Skip to Navigation

Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality

The Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality, RSF's largest single effort in the 1990s, was aimed at finding out why high rates of joblessness have persisted among minorities living in America's central cities. Despite a robust U. S. economy, millions of low-skill, inner-city workers remain unemployed or stuck in low-paying, dead-end jobs. One explanation is that the economic restructuring of recent decades has increased the educational and skill requirements for most jobs and that most inner-city workers do not have the training and experience to qualify for these jobs. Many jobs, moreover, have moved from cities to the suburbs, stranding inner-city workers. The Multi-City Study found that these two factors, which researchers refer to as skill and spatial mismatches, tell only part of the story: persistent racial barriers, especially employer bias against hiring racial minorities, constitute an even more significant challenge to the job prospects of inner-city workers.

Begun in 1992, the Multi-City Study involved some forty researchers from fifteen universities around the country. The approximately $4 million cost was shared equally by RSF and the Ford Foundation. In all, some 8,000 African American, Hispanic, Asian, and white household members and 3,200 employers in Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, and Los Angeles were interviewed to provide both supply-side information on minorities' labor market experiences and demand-side information on employers' hiring and promotion practices and racial attitudes. By combining data on both sides of the labor market equation, the Multi-City Study may well become a benchmark study of racial inequality in urban America for years to come.
The study provides a detailed picture on the interacting dynamics of labor markets, residential segregation, and racial stratification in the four metropolitan areas. Researchers found that many inner-city workers indeed lacked the reading, numeracy, and social skills to qualify for most entry level jobs. Yet, as Harry Holzer of Michigan State University reports in What Employers Want: Job Prospects for Less-Educated Workers, the first book to emerge from the project, many employers exhibit strong racial preferences in their hiring, based on their stereotyped expectations of on-the-job performance. White men and women are preferred over any other racial group, Hispanics are preferred over blacks, and black women are preferred over black men.
The inaccessibility of suburban jobs also acts as a strong obstacle to employment for inner-city workers. In most metropolitan areas, two-thirds of all manufacturing, traditionally a source of well-paying jobs for the inner-city poor, now takes place outside the central city. At the same time, most suburban workplaces remain highly segregated. The racial preferences of employers are matched by the perceptions of many blacks that they are unwelcome in the suburban ring. In Atlanta, the Multi-City team found that the greater the degree of hostility blacks perceive from white residents, the less likely they are to search for work in that area.
The first book published by Russell Sage from the study, Holzer's What Employers Want, summarizes the results of the initial employer surveys. In Stories Employers Tell, based on in-depth follow-up interviews with 200 firms, Philip Moss and Chris Tilly analyze the processes that determine the racial, ethnic, and gender composition of entry-level employees. Four volumes - The Atlanta Paradox, The Boston Renaissance, Detroit Divided, and Prismatic Metropolis - analyze economic and social conditions in the participating cities. A summary volume, Urban Inequality (Alice O'Connor, Chris Tilly, and Lawrence Bobo, editors), compares conditions across the four cities and describes the study's overarching findings on the sources of urban disparities.
Alice O'Connor of the University of California at Santa Barbara acted as project coordinator for the Multi-City Study, while Robinson Hollister of Swarthmore College headed the research advisory committee. Irene Browne and Gary Green served as principal investigators on the Atlanta research team; Barry Bluestone, Miren Uriate, Chris Tilly, and Philip Moss on the Boston team; Reynolds Farley, Sheldon Danziger, and Harry Holzer on the Detroit Team; and Larry Bobo, James Johnson, and Melvin Oliver on the Los Angeles team.
During 1995-96, seven Multi-City researchers were in residence at Russell Sage analyzing the results of the surveys and presenting their research at a series of workshops.
About a dozen doctoral dissertations were written using Multi-City data. In a further step to encourage younger scholars to make use of the data, the Foundation sponsored a small grants competition. Receiving awards were Maria Krysan of Pennsylvania State University, who analyzed residential preferences of survey respondents; Michael Stoll of the University of California at Los Angeles, who studied the effects of residential location in Los Angeles on having a job and of racial discrimination in hiring and wages in the suburbs; and Camille Zubrinsky of Ohio State University, who also used the Los Angeles data to investigate the process of neighborhood change and segregation under conditions of increasing multi-racial diversity.
Archived data from the project are available at the University of Michigan's Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research.
Back to Top

Visiting Scholars

1998 - 1999

Maria Krysan, University of Illinois, Chicago

1995 - 1996
Irene Browne, Emory University
Harry J. Holzer, The Urban Institute and Georgetown University
Lawrence D. Bobo, Stanford University
Melvin L. Oliver, University of California, Santa Barbara

Back to Top