History of the Social, Political and Economic Inequality Program

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. That effort resulted in Social Inequality (Neckerman, 2004), in which a group of the nation’s leading social scientists opened a wide-ranging inquiry into the social implications of rising economic inequality. The program started out by examining the implications of rising economic inequality across many areas of social life—the wellbeing 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, RSF 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?

In the mid-2000s, the program turned to in-depth examinations of the key institutions the U.S. relies on to counteract market-driven inequality: public education and the democratic electoral system. RSF sought research proposals on how these institutions 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? In a simultaneous and separate effort, RSF released the Politics of Inequality RFP to formally explore the impact of the rise of economic inequality on the political system. 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?

In 2008, RSF and the Lyle M. Spencer Foundation co-funded an interdisciplinary team of more than twenty researchers to examine the educational performance of disadvantaged students, as well as the differences in outcomes between rich and poor students. Under the direction of Greg Duncan (University of California, Irvine) and Richard J. Murnane (Harvard University), Social Inequality and Educational Disadvantage focused on the impact of neighborhoods, families, and labor markets—the environment around the school—on schooling outcomes. Findings from the project were published in two books. The first edited by Duncan and Murnane, Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality and the Uncertain Life Chances of Low-Income Children (2011), examines the corrosive effects of unequal family resources, disadvantaged neighborhoods, insecure labor markets, and worsening school conditions on K-12 education. The second book, Restoring Opportunity, by Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane (Harvard Education Press, 2014), focuses on raising public awareness of educational disadvantage in the United States, summarizes prominent research findings, and suggests policies aimed at reducing educational inequality.

In 2009, RSF, together with the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Sutton Trust, funded the 3-year study, Cross-National Research on the Intergenerational Transmission of Advantage (CRITA). Under the direction of Timothy Smeeding of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, John Ermisch of the University of Essex, and Markus Jäntti of the Swedish Institute for Social Research (SOFI) at Stockholm University, this project—including fourteen individual studies across ten countries— explored the relationship between parental socioeconomic status (SES) and mobility-relevant skills and attributes at different stages of development (early childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, adulthood). The researchers provided a better understanding of how family resources are correlated with individual outcomes at various points during development, and how those relationships may differ over the life course and between countries. Key findings were published in a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts. A more detailed examination of the project's results were published by RSF in From Parents to Children: The Intergenerational Transmission of Advantage (2012).

In 2012, RSF launched a working group on The Political Influence of Economic Elites. Sociologist Shamus Khan and political scientist Nicholas Carnes of Duke University, together with 13 other leading social scientists, formed a working group to expand the research field of economic influence on political life by examining how economic elites have influenced the myriad ways politics is done and the relationship between these processes and inequality. Between 2012 and 2015, RSF funded four research projects by working group members—a national survey of political party leaders to shed light on the lack of working-class people who hold elected office; a study of the mobilization of people and financial resources through the political contributions and activities of U.S. corporations and their boards of directors, top management, and owners; a pilot project to disambiguate the employer and occupation fields in the Federal Election Commission (FEC) data; a project on the cash ceiling and why only the rich hold office.

In late 2018, RSF rebranded the program as the Social, Political and Economic Inequality (SPEI) program to better reflect the foundation’s research interests in a broad range of inequalities and their consequences. In consultation with selected trustees, RSF revised the program’s standing RFP to include new sections on political institutions and the policy process, and child development and child outcomes. In addition, the revised RFP also highlighted RSF’s interest in research regarding rural areas.

In 2019, RSF ended two special initiatives on Integrating Biology and Social Science Knowledge (BioSS) and Computational Social Science (CSS). Because of our continued interest in these topic areas, some of the topics of interest were incorporated into the SPEI call for proposals. Examples of CSS questions that remain of interest include: How might computational approaches provide new insights into political inequalities? For instance, can the application of textual analysis and machine learning techniques to current and/or historical political proceedings, such as the Congressional Record, provide new insights on legislative responses to changes in inequality over time? Examples of BioSS questions that remain of interest include: What are the social and biological factors that impede or promote resilience to adversity? To what extent do social, psychological and biological factors work together, or independently, to mediate the negative effects of adverse socioeconomic environments on children’s development and subsequent outcomes? 


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