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RSF at the 2014 American Sociological Association Conference

July 9, 2014

The 109th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA) will take place in San Francisco, from August 16 to 19, 2014. The theme this year is "Hard Times: The Impact of Economic Inequality on Families and Individuals." ASA President and former RSF Visiting Scholar and grantee Annette Lareau and the 2014 Program Committee have put together an exciting program, with over 600 sessions highlighting social science research that documents the breadth and depth of economic inequality and its consequences.

Among the twenty-one books that will be discussed at the Author Meets Critics Sessions are two Russell Sage publications:

The Long Shadow in the News

July 1, 2014

In The Long Shadow, a new book published by the Russell Sage Foundation, sociologists Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle, and Linda Olsen present new and sobering findings on the life opportunities of low-income children in west Baltimore. For 25 years, the authors tracked the life progress of a group of almost 800 predominantly low-income Baltimore school children through the Beginning School Study Youth Panel (BSSYP). The study monitored the children’s transitions to young adulthood with special attention to how opportunities available to them as early as first grade shaped their socioeconomic status as adults.

Several new articles on inequality in the U.S. cite Alexander, Entwisle, and Olsen’s original research. At Colorlines, Kai Wright’s comprehensive overview of unemployment and African American men uses the authors’ Baltimore study to explore the shortcomings of education as the sole path out of poverty. As The Long Shadow finds, education primarily enhanced the privileges of those who were already middle-class, rather than boosting up poor children. While many low-income youth profiled in the Baltimore study pursued higher education, only 4% had earned a bachelor’s degree by age 28, due to barriers such as the cost of college and family obligations. As Wright notes, The Long Shadow further shows that black men in the study were penalized more for “problem behaviors”—including dropping out of school and getting arrested—than their white counterparts. In other words, race and class interact closely to limit poor Baltimoreans’ life opportunities.

Nested Silences and the Household Economy

June 27, 2014

This feature is part of an ongoing RSF blog series, Work in Progress, which highlights some of the ongoing research of our current class of Visiting Scholars.

Visiting Scholar Caitlin Zaloom (New York University) is completing a book on the intimate financial lives of American families. Her research explores how debt, credit, and investment shape Americans’ pursuit of security, prosperity, and stability. She also examines how families discuss the risks and trade-offs involved in using financial tools to pursue better education, housing, and retirement.

In an interview with the Foundation, Zaloom discussed in particular the rise of household budgets, how they relate to the creation of an American middle class, and why the silence around personal finances can have troubling consequences for American families.

Q. As the U.S. struggles to recover from the Great Recession, economics has played a central role in public discourse. Low wages and income inequality continue to generate fierce debate, and the recent excitement around Thomas Piketty’s Capital seems to suggest that the massive wealth gap in the country will remain a topic of concern for a long time. Yet, in your research, you’ve found that individual household economics still tend to remain extremely private. What accounts for this silence around personal finances and why is it such a problem?

Choosing Not to Choose

June 24, 2014

A new working paper by noted behavioral economics scholar Cass Sunstein, titled “Choosing Not to Choose,” is available for download from the Russell Sage Foundation. The abstract states:

Choice can be an extraordinary benefit or an immense burden. In some contexts, people choose not to choose, or would do so if they were asked. For example, many people prefer not to make choices about their health or retirement plans; they want to delegate those choices to a private or public institution that they trust (and may well be willing to pay a considerable amount for such delegations). This point suggests that however well-accepted, the line between active choosing and paternalism is often illusory. When private or public institutions override people’s desire not to choose, and insist on active choosing, they may well be behaving paternalistically, through a form of choice-requiring paternalism. Active choosing can be seen as a form of libertarian paternalism, and a frequently attractive one, if people are permitted to opt out of choosing in favor of a default (and in that sense not to choose); it is a form of nonlibertarian paternalism insofar as people are required to choose. For both ordinary people and private or public institutions, the ultimate judgment in favor of active choosing, or in favor of choosing not to choose, depends largely on the costs of decisions and the costs of errors.

Wealth Levels, Wealth Inequality, and the Great Recession

June 23, 2014

In a new Recession Brief for the Recession Trends initiative, Fabian T. Pfeffer (University of Michigan), RSF president Sheldon Danziger, and Robert F. Schoeni (University of Michigan) explore the extent to which the Great Recession altered the level and distribution of American families’ wealth, looking at the period between 2007 and 2013. While the Recession had a major impact on the net worth of families across the socioeconomic spectrum, it disproportionately affected households at the bottom of the wealth distribution. These households lost the largest share of their total wealth. As a result, wealth inequality in the US has been significantly exacerbated since the onset of the Recession. As of the end of 2013, the authors note that there have been few signs of significant recovery from the downturn.

