Via Flickr
New GED regulations have significantly reduced the number of successful applicants. Photo by rik-shaw, Flickr.

Americans think of themselves as highly educated, yet more than 37 million adults – more than one in ten – have not earned high school diplomas. This has dramatic implications for individual lives. Less than half of all adults without high school degrees have jobs, compared to 64% of those with such degrees and 88% of adults with college degrees. Even with prior work experience, many employers require proof of a high school diploma for even the most basic positions, even more so since the recent recession. Adults without high school diplomas who are fortunate enough to have jobs can expect to earn nearly $10,000 less per year than those with a high school degree, and are much more likely to live in poverty, experience poor health, and end up in prison.

Any way one looks at the social realities, chances to obtain a high school equivalency degree are critical for adults who did not graduate from high school, if they are to flourish in life. For more than sixty years, the General Education Degree – popularly known as the “GED” – has offered such a chance. But current strategies of education reform are handing the GED program to profit-making corporations, and the effect has been to create new educational obstacles for the predominately low-income Americans who have not graduated from high school.


Demonstrations about abortion were front and center at the Texas State Capitol in 2013. Ann Harkness//Flickr CC.
Demonstrations about abortion were front and center at the Texas State Capitol in 2013. Ann Harkness//Flickr CC.

The American abortion debate features “pro-life” activists wielding pictures of fetuses and “pro-choice” advocates telling horror stories about women forced to travel for hundreds of miles to access safe abortions. The struggle seems an irresolvable moral conflict – and both sides claim to be “pro-women.” Pro-choice organizations advocate that abortion be kept legal and made increasingly accessible because women have the right to privacy in matters of reproduction. Pro-life groups argue that the acceptance of abortion unjustly pits women against their children.

My research takes stock of activists on both sides – and identifies those that focus not just on the moral aspects but also on the socioeconomic context of abortion. In fact, abortion is mainly an issue for less privileged women, and if more pro-life and pro-choice groups recognized the economic realities, there would be possibilities for compromise.  more...

Nearly a quarter of all babies born in the United States are now Hispanics, yet many of these newborns start life’s race behind the starting line, poor and disadvantaged.  This issue might seem relevant only to longstanding metropolitan gateways for new immigrants, such as San Diego, New York, Chicago, and Miami. But today it matters for rural areas and small towns as well, because new immigrants have spread out all over the United States. Hispanics account for more than half of all the nonmetropolitan population growth in the 2000s, and in many parts of rural America from Alabama to Nebraska, growing numbers of Hispanics provide a demographic lifeline to dying small towns. Yet disproportionate and growing numbers of immigrant Hispanic children are born into poverty, and the difficult circumstances they face from before birth through childhood profoundly influence their adult contributions to American society. more...

Why have aspirations to improve economic prospects for disabled Americans fallen short? Legal modifications and retrenchments have reduced the effectiveness of the Americans with Disabilities Act as a set of legal tools to counter discrimination. But broader supply-and-demand factors in the U.S. labor market have also played an important role. Employed disabled people tend to be clustered into certain occupations and industries, many of which offer low wages and constricted opportunities for advancement. The clustering of people with disabilities into certain low-wage occupations can amount to a form of occupational ghettoization, reinforcing labor market inequalities that leave disabled workers at a long-term disadvantage. To better understand how future public policies could boost economic prospects for disabled workers, my colleague Michelle Maroto and I have explored the processes that create – and might break down — occupational ghettos.

From 1980 until the start of the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008, U.S. households accumulated debt at an unprecedented pace. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the ratio of total debt to disposable income – a measure that reveals households’ ability to service their debts out of current income – hovered around 70 percent. Thereafter it rose, increasing to 90 percent by 1995 and peaking at 135 percent in 2007, before declining to 110 percent in 2013.

The financial meltdown brought new attention to the debt loads facing American households, in part because many analysts fingered defaults on subprime mortgages as a chief cause of the crisis. But policy responses have focused too narrowly on financial market reforms. Certainly it makes sense to curb the unfair and fraudulent lending practices that have proliferated over the past few decades, yet new financial regulation alone won’t make most working families more economically secure. For that, we must understand and address the intertwined social, political and economic trends that have created insecure labor markets and heightened debt risks. more...

