StockMonkeys.com, creative commons.

StockMonkeys.com, creative commons.

Getting a college degree is an increasingly expensive endeavor and many students struggle to make ends meet while they are in school. Although the rising cost of college tuition and fees receives a great deal of public attention, students face other costs, too – including often hefty payments for living expenses, textbooks, and transportation to and from classes. These inescapable extra costs constitute half to three-quarters of total college expenses, and when students cannot afford to cover them, they often struggle to focus on school work and spend less time in the classroom. In dire cases, students may find themselves without a secure place to live or enough food to eat.

Financial aid for college students is meant to help cover the extra expenses, but aid packages often fall short because of chronic underfunding and complex bureaucratic administrative hurdles. Researchers and practitioners have found that when students run into short-term financial problems, college financial aid offices often have difficulty responding quickly.

In addition to traditional financial aid programs, there is also a need for emergency assistance. Promptly responsive emergency aid programs can help keep students enrolled, perhaps allowing more of them to complete studies and receive degrees. In a recent research project we used surveys and interviews to examine such programs, aiming to better understand how they operate and when they succeed. Our work lays the groundwork for much-needed additional evaluations. more...

Spc. Margie Huelskamp checks up on a patient at the Ghormach Clinic, Afghanistan. US Army.

Spc. Margie Huelskamp checks up on a patient at the Ghormach Clinic, Afghanistan. US Army.

Around the world we see encouraging declines in the number of people newly infected with the virus that causes AIDS (as the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome is called). But hard-won gains in preventing and treating this “disease that changed everything” are not equally distributed across places and groups of people. The AIDS crisis has, in fact, widened inequalities in health and wellbeing the world over. In poor nations, AIDS remains a leading factor contributing to health declines, because more than 95% of the 33.2 million individuals infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (or HIV) that causes AIDS reside in such countries. The spread of HIV/AIDS has been especially detrimental to women in poor nations. The number of women infected with HIV has increased dramatically in recent years, and young women in less developed nations are about twice as likely as men to become infected. Strikingly, AIDS is the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age.

How can we understand women’s special vulnerability to AIDS, especially in poorer countries? Theories of gender inequality provide clear insights by highlighting the ways in which women have fewer resources and less control than men over decisions about sex and health practices. In particular, women in less developed nations face many barriers in getting needed access to vital educational and health resources, including schools and contraceptives.

If gender inequalities, poverty, and low levels of education and access to health care make for a deadly brew that undermines the wellbeing of women across the less developed world, these harmful forces can be exacerbated by events and trends that further social disorder. In many poor countries, civil wars and violence obviously undermine the health and longevity of women (as well as men). In addition, the spread of AIDS can be spurred by environmental crises and degradation – exacerbated in many places by global warming. So far, the potential impact of environmental degradation on the spread of HIV/AIDS has received insufficient scholarly attention. Drawing insights from eco-feminist perspectives, our work takes a step in the direction of correcting this deficit. more...

Photo by amira_a via Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/dFbWwm

Photo by amira_a via Flickr.

Cities cannot flourish without regular investments to create and repair “infrastructure” – everything from roads and sewer systems to services such as libraries, police forces, and counselors in local high schools. Citizens and businesses alike depend on such shared facilities and services. In the middle of the twentieth century, the U.S. national government and many states helped cities develop infrastructure. Grants were often increased during economic downturns, when localities faced fiscal stress yet the cost of public borrowing was low.

But since the 1970s, American cities have been largely on their own to build and sustain infrastructure – in an era where opponents of taxes agitate to cut back public revenues. Desperate to fund vital projects, cities have turned to special “redevelopment” agencies run undemocratically by small boards of business elites and public managers. These agencies arrange private financial investments to build the facilities needed by new private business ventures – like a shopping center or a big warehouse facility. more...

Photo by Daniel Latorre, Flickr CC.

Photo by Daniel Latorre, Flickr CC.

With sagging voter turnout, plummeting trust in government, and multi-billion dollar elections, U.S. democracy is marred by chasms between government and citizens. Gaps may be greatest at state and local levels, where voter turnout is especially low and citizens only rarely attend public meetings or contact local elected officials about policy decisions. Against this backdrop, communities across the country are experimenting with “participatory budgeting” – a reform that lets residents of cities, towns, and districts decide how to allocate taxpayer dollars.

By giving communities real decision-making power in a collaborative process, participatory budgeting can strengthen ties between citizens and officials. First implemented in Brazil in 1989, it has been employed by more than 1,500 cities worldwide and made its U.S. debut in Chicago in 2009. This reform has won support from the White House and officials of all political stripes, as well as from social justice coalitions like the Right to the City Alliance. more...

Sign spotted in New Orleans. Bart Everson, Flickr CC.

Sign spotted in New Orleans. Bart Everson, Flickr CC.

On May 23, 2014, at Isla Vista near the University of California at Santa Barbara, Elliot Rodger embarked on a violent spree that killed six students and injured 13 others, before killing himself. Police later uncovered a 137-page manifesto titled “My Twisted World,” in which Rodger expressed his desire to punish women for rejecting him on what he called a “Day of Retribution.” For weeks after the event, the nation was transfixed by the horror of Rodger’s actions. The family members of the victims called for gun law reform while others highlighted the gender themes this violent gunman invoked.

Indeed, this highly publicized tragedy links two devastating challenges the United States faces: violence against women and deadly gun crimes. Gun violence in America – including mass shootings like the Rodger case – often falls on women the gunman knows. Despite decades of efforts to reduce the threats, American women continue to be at heightened risk for death or harm by gun violence. My research explores why existing policies fall short of remedying this problem, in part because of gaps in background checks for would-be gun buyers and the proliferation of unlicensed firearms sellers. I also consider why the political environment makes it hard for advocates to advance legislation to reduce gun violence. In the course of my research, the gender disparities have become evident.

