Movin’ on Up? From the Projects to the Suburbs

Photo by Danny Fowler via
Photo by Danny Fowler via

The causes and effects of concentrated black poverty in urban neighborhoods came to the forefront of the internet over the past couple weeks, with Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait engaging in a back-and-forth about the subject and the explanations and remedies proposed by President Barack Obama and Congressman Paul Ryan.

Stefanie DeLuca, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, has a wealth of qualitative and quantitative data to contribute to the debate. For the past decade, she has been studying the effects of the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program, which provides vouchers for low-income families to move to integrated neighborhoods with lower poverty rates. To meet these criteria, many families have had to move out of Baltimore and into the suburbs, and they are given counseling to help them access resources and navigate their new environments.

The counseling is a critical piece of the program, says DeLuca. “Being poor doesn’t just mean you didn’t have enough resources and you had barriers to opportunity – but the benefits of those opportunities are relatively unknown.”

So far nearly 2,000 families have moved to the suburbs, and approximately two-thirds have stayed there. In conducting in-depth interviews with 110 families involved in the program, DeLuca and her colleague Jennifer Darrah of the University of Hawaii find “profound differences in the way many of the parents in the BMP thought about where they live now, where they want to live in the future, and where they never want to move again.”

Should this program become the new paradigm for fighting urban poverty in the 21st century?  While the results among people who have moved to the suburbs provide reason for cautious optimism, DeLuca notes that an important question arises: “What do we do about everyone else?”

In an era of ever-tightening budgets, how should public policy balance investments in poor neighborhoods with helping people move out of them?  It’s a tough question and important debate to which social scientists are well positioned to contribute.



Supersize and Unionize

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Fast food jobs are notorious for their low pay and negligible benefits. In an article for the New York Times, Steven Greenhouse explains that a group of fast food workers and union organizers have launched a campaign to unionize workers in New York City’s fast food industry called Fast Food Forward. The campaign is the largest effort to unionize fast food workers the United States has ever seen. Efforts to unionize these workers have been undertaken before, but never on this scale. The movement is not focusing of one franchise or chain, but instead includes many workers from popular chains around the city, including McDonalds, Dominos, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s.

The Fast Food Forward campaign hopes to increase wages and union recognition while reducing income inequality by unionizing these low-wage workers. Sociologist Ruth Milkman, of the City University of New York, says it’ll be no easy task, explaining that very few efforts have been in this direction in the past because of its perceived difficulty. She explains, “These jobs have extremely high turnover, so by the time you get around to organizing folks, they’re not on the job anymore.” Milkman is optimistic, however, New York City’s deep history of unionizing might help this movement find its footing.

A lot rests on the success or failure of this campaign. Right now, NYC has tens of thousands of fast food workers and nearly all of them are paid wages that place them below the poverty line (their median wage is $9 per hour, which means even if they work full time, which many can’t even if they’d like to, they’d earn just $18,500 a year, with sparse benefits). Because fast food pay is so low, many workers must also seek public assistance, and that means taxpayers (including the workers themselves) have to pick up the slack for multinational corporations. Unionization might be a first step in fiscal relief for thousands of households—and the government.

Food Stamp Challenge

Saturday Morning Market accepts Food Stamps EBT
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Newark Mayor Cory Booker recently announced that he will spend the week of December 4th living on food stamps.  He will join the ranks of many others, such as celebrities and college students, who are undertaking a food stamp challenge.  As Professor Noliwe M. Rooks explained in an opinion piece in Time, however, there is a problem with such challenges.

These experiments are designed to make politicians and the general public more sensitive to the difficulties of living on $4.00 per day, the amount that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides to the almost 46 million people who currently receive benefits…Proving that those who are wealthy, middle class or famous can live on $4.00 per day may increase empathy, but it will do little to actually help those who need the program most.

In the meantime, there is little public conversation about actually raising the dollar amount that the SNAP provides.  To explain this, Rooks cites survey research conducted by the Pew Research Center.  In the poll, 59% of respondents said the government should provide food and housing to all citizens.  Yet, 71% thought the poor were too dependent on this type of assistance, and 52% said support should not be increased if it will increase the deficit.  Americans are, in general, deeply ambivalent about the role of government assistance.

But, Rooks argues that this assistance is much needed.  One in five people surveyed in a recent Gallop poll said they could not always afford to feed their entire family, and more Americans struggled to afford food in 2011 than in any other year since the financial crisis. Between 1996 and 2011, SNAP reduced the number of extremely poor children in the United States by 50%.  To Rooks, an increase in the amount of support offered by the SNAP program would have an even larger impact.

