that support workers’ and farmers’ rights? How can this institutional framework be extended and made more effective?

Internal migration and the status of ethnic minorities are other important subjects for study by Chinese social scientists. Once again, these are processes that are changing rapidly; it will be important for Chinese demographers, social policy analysts, and ethnographers to put together effective research programmes that will track and explore these processes.

The social behaviors that affect the environment and energy use, including changes in the volume of transportation and motor vehicles, present evident challenges for the future of Chinese society. Social scientists need to provide insight into the drivers of these behaviors, and social scientists can help to design social policies and institutions that might steer Chinese consumption patterns in directions that are more compatible with China’s longterm environmental sustainability.

Many Chinese intellectuals are posing questions about the role of values in Chinese society. Are there traditional Chinese values that might help secure a stable and harmonious future for Chinese society? Are there strategies or policies that might help to stabilize a social consensus about the legitimacy of governmental institutions and the distributive justice of China’s economic development? Social scientists can probe these questions at a variety of levels, asking the empirical question of the current distribution and variation of social values and the institutional question of the forces that influence future developments in social values.

Finally, the social challenges that will be posed by an aging Chinese population, in the context of a dramatically smaller cohort of younger workers as a result of the one-child policy, will be increasingly important in the coming two decades. Health care, income support, housing, and mental health services will all be important challenges for Chinese society, and once again, there is very little precedence for the magnitude of these challenges in other parts of the world.

Plainly, there is an urgent need for a new surge of effective social-science research in China. But equally, it is clear that these many areas of change represent a mix of different kinds of social processes and mechanisms, operating according to a variety of temporal frameworks, with different manifestations in different regions and sectors of Chinese society. So we should not expect that a single sociological framework, a unified sociological theory, or a unique sociological research methodology will suffice. Instead, Chinese sociological research needs to embrace a plurality of methods and theories in order to arrive at results that shed genuine light on China’s social development.

Social science and social problems


Several of the interviews that I’ve conducted in recent weeks have agreed on an important point: that the social sciences ought to be directed towards addressing important social problems, and that the research agenda for social science ought to be influenced or shaped by the constituencies in society who are most affected by these social problems. At bottom – the social sciences ought to be engaged in a serious way in improving the quality of life for the people of the globe. They can best do this, it would seem, by discovering some of the causes of persistent social problems and providing a sound basis for designing policies that have a chance of ameliorating them. And they can focus their research agendas by working closely with practitioners and the ordinary people who experience these social problems.

What is the reality, however? To what extent do the social sciences conform to this ideal? As David Featherman expresses in his interview, the social sciences in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s took a turn away from goals of social engagement and problem solving, and they really haven’t yet turned back. Instead, the major social science disciplines took on the model of disinterested, academic theory formation. The natural sciences provided the role model, and the driving goals were quantifiability, theoretical parsimony, and formalizability. “Applied” research was devalued.

Re-establishing the connection between social science and social problems should be a high priority for all of us — social scientists and citizens alike. The social problems we face are crucially important, they are intractable, and they are often trending in the wrong direction. Consider this partial list of particularly pressing problems facing our society and the world.

  • United States
    • Endemic urban poverty
    • Racial segregation
    • Urban decline and despair
    • Rising inequalities of income, wealth, and quality of life
    • Lack of universal provision of health services
    • Rising social cost of health care
    • Failing delivery of education for children and adolescents
  • International —
  • deepening poverty in many countries
  • deepening inequalities of wealth, income, and quality of life
  • Violence against individuals and groups
    • Ethnic violence
    • Genocide
    • Crime
    • Thuggery
    • Oppressive states
  • Oppression of women and girls
  • Global environmental crisis
    • Climate change
    • Resource exhaustion
    • Environment degradation
  • Political regimes
    • Persistent authoritarian regimes
    • Imperfect democracies
    • Corruption
    • Inadequate systemic response to disaster

These are all problems with massive consequences for human wellbeing. Each of them is itself the manifestation of complex social and behavioral forces. And solutions will require the artful design of new institutions and new ways of coordinating social behavior. In short — these are problems that are much more challenging, intellectually and practically, than decoding the human genome or controlling a nuclear reactor or putting a human on Mars. The best efforts of talented and committed researchers will be needed in order to understand and change these conditions.

Fortunately, there are some signs that mainstream social scientists are beginning to turn their gaze back in the direction of concrete social problems. There is significant, sustained work going on in sociology and political science on the topics of poverty, inequality, racial segregation, and social disaffection, and this work is taking on some of the urgency and relevance that was displayed in the research of the Chicago school of sociology seventy-five years ago. The Center for Advancing Research and Social Solutions at the University of Michigan is an example of a group of researchers coming together with a commitment to bringing social science research to bear on social problems. (See the Featherman interview for a description of CARSS.) A recent symposium published in The Yard, Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences magazine, features a group of Harvard social scientists under the heading, “The New Social Science,” and the discussion focuses almost entirely on these social problems and some of the methods that can be used to address them. Featured in the article are Edward Glaeser, William Julius Wilson, Mary Waters, Claudia Gay, David Cutler, and Robert Putnam. (Unfortunately this publication doesn’t have a web presence.) It is very good to see research at this level of empirical detail and practical focus coming into the spotlight.

There seem to be two large meta-goals that the social sciences should have in confronting social problems. One is the problem of understanding these problems in detail – both the empirical details of how the problem is distributed and evolving, and the causal issue of discovering some of the factors that produce and reproduce the problem. What are the trends in urban and suburban social evolution? Why is urban poverty so intractable over multiple generations? Why have urban schools been unsuccessful in providing a high-quality education to all the children that they serve?

The second large meta-goal for the social sciences is to be able to provide a basis for policies and interventions that have a meaningful probability of solving the problems that we care about. Policies should be driven by the best possible understanding of the social and behavioral dynamics of the problems they are designed to address. And the social sciences should endeavor to provide sober assessments of the likely consequences of various proposed policies.

But nothing is simple in social life – and it is clear enough that there are complex interactive causal processes at work in the creation and sustenance of most social problems. The scope of prediction in the social sciences is limited, and this means that it is rarely possible to provide a categorical prescription such as this: “do this, and such-and-so will result.” Instead, the social sciences are perhaps most useful when they help to identify some of the behavioral complexities that might turn into “unforeseen consequences” – and thereby help to design policies that are more fault-tolerant.

None of this is simple. But there is no doubt that our society needs the knowledge and methods that the social sciences can provide, if we are to have a good chance of solving the problems we face. And this means that the social sciences need to take on the task of practical engagement with seriousness and commitment.

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