When Langston Hughes wrote “America never was America for me” in 1938, he encapsulated the great contradiction in our history: the ideal of America continues to inspire and magnetize people around the world, and yet it is premised on an enduring legacy of exploitation, exclusion, inequality, and imperial violence. This project will treat American “freedom” and “equality” as a set of global social relations rather than abstract ideals. It will ask, along with Hughes, freedom for whom at the expense of whom? The purpose is not to debunk the ideals that have inspired so many, but rather to trace the historical and social conditions of the various freedom projects that have characterized the history of the United States: from Jefferson’s ‘Empire for Liberty’ through to Donald J. Trump’s ‘Greatness’. All our programs of national development – of the specification and realization of “equality” and “freedom” within the United States – were framed and enacted within a global economic, diplomatic, and military architecture. We will bring together faculty who examine the question and paradox of American inequality within the context of the economic, military, and cultural history of the United States in the world.
Faculty Lead: Walter Johnson, Winthrop Professor of History; Professor of African and African American Studies
In the highly polarized aftermath of the November 2016 presidential election, issues of governance, citizenship, and social justice are salient in ways that have not been seen in decades. The election brought into stark relief the linkages between rising social and economic inequality on the one hand and citizens’ sense of ownership of the polity and their capacity to influence politics and public policy on the other. Both the enthusiasm and the anxiety over the election outcome reflect a growing awareness of the role local, state, and federal governments play in combatting or exacerbating inequality. The political context also shapes how Americans respond to rising inequality, whether through social movements, violence, or withdrawal from politics, and their receptivity to political ideologies and movements on the left (Occupy, Black Lives Matter) and the right (Trumpism, Tea Party). We will bring together faculty who study inequalities in political power, representation and public policy; the political and societal forces that preserve and strengthen democratic governance and advance social justice in the face of rising inequality; and the ethical and philosophical considerations that inform our understanding of what “justice” and “equality” mean in a stratified society.
Today, the 41 million immigrants in the United States represent 13.1% of the U.S. population, and their U.S. born children represent another 12%, making immigration a central demographic component of the American population. The integration of immigrants and their children is a pressing question for our political and social life, touching on areas such as health, language use, socioeconomic mobility, family form, future workforce growth and political power. Naturalization and citizenship are currently at historic lows, and the U.S. compares unfavorably to other nations such as Canada in the proportion of eligible residents obtaining citizenship. Since the mid-1990s, U.S. immigration policy has become more punitive towards the undocumented, and interior enforcement policies have attempted to prevent their employment and long term residence in this country. Many of these immigrants live in mixed-status families; currently 5.2 million children (4.5 million of whom are U.S. citizens) reside with at least one undocumented parent. Social mobility for the children and grandchildren of immigrants has been an important part of American history, but with high degrees of income inequality and declining social mobility overall, what will happen to current immigrant waves? The research cluster on immigration and inequality will bring together faculty working on immigration policy and law; immigrant economic, social and political integration; immigrant and second generation education and socioeconomic mobility; and scholars studying the attitudes and behaviors of natives towards immigrants both currently and historically.
Faculty lead: Mary Waters, John L. Loeb Professor of Sociology
The cluster on inequality in science, technology, education, and health will bring together faculty researching access and retention of under-represented groups in STEM education in the K-12 sector through higher education, including the professoriate; examining the impacts of education, technology, and medical policy and funding structures; and studying the history and cultures of STEM fields. Moreover, it will convene scholars investigating how poverty, racism, social segregation, exposure to violence, poor nutrition, and job stress, along with environmental conditions, shape health.
Faculty Lead: Evelynn Hammonds, Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science; Professor of African and African American Studies
The slowing of economic growth and increased gains at the very top of the distribution have altered American society, transforming the nation from one in which different socioeconomic groups “grew together” to one in which these groups are “growing apart.” Slow growth and rising inequality are backdrops for several other trends. The first is that poor people in America were once its elderly but are now its children, a disproportionate number of whom are black. Related to the issue of child poverty is persistent gender inequality, as many poor children live with their mother only and are raised entirely on their mother’s income. Women’s earnings relative to men remain low, in large part due to a labor market that rewards the capacity of workers to be on-call and work on-demand. More generally, the labor market, for both women and men, is defined by the increasing segregation of elite and highly educated workers to stable employment on the one hand, and the outsourcing and increased instability of jobs for lower education workers on the other; this segregation is contributing to a rise in wage inequality. Finally, we have reached an era in which most children in the U.S. are no longer likely to earn more than their parents. Declines in intergenerational mobility reflect a landscape of starkly unequal economic opportunities. These disparities pose a fundamental challenge to the “American dream” of economic progress for all families.
As part of the Inequality in America Initiative, we will bring together scholars from throughout the social sciences and draw on the strengths of world-renowned faculty in economics, sociology and related fields who study child poverty and the effects of deprivation on education and future mobility; gender inequality and the costs of time flexibility; rising inequality in labor market earnings and its relationship to technical change and increased segregation of the workforce by skills and background; how to expand economic opportunity and facilitate mobility out of poverty; and the relationship between economic inequality and other critical life outcomes, such as fertility, family structure, morbidity, disability, mortality, social connectedness, happiness, and well-being.
Clusters of investigators organized around five core themes meet regularly to discuss ideas, workshop new research directions, invite speakers, plan collaborations. Join one or more research clusters to keep abreast of meetings and programs.