Those who have taken up the SNAP challenge and chronicled their experiences all say that they were tired, couldn’t focus, and were distracted by hunger. Once their week was over, their lives got right back to normal. We can only hope that Cory Booker and others who take up such experiments will become advocates to help raise others out of poverty and not just spend a week walking in their shoes.


The Marriage Split

It’s no surprise that the Great Recession has brought economic inequality front and center in the United States. The focus has been mostly problems in the the labor market, but Jason DeParle at the New York Times points out that other demographic changes have also had a sizable impact on growing inequality.

Estimates vary widely, but scholars have said that changes in marriage patterns — as opposed to changes in individual earnings — may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality.

To illustrate how changes in family structure contribute to increasing inequality, DeParle turns to the research of several sociologists. One issue is the fact that those who are well off are more likely to get married.

Long a nation of economic extremes, the United States is also becoming a society of family haves and family have-nots, with marriage and its rewards evermore confined to the fortunate classes.

“It is the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged,” said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University.

A related trend is the educational gap between women who have children in or out of wedlock.

Less than 10 percent of the births to college-educated women occur outside marriage, while for women with high school degrees or less the figure is nearly 60 percent.

This difference contributes to significant  inequalities in long-term outcomes for children.

While many children of single mothers flourish (two of the last three presidents had mothers who were single during part of their childhood), a large body of research shows that they are more likely than similar children with married parents to experience childhood poverty, act up in class, become teenage parents and drop out of school.

Sara McLanahan, a Princeton sociologist, warns that family structure increasingly consigns children to “diverging destinies.”

Married couples are having children later than they used to, divorcing less and investing heavily in parenting time. By contrast, a growing share of single mothers have never married, and many have children with more than one man.

“The people with more education tend to have stable family structures with committed, involved fathers,” Ms. McLanahan said. “The people with less education are more likely to have complex, unstable situations involving men who come and go.”

She said, “I think this process is creating greater gaps in these children’s life chances.”

As sociologists and others have shown, the income gap between those at the top and bottom has changed dramatically over time.

Four decades ago, households with children at the 90th percentile of incomes received five times as much as those at the 10th percentile, according to Bruce Western and Tracey Shollenberger of the Harvard sociology department. Now they have 10 times as much. The gaps have widened even more higher up the income scale.

But again, DeParle notes that marriage, rather than just individual incomes, makes a big difference:

Economic woes speed marital decline, as women see fewer “marriageable men.” The opposite also holds true: marital decline compounds economic woes, since it leaves the needy to struggle alone.

“The people who need to stick together for economic reasons don’t,” said Christopher Jencks, a Harvard sociologist. “And the people who least need to stick together do.”

For more on the Great Recession and inequality, check out our podcast with David Grusky.

A New Take on Diving in to Dinner

Photo by Robert Schrader via flickr

While many turn up their noses at the thought, a recent article in the Star Tribune profiles a growing group of people who don headlamps and explore dumpsters for discarded edibles.

Some, calling themselves “freegans,” have a philosophy that shuns spending money and capitalism, and do it to protest waste.

Others just want to take advantage of free food.

The practice is rife with detractors, however, including food safety experts and most of the expiration date-abiding public. Taking food from dumpsters in public areas is not exactly against the law (at least no one has been prosecuted for it). Some cities, however, do have ordinances against dumpster diving, so most divers keep a low profile about their escapades.

Geographer Valentine Cadieux explains why such habits of food procurement might offend some:

 “Food is such a huge part of our lives, wrapped up in our identities and cultures and habits, not to mention survival — so we experience tremendous resistance to questioning the way we get this food,” Cadieux wrote in an e-mail.

While some dumpster divers may do it for practical reasons, like survival or cutting down on food costs, others might be looking to make a bigger statement.

“Dumpster divers are demonstrating a way to call into question something that seems really legitimate and scientific [expiration dates or the convenience of throwing away food],” Cadieux said. “The general guilt that we feel about how many people are hungry is exactly the kind of thing that adds additional meaning to what may not be intended as a part of a social movement — but dumpster diving ends up being legible to people as a critique of throwing away too much food.”

Though perhaps not looking to start a broader social movement, dumpster divers certainly make an impression. And, apparently, their exploits can make for a well-stocked fridge.

