“We are the most economically segregated we have ever been in our history,” says Kathryn Edin, a professor of sociology and public affairs.
Photo: Jeffrey MacMillan p’14

Economic mobility is on the decline in the United States. While 90 percent of children born in 1940 ended up earning more than their parents, that figure was just 50 percent for those born in the 1980s. Starting this summer, a major research project — spearheaded by Princeton professor Kathryn Edin and academics at Stanford and Georgetown — will interview thousands of people in all 50 states to learn why people in some communities thrive while others do not.

“We are the most economically segregated we have ever been in our history,” says Edin, a professor of sociology and public affairs. And despite decades of research into poverty, “we simply don’t understand why some places tend to be a springboard for mobility and others so profoundly relegate people to be stuck in place. We’ve had a one-size-fits-all policy structure, but we’re not sure that approach is working.” 

Edin has spent three decades researching American poverty, employing intensive fieldwork to create nuanced accounts of how economic hardship affects communities nationwide (see PAW story in the Oct. 24, 2018, issue).

The American Voices Project will send research fellows to 200 communities for detailed interviews with members of 5,000 households. A random sample will be weighted to include households in “average poverty” (earning about $24,000 a year for a family of four), “deep poverty” (earning about $12,000 a year), and “extreme poverty” (earning less than $2 a day), as well as a middle-income comparison group.

Eighty research fellows are being selected from more than 1,600 applicants. In an approach modeled after the Peace Corps, the fellows will receive intensive training and modest pay, moving seven times over the course of a year. “The secondary goal of the project is to enrich the pipeline of people going into academia and public service,” Edin says.

The researchers will ask people in those seven locations about their employment, health, family relationships, daily routines, civic engagement, and political beliefs. The data will be public so researchers, politicians, and others can use it. The project is a joint initiative of the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, Princeton’s Center for Research on Child Wellbeing, the American Institutes for Research, and a coalition of Federal Reserve banks. 

The project leaders hope to follow the families they interview in the coming years through federal data, if they receive permission. The research may continue past 2020 if more funding is awarded to the program.

Edin will accompany researchers at several locations, visiting with families in Alabama, Mississippi, and other states so she can listen to their stories firsthand: “We really have to hear from people who are struggling and understand their struggles in their local context.”