Race and Penalties at the Frontlines of Welfare Reform

Photo by Justin Garner via Flickr.com CC

In 1996, the United States fundamentally changed the rules of welfare for the very poor. Instead of giving cash benefits to poor mothers, the new Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program emphasized moving recipients quickly into the paid labor force, no matter how low the wages. The federal government gives states funds to support public assistance, but in return for temporary assistance and very limited services, clients must prove they are completing work activities and looking for employment. The new approach assumes that poor people mismanage their lives and need to develop greater self-discipline to become self-sufficient. Front-line administrators set clear behavioral expectations, monitor compliance, and use incentives to encourage compliance. When rules and incentives do not work, case-workers must apply penalties – up to and including the termination of aid altogether.

Today as in the past a high proportion of welfare clients come from racial minorities. In the tough new U.S. system, how do front-line welfare administrators decide which clients should be sanctioned for misbehavior? My colleagues and I have done research to nail down the answers. (more…)

How “Gentrification” in American Cities Maintains Racial Inequality and Segregation

Photo by Andre Van Vegten via Flickr Creative Commons

After decades of population declines, cities are adding population more rapidly than suburbs for the first time in nearly a century, as trendy middle-class neighborhoods continue to grow in number and size across areas that more affluent Americans once considered places to avoid. Yet research tells us that American cities continue to exhibit high levels of neighborhood inequality and poverty, especially for racial minorities. My research seeks to understand these two seemingly contradictory trends by examining how gentrification unfolds over time. Do neighborhoods gentrify at the same pace or to the same degree? Does gentrification spread evenly into its adjacent disinvested neighborhoods? If not, what factors influence these differences – leaving some urban areas mired in extreme poverty?

My research with sociologist and SSN Scholar Robert Sampson examined these issues in a study of Chicago neighborhoods. We define gentrification as the reinvestment and renewal of previously debilitated urban neighborhoods that occurs as middle- and upper-middle-class residents move in. To measure neighborhood change, we went beyond traditional sources of Census data to use information on the location of institutions and urban amenities, police data, community surveys, and – most innovative of all – visual information from Google Street View. The visible streetscape of neighborhoods provides direct indicators of change, such as new construction, rehabilitation, and beautification efforts. By assessing the presence of our various indicators of gentrification for nearly 2,000 blocks, we were able to measure degrees of gentrification for neighborhoods of varying racial composition. Additional research I have done also probes the impact of immigration. (more…)

Crime and Turning Points across the Life Course

Shared Beginnings cover

Are children and adolescents who break the law fated to become lifelong offenders? To answer this important question, we started in the 1980s to track the lives of 1000 disadvantaged males born in Boston during the Great Depression era. We were able to build on data collected during offenders’ boyhoods for a classic mid-twentieth-century study, Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency, conducted by Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck at Harvard Law School. We used early waves of data from this study, and then tracked down males included in it to collect further information on their histories of criminal offending through old age. Over the last 25 years, we have used this rich, long-term trove of information for two books and dozens of journal articles and chapters. This brief summarizes our core ideas and major findings.

The Importance of Tracking and Explaining Lives

The idea that adult criminality is the inexorable result of childhood traits and troubles is a dominant theme in the science of criminology and media coverage of crime. Connections between childhood and adult behavior certainly do exist, but our research has been premised on the realization that findings about crime can be distorted when scholars start with adult offenders and then ask about their childhoods. In this retrospective approach, adult criminals regularly turn out to have been troubled children with early histories of delinquency. It is easy to jump to the simple, seductive conclusion that “bad boys grow up to become bad men.”

But if we start with children and follow lives forward for many years, we find considerable heterogeneity in adult outcomes. For example, although it is easy to presume that most antisocial children will become involved in delinquency as adolescents and then graduate to adult offending, in fact most antisocial children cease offending by adulthood. Although long-term research is challenging to carry out, only what scholars call “longitudinal prospective data”—that is, information repeatedly collected as particular children become adolescents and then younger and older adults—can allow researchers to shed full light on complex causal processes playing out over many years in people’s lives. Yet even repeatedly collected data are not sufficient. Also needed is a life-course theory of crime to make sense of the underlying patterns. (more…)

How Gender Inequality Persists In the Modern World

Stereotypes come to affect real outcomes. Image by Scott Chene via Flickr.

In the United States as in many other societies, gender relationships are changing and inequalities between men and women are questioned in virtually every sphere – at work, in the home, and in public affairs. Yet the cold, hard facts show that gender gaps and inequalities persist, even in the face of startling social and economic transformations and concerted movements to challenge women’s subordination.

How can this be? Especially in advanced industrial nations, why are gender inequalities proving so difficult to surpass? My research shows that the answers lie, above all, in how people think about gender as they relate to one another. Day by day people use gender as taken-for-granted common sense to manage their relationships with others. Interpersonal negotiations are constantly influenced by gender stereotypes – and that, in turn, causes older ways of thinking about men and women and their relationships to be carried into all spheres of life and even into very new kinds of tasks and social settings. (more…)

How Fathers’ Imprisonment Undercuts Children’s Readiness for School—Especially Hurting Black Boys

Over the past four decades, the United States has sent astonishingly high numbers of its citizens to prison—especially poor minority men. The price has been paid not just by the imprisoned men themselves, but also by their communities and families, including very young children.

On any given day, approximately 2.7 million children are estimated to have a parent in prison or jail. When we also take into account children who have fathers previously in jail or prison, it turns out that nearly one of every ten U.S. residents under 18 has been affected by parental imprisonment. Researchers like me are just beginning to look into the impact of fathers’ imprisonment on children’s preparation to learn when they start attending school. For all American children, doing well at school is crucial. Early gaps lead to growing inequalities in U.S. society as a whole.