“All the produce, just tons of green peppers and red peppers; they looked perfect,” Graham recalled with not a small bit of awe. “This was the first time I was diving, and I couldn’t believe it.”

Movin’ on Up, but Out of the Ballot Box?

Vote Here, Vote HoyThe Moving to Opportunity (MTO) experiment is well-known in social science circles and has provided evidence that relocating residents of poor neighborhoods to more advantaged neighborhoods can have positive outcomes, especially on physical and mental health for some groups. But new evidence cited in The Atlantic this month shows that such interventions may have and unintended dark side for political participation.

MTO’s designers in the mid-1990s hoped to improve conditions of employment, education, and health of low-income families in neighborhoods with poverty rates of 40 percent or higher. The experiment included about 4,200 families in five major U.S. cities.

The chance for residential mobility was determined by lottery. Some families remained in their current public housing development. A second group received standard Section 8 housing vouchers. A third set received vouchers that could only be used toward an apartment in a low-poverty neighborhood — areas with a poverty rate below 10 percent. (Families that received vouchers weren’t obligated to use them.)

Despite good intentions, not all of the results of this mobility have been positive. Some researchers have found that moving did not improve residents’ economic well-being and arrest rates for young men actually increased. It seems that Claudine Gay, political scientist at Harvard, has pinpointed another less-than-ideal outcome: decreased political participation.

Gay examined voter registration and turnout data in the 2002 primary and the 2004 presidential election. She compared the political participation of all three Moving to Opportunity groups: those who “lost” the lottery and stayed put, those who moved with Section 8 vouchers, and those who moved into low-poverty areas (as well as those who received vouchers but chose not to move).

Her analysis turned up no negative effects with regard to voter registration, and turnout for the 2002 primary was uniformly low. But Gay did observe a much lower voter turnout in the 2004 presidential election among families that received a voucher. The effects were especially pronounced for the so-called lottery “winners”: adults that moved into low-poverty neighborhoods had a lower voter turnout by 19 percent, compared with those who “lost” the lottery…

While hang-ups in the logistics of moving, like registering to vote in a new neighborhood or not knowing your new polling place, might seem like likely culprits in the decrease, Gay offers a different explanation:

Instead, Gay reasons, the primary source of decreased voter turnout is likely the “social disruption” that occurs when a poor urban family relocates to a higher-income area. Community connections are strongly linked with political participation, and while it takes time for a new resident of any community to connect socially, that difficulty may be greater for residents whose socioeconomic profile doesn’t match that of their new neighbors.

Given the high stake that poor citizens have in many public policy decisions, Gay argues that the effects of residential mobility on political participation must not be ignored.

Look Out! There’s a Safety Net Below You

The state of affairs
Photo by Satish Krishnamurthy,

The U.S. social safety net continues to grab headlines, this week in the New York Times. We’ve noted before the play programs like food stamps are getting in the current presidential campaign. The NY Times article notes that, paradoxically, “Some of the fiercest advocates for spending cuts have drawn public benefits.” Why might this be?

An aging population and a recent, deep recession seem to be at the crux of the issue.

The problem by now is familiar to most. Politicians have expanded the safety net without a commensurate increase in revenues, a primary reason for the government’s annual deficits and mushrooming debt. In 2000, federal and state governments spent about 37 cents on the safety net from every dollar they collected in revenue, according to a New York Times analysis. A decade later, after one Medicare expansion, two recessions and three rounds of tax cuts, spending on the safety net consumed nearly 66 cents of every dollar of revenue.

The recent recession increased dependence on government, and stronger economic growth would reduce demand for programs like unemployment benefits. But the long-term trend is clear. Over the next 25 years, as the population ages and medical costs climb, the budget office projects that benefits programs will grow faster than any other part of government, driving the federal debt to dangerous heights.

As a result, many Americans have benefited from government safety net programs.

Almost half of all Americans lived in households that received government benefits in 2010, according to the Census Bureau. The share climbed from 37.7 percent in 1998 to 44.5 percent in 2006, before the recession, to 48.5 percent in 2010.

Yet many do not realize that it is no longer just programs for the “undeserving poor” that dominate the scene. Rather, it’s programs such as an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit and increasing Medicare costs that have stretched safety net resources.

Medicare’s starring role in the nation’s financial problems is not well understood. Only 22 percent of respondents to the New York Times poll correctly identified Medicare as the fastest-growing benefits program. A greater number of respondents, 27 percent, chose programs for the poor.

