The United States takes pride in being the land of equal opportunity, where everyone has a fair chance at success if they work hard and play by the rules. Strong economic growth made that dream a reality for many prior generations of Americans, including those who started out poor. But over the past three decades, the United States has experienced deteriorating economic growth and a long, slow rise in economic inequality. As a result, the fruits of economic growth have gone largely to the wealthy, median incomes have stagnated, and the poor have increasingly been left behind. In 2001, the Russell Sage Foundation, together with the Carnegie Corporation of New York, initiated a program of research on Social Inequality designed to examine the implications of rising economic inequality across many areas of social life.
The Social Inequality program started out by examining the implications of rising economic inequality across many areas of social life—the well-being of families, the parental resources available to young children, the quality of education from preschool to college, the chances of finding secure and satisfying work, the quality of health care and health outcomes, and the effectiveness of participation in the democratic process. For each of these domains, the Foundation supported descriptive research that sought to establish whether those groups that have increasingly been left behind economically have also lost ground in other ways that limit their full participation in society and make it more difficult for their children to compete successfully with the children of the more advantaged. Does rising economic inequality, once underway, have social effects that tend to entrench and amplify economic differences?
More recently, the Foundation has turned to in-depth examinations of the key institutions the United States relies on to counteract market-driven inequality: public education and the democratic electoral system. We have been interested in how these institutions have performed during the recent run-up in economic inequality. Have the public schools been able to provide equal educational opportunities despite growing differences in family resources, neighborhood quality, and local job prospects? Has the political system effectively transferred resources from those who have benefited from rising inequality to those who have not? And, overall, how well have American institutions performed—compared to other countries—in moderating inequality and providing something like equal opportunity for all Americans?
Co-funded with the Lyle M. Spencer Foundation, an interdisciplinary team of more than twenty researchers have focused both on the educational performance of disadvantaged students, as well as on the differences in outcomes between rich and poor students.
Thirty-eight researchers in ten countries conducted studies on how family resources are correlated with the development of mobility-relevant skills and how those relationships have differed between countries and over the life course.