Few cities have adopted charter schools more rapidly than New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Although the Orleans Parish School Board still operates a few traditional public schools as well as its own charter schools, the Recovery School District run by the state has just become the first district in the country to have only charter schools. Many scholars regard New Orleans as an important site for studying many kinds of educational reforms, and we have done our own study of two community-oriented charter schools that opened in 2010 and 2013.

Although many existing New Orleans charter schools have been run by local or national non-profit organizations that emphasize the delivery of college preparatory instruction to mostly poor, non-white students, the two schools we studied were founded by parents and community members who are intensely engaged and have strong visions about the role of their schools in the community. These parents and community members have endeavored to build schools that foster cross-group friendships, serve as hubs for the surrounding neighborhood, and combine strong academics with a broad curriculum. This approach differs from the usual tendency of urban charter schools to define success narrowly in terms of student achievement on tests. Our study of these two grassroots charter schools offers important lessons for reformers well beyond New Orleans who believe in a more community-based approach to school improvement. more...

Voter turnout among members of different groups of Americans varies widely, with Latinos and Asians generally lagging behind other groups. Blacks usually fall in between, with turnout usually ahead of other minorities but behind whites—although black participation surged in 2008 and 2012 in response to the historic candidacy of Barack Obama. Additional segments of the American public also vote less than they might, including lower-income citizens and youth.

Low levels of voting matter, because election results are supposed to reflect the preferences of all Americans. In addition, recent trends indicate that Latinos, if they vote at their full potential, have considerable capacity to influence election outcomes, increasingly at the national as well as state and local level. Getting out the Latino vote was a crucial part of the Obama 2012 reelection strategy, and activists striving to boost Democratic Party prospects in Texas are spending tens of millions of dollars registering eligible Latinos. Understanding how to motivate voting by Latinos and other under-engaged citizens is thus of concern to candidates and parties as well as scholars.

How Can Reluctant Voters Be Mobilized?


Labor unions are known to improve wages and benefits for their members. Yet economic results are not all that unions accomplish. They also make a difference in democratic politics by lobbying for policies, by providing money and volunteers in elections – and also by fostering leadership skills among their members and helping some win elected public offices.

The role of unions in helping members win elected office has not received as much scholarly attention as the other economic and political functions unions perform. In part that is because this function is not easy to study in a rigorous, empirical manner. I have devised a new way to test the hypothesis that unions foster elected officials – and my findings open the door for further explorations of how union membership facilitates electoral careers – and why this matters. more...

Image by Ken Teegardin via Flickr
Image by Ken Teegardin via Flickr

“Almost half of all Americans pay no taxes!” That’s the claim bandied about in elections and overheated television talk-fests. It refers only to federal income taxes, from which various groups are exempt. But many other taxes are also collected at the federal, state, and local levels. When all kinds of taxes are added up, almost all Americans pay substantial amounts.  In fact, poor and middle-income people frequently fork over higher shares of their incomes than the very rich.

Federal Income and Payroll Taxes

The U.S. federal government relies on two big taxes collected from large numbers of Americans: the federal income tax and payroll taxes regularly deducted from wages and salaries to cover Social Security and Medicare benefits. Income and payroll taxes each contribute about 40% of federal revenues. Almost half of U.S. households currently do not owe federal income taxes, but over three-fifths of these “non-filers” are workers who contribute very substantial payroll taxes. For example, Americans making the lowest incomes pay nearly 9% of their wages in payroll taxes, about the same percentage as middle-income workers pay.

Only about 17% of American households pay neither income nor payroll taxes, because they are headed by people in special sub-groups:

  • Elderly men and women, who previously contributed payroll taxes during their working lives, living on their Social Security benefits.
  • Students or disabled individuals.
  • Workers unable to find jobs. During the recent recession, the numbers of long-term unemployed people not filing income tax returns went up.
  • Active-duty members of the U.S. military, who do not have to pay taxes on their combat pay and do not owe income tax after having been deployed. more...

Occupy Wall Street has put a public face on the backlash against growing inequality. As most Americans struggle to make ends meet, income and wealth at the very top continue to burgeon, in bad times as well as good. Although rag-tag protesters have been vilified, protests against the widest economic disparities in more than a century resonate with the wider public. For some time, the best research has documented shared American worries about inequality and broad support for steps to enhance opportunity. more...