About 1 in 10 American kids has a father who is in or has been in prison. How will it affect their life chances?

About 1 in 10 American kids has a father who is in or has been in prison. How will it affect their life chances? Photo via Flickr CC (click for original).

Why School Readiness Matters

“School readiness” is an idea developed by scholars to indicate how well prepared pre-school children are to learn in formal classrooms. It refers both to cognitive skills—such as understanding words and numbers and the ability to solve problems—and to such behavioral skills as the ability to pay attention, follow directions, and control emotions like anger or frustration. (more…)

How Emergency Managers and Community Organizations can Cooperate to Handle Disasters

Photo by Wesley Fryer via Flickr CC.

In May of 2013, Oklahomans in the area around Moore and Oklahoma City were hit by two strings of devastating tornados. In Moore in particular, one could see the swath of total destruction carved through the city and across the interstate highway. Schools, shopping areas, and entire neighborhoods were totally destroyed. After the initial shock, people immediately asked, “how do we rebuild our lives and our community?” Government organizations leapt into action to assist in rescue operations, provide emergency medical services, and coordinate assistance. Alongside these public agencies were many nongovernmental, community organizations that offered services ranging from debris removal to shelters for people who had lost their homes.

After tornados devastated Moore, in short, the whole community, not only public officials, stepped up to propel the rebuilding process. For disasters to come in many other places, my research explores how community organizations, including those new to emergency management, can similarly support efforts to respond and rebuild. (more…)

Attacking Iran’s Nuclear Facilities Would Likely Radicalize the Islamic Republic’s Government and Politics

USS Firebolt, USS Thunderbolt, and USS Whirlwind are on patrol in the Arabian Gulf. Photo by Official Naval Forces Central Command via Flickr CC.

As the international community pressures the government of Iran to forego the possibility of developing nuclear weapons, the United States and Israel are both considering air strikes to cripple Iran’s nuclear infrastructure if a negotiated solution fails. All participants in the current debate recognize that there would be repercussions in Iranian domestic politics – but discussion has been conceptually hobbled by a narrow focus only on a popular “rally round the flag” effect. Iranian popular reactions would matter, of course, but in authoritarian regimes like Iran, the most important political fault lines are not between the regime and the masses but within the political elite itself. United elites can always crush popular rebellions, as the Iranian elite did in 2009. Furthermore, the course of the regime will be set by shifting balances within the elite.

The analysis I have done with my colleague Jacques Hymans suggests conservative elites in the Islamic Republic and their domestic political supporters would be galvanized and empowered by foreign military strikes against Iran’s nuclear program. Supporters of military strikes hope that, after the brief rally around the flag effect in Iranian domestic politics, a more salutary democratic transition might occur. But on the contrary, the probable result would be a renewal of Islamic revolutionary radicalism – very harmful to the long-term interests of the United States and regional stability. (more…)

Lessons from Rwanda’s Quest for a Just Response to Genocide

Gacaca court judges in Rwamagana. Photo by Elisa Finocchiaro via Flickr CC.

The United States grapples with tough issues of crime and punishment, but the challenges pale next to those faced by the small, poor nation of Rwanda following state-sponsored genocide in 1994. In the wake of atrocity, Rwanda had to bring massive numbers of wrongdoers to justice, even as it tried to restore peace and a measure of trust to shattered communities. When existing judicial institutions became overwhelmed, Rwanda fashioned a new system, adapting traditional community mechanisms of justice and reparation to cope with the modern crisis. Lessons from this experience might help America find new ways to combine punishment and social healing.

Challenge and Response in Rwanda

The 1994 genocide left Rwanda with over a million citizens dead, millions more displaced, and societal institutions in shambles. Violence had been orchestrated by a group of political leaders who encouraged ordinary Rwandan citizens to participate by forming self-defense groups, spreading propaganda, and instilling fear. After the violence ended, the United Nations created the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to try those deemed most responsible for atrocities. But this tribunal could handle only a fraction of the perpetrators, leaving tiny Rwanda overwhelmed with the reality that upwards of one million of its citizens had committed genocidal crimes. Meanwhile, many survivors had lost their entire families and all of their belongings yet were still expected to live in the same communities with those responsible for their losses. (more…)

How Policy Analysis Can Inform Efforts to Improve Social Programs

Photo by Follow Donna Benjamin via Flickr CC.

According to the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers, all professional social workers have a responsibility to promote improvements in policies related to social justice and welfare. Social policies create programs and set regulations and funding levels that profoundly affect the welfare of the disadvantaged, disempowered groups served by social workers. When social workers go beyond carrying through existing policies and regulations to call for improvements, they are engaged in what is called “policy practice.”

This brief draws insights and recommendations from three leading textbooks listed in the recommended readings, synthesizing what they have to say about the key ingredients of effective policy practice – problem identification, coalition building, campaigning, legislative advocacy, and monitoring implementation. To inform advocates and analysts alike, the brief offers a concise encapsulation of current wisdom about what it takes for a coalition of diverse allies to enact and implement legislation addressing an important social problem. (more…)

Why Politically Active Billionaires Threaten the Health of Democracy

Billionaires - Reflections on the Upper Crust

The richest one percent own about one-third of all assets in America and about four-fifths of assets around the world – and wealth concentration is growing. Sharply skewed financial resources lead not only to lives of luxury amid want; they also afford the ultra-rich extraordinary influence over elections, public policy, and governance. In my new book Billionaires, I take a close look at the growing political clout of billionaires and the ways in which they have pioneered activist forms of politics and philanthropy. What does billionaire political activism mean for the health of democracy – here in the United States and across the globe?