Why the misperception? Perhaps it’s because, as political scientist Suzanne Mettler explains in her book, The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy, policies in recent decades have turned from more obvious provision of cash benefits to methods such as tax breaks, incentives, and other “hidden” forms of support. As a result, most citizens  have no idea that they rely on the safety net at all.

No doubt politicians, commentators, and scholars will all continue to debate the form and function of the safety net. But everyday Americans aren’t at all sure what’s best to do.

Americans are divided about the way forward. Seventy percent of respondents to a recent New York Times poll said the government should raise taxes. Fifty-six percent supported cuts in Medicare and Social Security. Forty-four percent favored both.

As one Minnesotan profiled in the NY Times story put it, “I’m glad I’m not a politician…We’re all going to complain no matter what they do. Nobody wants to put a noose around their own neck.”


Smaller Funds, Bigger Students

Photo by Ben+Sam via flickr
Photo by Ben+Sam via flickr

Raising healthy kids is usually seen as a result of some magical combination of resources and education in a child’s home, school, and neighborhood. A newly released study by Penn State sociologists Molly Martin, Michelle Frisco, and Claudia Nau and the Census Bureau’s Kristin Burnett, however, finds poverty at schools has a greater effect on adolescent obesity than poverty or low education at home.

Well-educated parents are less likely to raise overweight children, but according to the study’s findings, if the student attends a poor school, the effect of his or her parents’ education is minimized. According to the online news source Futurity‘s report on the research , “A parent with a graduate degree who has a child in a poor school is more likely to raise an overweight adolescent than a parent with an eighth grade education who has an adolescent enrolled in a rich school.”

“The environment can actually limit our ability to make the choices that we all think we make freely,” Frisco says. Martin maintains that poor schools influence a student’s weight even beyond the typically-blamed unhealthy food choices. Low-funded schools have a difficult time offering athletic or fitness programs. Martin also argues that low income schools may house students with higher levels of stress. “Schools with limited financial resources tend to be more stressful environments,” Martin says. “Stress promotes weight gains and usually the worst kinds of weight gains.”

The “Deserving Poor”

Great Depression Bread Line
Photo by April and Randy via

The University of Minnesota’s Joe Soss, recently interviewed for the Office Hours podcast about his new book Discliplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race, was featured in the Star Tribune thoughtfully explaining the lessons of his research for the Lori Sturdevant article “It’s Rarely a Luxury to Be in Need of Charity.” As Soss put it, “Our notions about who’s deserving of help and who isn’t are rooted in notions about individual effort and individual success or failure.” But, he told Sturdevant, “It’s become almost a Catch-22… You’re undeserving if you haven’t worked hard enough to lift yourself out of poverty. If you had worked hard, you wouldn’t be poor. So if you’re poor, you must be undeserving.”

And, the columnist relates, maybe, “In frontier Minnesota, hard work could rather reliably produce self-sufficiency. Suspicion of the poor as lazy or profligate arose easily when land was cheap or free, the population was exploding, and harvests of timber, grain and, eventually, iron ore were abundant beyond imagining.” Now that hard times are upon so many, it’s harder to write off the jobless or the poor as deserving of their fate. In this way, the Great Recession may also become something of a Great Equalizer, “opening eyes to to a new reality about work in America,” writes Sturdevant. As Joe Soss said, “Tougher times make people more likely to understand that poverty isn’t just about individual choices.”

Let Them Eat Cheetos

Mission accomplished! $20 worth of jalapeño cheetos
The phrase “you are what you eat” may refer to more than your physical make-up. In fact, the food in your fridge might say just as much about your social class as about your health.  Newsweek reports:

According to data released last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 17 percent of Americans—more than 50 million people—live in households that are “food insecure,” a term that means a family sometimes runs out of money to buy food, or it sometimes runs out of food before it can get more money. Food insecurity is especially high in households headed by a single mother. It is most severe in the South, and in big cities. In New York City, 1.4 million people are food insecure, and 257,000 of them live near me, in Brooklyn. Food insecurity is linked, of course, to other economic measures like housing and employment, so it surprised no one that the biggest surge in food insecurity since the agency established the measure in 1995 occurred between 2007 and 2008, at the start of the economic downturn.