Neighborhood Segregation and the Concentration of Poverty

June 17, 2014

A new book from the Foundation, Choosing Homes, Choosing Schools (2014), examines the complex relationships between schools, neighborhood social networks, and larger patterns of inequality in order to offer new perspectives on the way that residential segregation continues to affect access to education.

In his chapter, “Segregation, Neighborhoods, and Schools,” public policy scholar Paul Jargowsky (Rutgers University-Camden) traces shifts in residential segregation over the last four decades, along both class and racial lines. He assesses the extent to which race drives class segregation, and vice versa, and finds that though a small amount of racial segregation is due to poverty status—and a larger amount of segregation by class is due to race—both largely work independently of each other to shape residential segregation.

Noted Behavioral Economics Scholar Cass R. Sunstein to Join RSF as Summer 2014 Visiting Scholar

June 9, 2014

Cass R. Sunstein, the Robert Walmsley University Professor and Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, will join the Russell Sage Foundation as a Visiting Scholar for Summer 2014, starting on Monday, June 9.

Sunstein is a member of the Foundation’s Behavioral Economics Roundtable, an initiative that gathers prominent scholars in the field to support and promote new research in behavioral economics. With RSF trustee Richard H. Thaler, he co-authored the 2009 book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, a New York Times bestseller that examines the way that people make decisions and shows how sensible “choice architecture” can successfully nudge people toward the best ones.

Sunstein served as Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs from 2009 to 2012. His other books include, most recently, Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas and Why Nudge?: The Politics of Libertarian Paternalism (2014).

During his time in residence at the Foundation, Sunstein will work on his next book manuscript, titled Choosing Not to Choose.

RSF Authors to Discuss Poverty in the U.S. at Upcoming Conference

June 4, 2014

A June 19 summit on America’s poverty crisis, organized by the Hamilton Project at Brookings, will bring together leading scholars, policymakers, practitioners, and business and labor leaders for a series of discussions on strategies for combating poverty. Former president Bill Clinton will deliver remarks on the opening day of the summit. Included among the featured speakers are several contributors to the Russell Sage Foundation’s Legacies of the War on Poverty, a 2013 release that analyzed the remarkable and enduring policy successes of the War on Poverty.

At the conference, Harry Holzer (Georgetown University) will participate in a roundtable discussion on new approaches to building skills within the U.S. labor force. Holzer’s chapter in Legacies of the War on Poverty examines changing trends in employment and training policy for low-income individuals since the War on Poverty was launched. Bridget Terry Long (Harvard Graduate School of Education), whose contribution to Legacies traces the evolution of higher education policies, will discuss strategies for addressing the academic barriers to higher education.

New Working Paper Explores Low-Income Families’ Use of Social Safety Net Programs During the Great Recession

June 3, 2014

In a new working paper for the Great Recession Initiative, Robert A. Moffitt of Johns Hopkins University explores the extent to which families that participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—or food stamps—also receive benefits from other federal aid programs, such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). As he finds, in 2008, 76 percent of families receiving SNAP also participated in at least one other major benefit, excluding Medicaid. However, over half of these only received one other benefit and only a very small fraction received more than two others.

As Moffitt explains, analyzing SNAP families’ participation in additional social safety net programs is crucial for understanding the other needs of SNAP households—such as whether these households tend to include family members with disabilities—or if overall, they simply have such low income that they require additional support for other expenses such as housing and medical care. Noting that policy analysts and scholars have long expressed concerns that the receipt of multiple programs may have negative effects on work incentives, Moffitt also investigates whether multiple-program participation by SNAP families deters household members from seeking employment.

How Genetics Can Enrich the Way We Study Social Inequality

May 22, 2014

This feature is part of a new RSF blog series, Work in Progress, which highlights some of the ongoing research of our current class of Visiting Scholars.

Visiting Scholar Dalton Conley is well acquainted with working across disciplines: He currently holds multiple appointments at NYU, including in the Sociology Department, the School of Medicine, and the Wagner School of Public Service. In his time in residence at the Russell Sage Foundation, he is examining the impact of genetics on socioeconomic attainment. Using genetic markers—genes or DNA sequences that can be used to identify particular inherited characteristics—in nationally representative data sets, Conley will attempt to construct genetic risk scores and use them to deepen our understanding of the relationship between genetic endowment and socioeconomic status.

In a new interview with the Foundation, Conley discussed the history of merging genetics with the social sciences, and offered ways of using new genetics data to enrich the way we form policies to address social inequality.

Q. Your research examines the intersection of biology and the social sciences, and in particular, tries to understand how molecular genetics can help explain social stratification. Due to historical misuses of science to justify social inequality (as with the eugenics movement in the nineteenth century or, more recently, Herrnstein and Murray's The Bell Curve) this has been such a controversial area that many social scientists now steer clear of biological explanations altogether. How do you reconcile this fraught history with your own work, and what's new about your research?