Harvard Receives Grant to Study Racial and Economic Inequality, Influence Public Policy

Harvard University professor William Julius Wilson will be spearheading a new study conducted by the Hutchins Center for African and African American Studies. As recent news suggests, racial and economic inequality continues to be a poignant reality in America today. In response, the Hutchins Center’s study will send students onto the streets of Boston to gather information with the aim of identifying the factors that impact racial and economic inequality. The study will be funded by a portion of a $10 million grant Harvard recently received. Financier Glenn Hutchins stipulated that $2 million will go to the Hutchins Center and be geared toward influencing public policy.

The new study will send Harvard graduate students directly into the field. Once selected, students will receive special training on how to conduct field research. They will be put into hands-on situations of interacting with individuals, families and representatives from different neighborhoods to prepare them for the realities of interviewing and understanding those in impoverished areas. Wilson explained, “The field research will include participant observation and intensive and repeated interviews.”

During the study, students will spend time in disadvantaged neighborhoods and will build relationships while gathering data on individuals’ hardships, such as poverty, joblessness, homelessness, physical and mental disabilities and the effects of violence and incarcerated parents on children. By approaching the study from a number of angles, the researchers will be better able to report on the deepest causes of inequality.

The study will use multiple methods of data collection, including administrative records, in order to present an encompassing perspective that will hopefully lead to effective policy change. By identifying the roots of inequality, the Hutchins Center hopes to use its data to benefit those who provided the data.

The areas to be studied include: neighborhood and housing, work and low-wage labor markets, urban violence, criminal justice and child welfare. These areas have been described by Professor Wilson as the “fundamental areas that will be crucial for informing policies affecting the lives of low-income families and that present the biggest challenges and opportunities for combating economic and racial inequalities in the next decade.”

Wilson has been an advocate for racial and economic equality for more than 30 years. He wants the study to influence future public policy that will work in the favor of those suffering from racial and economic inequality. The Hutchins Center already has the support of representatives from multiple organizations and plans to form a network of policy experts to make changes possible.

“Our aim is to establish a close working relationship with these nationally recognized think tanks to work with us not only in crafting policy recommendations based on the research to be conducted,” explained Wilson, “but also to critically engage us in discussions about our research ideas and how they relate to key policy issues.”

Wilson’s Harvard co-investigators include: Lawrence D. Bobo, professor of the social sciences; Matthew Despond, associate professor of the social sciences and co-director of the Justice and Poverty Project; Devah Pager, professor of sociology and public policy; Mario Small, family professor of sociology; Robert Sampson, professor of social sciences; Bruce Western, professor of sociology and criminal justice policy.

The study has set a budget of $7 million. The $2 million portion of the grant is significant and generous; however, the Hutchins Center is still seeking donors to raise the remaining funds. The Ford Foundation has also donated $1 million to the study.


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