Growing inequality between the rich and the poor in the United States is reflected at the dinner table as well:

Among the lowest quintile of American families, mean household income has held relatively steady between $10,000 and $13,000 for the past two decades (in inflation-adjusted dollars); among the highest, income has jumped 20 percent to $170,800 over the same period, according to census data. What this means, in practical terms, is that the richest Americans can afford to buy berries out of season at Whole Foods—the upscale grocery chain that recently reported a 58 percent increase in its quarterly profits—while the food insecure often eat what they can: highly caloric, mass-produced foods like pizza and packaged cakes that fill them up quickly.

Using language evocative of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, one epidemiologist explains:

Lower-income families don’t subsist on junk food and fast food because they lack nutritional education, as some have argued. And though many poor neighborhoods are, indeed, food deserts—meaning that the people who live there don’t have access to a well-stocked supermarket—many are not. Lower-income families choose sugary, fat, and processed foods because they’re cheaper—and because they taste good. In a paper published last spring, Drewnowski showed how the prices of specific foods changed between 2004 and 2008 based on data from Seattle-area supermarkets. While food prices overall rose about 25 percent, the most nutritious foods (red peppers, raw oysters, spinach, mustard greens, romaine lettuce) rose 29 percent, while the least nutritious foods (white sugar, hard candy, jelly beans, and cola) rose just 16 percent.

“In America,” Drewnowski wrote in an e-mail, “food has become the premier marker of social distinctions, that is to say—social class. It used to be clothing and fashion, but no longer, now that ‘luxury’ has become affordable and available to all.”

Concern about rising obesity, especially among low income communities, had led to some controversial policy proposals.

In recent weeks the news in New York City has been full with a controversial proposal to ban food-stamp recipients from using their government money to buy soda. Local public-health officials insist they need to be more proactive about slowing obesity; a recent study found that 40 percent of the children in New York City’s kindergarten through eighth-grade classrooms were either overweight or obese. (Nationwide, 36 percent of 6- to 11-year-olds are overweight or obese.)

But French sociologist Claude Fischler suggests that there might be a better way to address both food insecurity and obesity: Americans should be more French about food.

Americans take an approach to food and eating that is unlike any other people in history. For one thing, we regard food primarily as (good or bad) nutrition. When asked “What is eating well?” Americans generally answer in the language of daily allowances: they talk about calories and carbs, fats, and sugars. They don’t see eating as a social activity, and they don’t see food—as it has been seen for millennia—as a shared resource, like a loaf of bread passed around the table. When asked “What is eating well?” the French inevitably answer in terms of “conviviality”: togetherness, intimacy, and good tastes unfolding in a predictable way.

Even more idiosyncratic than our obsession with nutrition, says Fischler, is that Americans see food choice as a matter of personal freedom, an inalienable right. Americans want to eat what they want: morels or Big Macs. They want to eat where they want, in the car or alfresco. And they want to eat when they want. With the exception of Thanksgiving, when most of us dine off the same turkey menu, we are food libertarians. In surveys, Fischler has found no single time of day (or night) when Americans predictably sit together and eat. By contrast, 54 percent of the French dine at 12:30 each day. Only 9.5 percent of the French are obese.

Others suggest addressing systematic barriers to food accessibility and delivery. According to author and foodie icon Micahel Pollan:

“Essentially,” he says, “we have a system where wealthy farmers feed the poor crap and poor farmers feed the wealthy high-quality food.” He points to Walmart’s recent announcement of a program that will put more locally grown food on its shelves as an indication that big retailers are looking to sell fresh produce in a scalable way. These fruits and vegetables might not be organic, but the goal, says Pollan, is not to be absolutist in one’s food ideology. “I argue for being conscious,” he says, “but perfectionism is an enemy of progress.”

Community activists agree:

Food co-ops and community-garden associations are doing better urban outreach. Municipalities are establishing bus routes between poor neighborhoods and those where well-stocked supermarkets exist.

Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, says these programs are good, but they need to go much, much further. He believes, like Fischler, that the answer lies in seeing food more as a shared resource, like water, than as a consumer product, like shoes. “It’s a nuanced conversation, but I think ‘local’ or ‘organic’ as the shorthand for all things good is way too simplistic,” says Berg. “I think we need a broader conversation about scale, working conditions, and environmental impact. It’s a little too much of people buying easy virtue.”re as well,” Berg says…

Berg believes that part of the answer lies in working with Big Food. The food industry hasn’t been entirely bad: it developed the technology to bring apples to Wisconsin in the middle of winter, after all. It could surely make sustainably produced fruits and vegetables affordable and available. “We need to bring social justice to bigger agriculture as well,” Berg says.