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Social Enterprise is an innovative way of solving social problems. Photo via Peter Holbrook

Social Enterprise is said to be an innovative way of solving social problems. Photo via Peter Holbrook, Flickr.

With over fifteen percent of Americans living below the poverty level, scholars, practitioners, and policymakers are searching for innovative strategies to advance economic and social development. Some business-minded philanthropists are exploring the concept of social enterprise: businesses that employ for-profit methods to create a positive social impact. According to a 2012 national field study conducted by the Social Enterprise Alliance, the top five challenges social enterprises address include workforce development, housing, community and economic development, education, and health care provision. In order to address deficits in these areas, social enterprises often examine social problems in a given community and then develop social services or programs to reduce or eradicate them. As is true for any business venture, however, the laws governing social enterprises can be difficult to navigate, and current legal rules do not always help entrepreneurs get their ideas off the ground. To maximize the potential of such ventures, we need a thorough understanding of how social enterprises function and what policymakers can do to help them. more...

A new study has found that Public Housing officials do not show anti-Black bias. Photo via Kai Schreiber

A new study has found that Public Housing officials do not show anti-Black bias. Photo via Kai Schreiber, Flickr CC

Recent news coverage of racial bias in the housing market confirms the stark persistence of racial discrimination. Racial inequity in the private market for housing is hardly an isolated occurrence – and it is not wholly attributable to other factors like income or education. As many experimental studies have found, prospective black and Hispanic buyers are told about fewer available homes and apartments than whites with similar social characteristics. Although discrimination in the private sector remains relatively difficult to eliminate, my research with David Glick suggests that racial bias among people who administer access to public housing may be less common and easier to overcome.

A Surprising Finding – No Bias Against Blacks

To probe for discrimination among public housing officials, we used an experimental design similar to that used in previous studies of racial bias in housing and a variety of other arenas. Specifically, we created email addresses with putative black, white, and Hispanic names. Then we randomly assigned over 1,000 public housing authorities to receive an email from one of these accounts containing a generic request to help a constituent. We looked to see if responses differed by the race and ethnicity of the name of the person requesting service.

In contrast to results from similar experimental studies in private market housing and other fields, we found no evidence that public housing officials discriminated against blacks. If anything, the officials responded to requests from putatively black constituents at higher rates. This is striking, because analogous studies have consistently found that employers, state legislators, professors, and other gatekeepers are less responsive to blacks than to whites. As far as we know, our study is the only audit-style experiment that has failed to find anti-black bias.In contrast to the private market, we found no evidence that public housing officials discriminated against blacks. This is striking, because analogous studies have consistently found that employers, state legislators, professors, and other gatekeepers are less responsive to blacks than to whites. more...

Community environmental projects improve civic participation, but who is participating? Photo via Scot Nelson

Community environmental projects improve civic participation, but who participates? Photo by Scot Nelson, Flickr CC.

In late 2015, the City of New York fulfilled the promise of the “MillionTreesNYC” program by planting its millionth tree. While the program was designed primarily to make the city greener and more resilient to floods during storms like Hurricane Sandy, the project also served as a predominantly positive experience for thousands of volunteers, who then went on to become more involved in civic life in their communities.  Since the vast majority of those volunteers came from white, middle class and affluent backgrounds it is hard to determine if the lessons of New York can be applied to other sectors of the population to increase civic engagement, especially among minorities and lower-income Americans.

Benefits beyond the environment

The MillionTreesNYC program is a public-private partnership that was created between Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration and a private nonprofit group, the New York Restoration Project. Of course, trees have many environmental benefits, including providing absorbing carbon, beautifying neighborhoods, creating shade, and preventing soil erosion. Yet we find another benefit: the initiative has also encouraged New Yorkers to get more involved in environmental projects of all sorts and become more engaged citizens overall.

To date, little research has been done on the connections between green initiatives and enhanced citizen participation. In our recent book, Urban Environmental Stewardship and Civic Engagement: How Planting Trees Strengthens the Roots of Democracy, my co-authors and I present findings from a two-year study of more than seven hundred volunteer stewards who got involved in the MillionTrees Initiative.  The findings we present in our book are consistent with those from my research on other environmental projects in New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington DC, which are known for their diverse populations. Nevertheless, the participants in all of these projects tended to be whiter, more highly educated, and more female than their communities overall.

Expanding benefits to historically less-advantaged communities

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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.

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woman reading

Item 139224, Fleets and Facilities Department Imagebank Collection (Record Series 0207-01), Seattle Municipal Archives.

Picture a small office with three employees: Jake, a white man; Anita, a Latina woman whose husband lost his job a year ago; and Crystal, a Black single mother. Even though all three have similar duties, Jake takes home $1000 per paycheck, while Crystal gets $700 and Anita earns $600. The office also used to employ Anne, another Black woman, but she was laid off in 2009. Crystal and Anita are fortunate to still have their jobs, but their wages put their yearly earnings below the federal poverty line. Unable to get by on their wages alone, their families also depend on public benefits.

This specific scenario is imaginary, but it reflects on-going trends. The Great Recession brought hard times to most Americans, but it was especially devastating for women of color. Today, Black women and Latinas face worse job and wage prospects, and experience higher poverty rates and greater difficulties in gaining access to health care. Many female-headed households have depleted their “rainy day” savings and depend on a patchwork of low wages and bare-bones supplements like food stamps and unemployment insurance to make ends meet. The 2009 recession and slow economic growth since then have derailed many women’s previously modest economic progress. Seven years later, America’s women of color are still worse off than they were before the economic crisis hit.

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