Spotlight Exclusives

Understanding Deep Disadvantage in America: A Conversation with Kathryn Edin

Kathryn Edin, Princeton University Kathryn Edin, Princeton University, posted on

How best to measure and define poverty and hardship is a central challenge for researchers. Now, some of the leading poverty scholars in the US have a promising answer to this question through their development of a new “Index of Deep Disadvantage.” The Index looks at a range of factors beyond just income to understand disadvantage at the community rather than just the individual level. Their work also includes deeply reported studies of the counties and regions to understand the root causes of this hardship. Spotlight recently spoke with Kathryn Edin, Director of the Center for Research on Child Wellbeing at Princeton and co-author of “$2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America” (which helped inform the research approach for this work), about the Index and what it tells us about poverty and opportunity in America. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did the idea for the Index come about?

 For several years, we’ve felt the need to move beyond income-based measures of poverty. We began looking at other dimensions of disadvantage; namely, we wanted to capture broader measures of wellbeing. The Index combines two measures of poverty (including those living below half the poverty line), two measures of health (life expectancy and low birth weight), and intergenerational mobility. We derived a rating from consistent data for every county and the 500 largest cities in the U.S. using “principal component analysis.” Then we plotted them on a map. The geographic clusters of deepest disadvantage revealed by the map are places seldom studied. These are predominately rural areas such as the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia, the Cotton Belt, and the Rio Grande Valley as well as a few cities in the upper Midwest such as Flint, Detroit, and Cleveland. Though not clustered for historic reasons, many Native Nations also rate among the most deeply disadvantaged places. These places typically share a long history of exploitation and hardship.

Can you talk more about this historical context and why it is important?

We compared a map from the 1850s capturing the geographic distribution of slaveholding to our map and found striking similarities. Deep disadvantage is also not new in Appalachia, with its history of indentured servitude and where exploitation of workers by a variety of extractive industries have kept people in poor circumstances for generations. As noted earlier, our measure of deep disadvantage includes intergenerational poverty measures, which in some sense forces us to think somewhat historically. But we’ve gone deeper, exploring the histories of the six primary clusters of poverty the map reveals (Mississippi Delta, Cotton Belt, Rio Grande, Appalachia, Tribal Lands, and the Upper Midwest]. In most cases, we’ve discovered continuity that is breathtaking.

How do you move from highlighting these disparities towards potential solutions?

While the index deploys largescale data from a variety of sources, we are using the tools of ethnography to develop hypotheses about contemporary dynamics at the individual and community level that might underly why some regions are especially prone to deep disadvantage. One PhD student, Ryan Parsons, is embedded in Greenwood, Mississippi (in the Delta) for two years. It takes time to understand a community. By listening to residents living in poverty, elected officials and other community leaders, nonprofit and governmental agencies, and faith leaders, we aim to derive hypotheses about what might be distinct about each locality, as well as cross cutting themes. One aim of the project is to extend beyond the one size fits all approaches to deep disadvantage and highlight the importance of local solutions for local challenges.

Two years is a lot of time. Are you engaging so deeply in every disadvantaged area?

We spend a minimum of 2.5 months in a site representing each cluster. To support the work of the PhD students, the faculty involved (Edin, Luke Shaefer, and Timothy Nelson) are travelling to these areas ourselves and spending a lot of time on-the-ground. We will finish the ethnographic fieldwork just before the 2020 election. Then, the task is to vet these stories with the communities we’ve visited, and then to share them; not only with policymakers but also vital local on-the-ground players who need support and inspiration for their work.

You’ve studied poverty and disadvantage throughout your career and this work builds off your previous research. Are there ways this new research either lines up well with expectations or challenges prior assumptions?

In the fieldwork for our book $2 a Day, we chose two communities (the Mississippi Delta and Cleveland) which happen to be near the top the Index. Our research in these sites seemed fundamentally different, both in degree and in kind, from that in other sites we explored. Most of the urban sites I’ve studied in the past are outside of the 100 most disadvantaged places, such as Baltimore (185), Philadelphia (215), and Chicago (707).

The biggest surprise to me was that 80 of the 100 most disadvantaged counties in the Index are rural. Only nine of the 100 are cities. But the extent of deep disadvantage in rural areas varies a lot from region to region. While New England certainly has pockets of poverty, and an alternative measure of poverty (the Supplementary Poverty Measure, which captures differences in costs of living, among other factors) ranks California as the nation’s poorest state, neither the West Coast nor New England has anything resembling the deep disadvantage one sees in the Delta or Appalachia. Many elite universities are located on the coasts or in Chicago. Perhaps for this reason, poverty researchers often end up studying urban areas in these regions. The clusters we’ve identified are out of-the-way places that often escape notice. Thus, much of the nation’s most deeply disadvantaged places are overlooked.

Your research suggested that struggling people are more focused on local issues and local failures of governance than national politics. Can you talk a bit more about this?

 There is a strong media narrative about Trump country. But in the research we’ve conducted so far with poor households in these places, we’ve found a lot of disengagement with national politics. Our respondents are often aware of local elections, but there is a lot of shoulder shrugging when it comes to national politics. Jobs are paramount, and there is a perception that jobs may be threatened by immigrants. But beyond that, we have not found much deeply held political conviction. In all three sites we’ve visited so far, even engagement in local politics isn’t what one might expect. In some cases, there is a long tradition of political corruption and a perception that if you stand up to that corruption, there might be payback.

What do you see as the implications around poverty and opportunity for people like our audience who are often engaged with and work on these issues? What can they learn?

 Well, we want to learn from them. The Index is intended to be a starting point, an invitation for others on the ground in these communities to share their stories. Six ethnographic explorations are the tip of the iceberg in terms of telling the story of America’s most deeply disadvantaged communities. We want to learn from local people, especially those working on issues of poverty and inequality. We see them as partners in the research endeavor.

I do think one function of research like this is so that local people who want to advocate for an issue, but don’t have evidence to hold up which shows that their communities need attention, can use the narratives generated by our research to help convince those in power to pay attention. So, in addition to learning from people on the ground, we hope to arm them with information they can use in their advocacy.

Kathryn Edin is Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs and Director of The Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing (CRCW) at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public at Princeton University.


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