Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation


Main content start

Social mobility in the new Gilded Age

Is the takeoff in income inequality bringing about a reduction in mobility? Although there’s a long history of worrying about a decline in mobility, such concerns have become unusually prominent of late. These concerns can be addressed by exploiting new opportunities with administrative data as well as mining existing survey data. A selection of relevant readings (go here for a full list of relevant work):

Why is there so much income inequality?

Why has income inequality increased so spectacularly in the last 40 years? The conventional wisdom is that it’s the by-product of the invisible hand, that we must simply tolerate such market-generated inequality, and that the only realistic response is to ramp up redistribution. Can the takeoff instead be attributed to an asymmetric process in which opportunities to collect rent disappear at the bottom of the distribution just as they become more prominent and widespread at the top? A selection of relevant readings (go here for a full list of relevant work):

The commodification of opportunity

The takeoff in income inequality is of course one of the best-known and most spectacular trends of our time. As important as this takeoff is, what gives it real teeth is that another equally important force – rising commodification – is playing out in conjunction with it. It follows that the poor are now doubly disadvantaged: It’s not just that they have less money, but it’s also that money matters more for securing goods, services, and even opportunities. This trend toward the “commodification of everything” is revealed in the decline of public goods, the decline of public lotteries, and the gradual disappearance of lifecourse zones (i.e., childhood, old age) that were once protected havens from the market (and go here for a full list of relevant work).

New opportunities with administrative data

The rise of administrative data opens up new opportunities to build linked panels for the full population, new opportunities to creatively combine qualitative and quantitative forms of analysis, and new opportunities for evidence-based policy. A selection of relevant readings (go here for a full list of relevant work):

Ending poverty ... permanently

There is nothing more distinctively American than the idea that our principles should be taken seriously and that our schools, our neighborhoods, and our labor markets should be continually recast and perfected to ensure that they live up to those principles. How might our institutions be rebuilt if, for example, we treated the principle of equal opportunity as a serious and authentic commitment? A selection of relevant readings (go here for a full list of relevant work):

Inequality in a populist world

The iconic “liberal theory” of stratification fails to attend to the many types of downward mobility and wage loss generated by late-industrial stratification systems. Although conventional accounts assume that such losses will be interpreted in individualistic terms, an unappreciated feature of contemporary loss is that externalising accounts are readily available and often seized upon. This suggests a new “rent conflict” theory of loss that rests on (a) a contest between competing narratives about the legitimacy of loss, and (b) the resulting institutionalisation of a zero-sum form of stratification. A selection of relevant readings (go here for a full list of relevant work):

The past, present, and future of big social classes

It’s long been assumed by sociologists that attitudes, behaviors, and life chances are fixed in large part by one’s social class. If you want to know who listens to jazz, who will vote Republican, who will become addicted to opioids, or who is likely to sign up for military service, the standard-issue sociologist will suggest that social class, more so than any other variable, has the most predictive power. But is this indeed the case? Are we moving into a new inequality regime in which class matters less and income, wealth, or occupation more? A selection of relevant readings (go here for a full list of relevant work):

The future of gender inequality

The "gender revolution" is now a half-century old and yet the workplace is still extremely segregated and the decline in the gender pay gap appears to have run its course. Is the slowdown attributable to the entrenched essentialist view that women and men are fundamentally different in their tastes and proclivities? A selection of relevant readings (go here for a full list of relevant work):

Winners and losers in the Great Recession

The Great Recession was the deepest downturn since the Great Depression. Which groups bore the brunt of the recession? How did families cope with the strain of unprecedented unemployment and economic duress? Did the Great Recession recast our most fundamental social and political attitudes? A selection of relevant readings (go here for a full list of relevant work):

Measuring poverty in the 21st century

The U.S. does not measure poverty well. Although the Supplemental Poverty Measure is a milestone in U.S. poverty measurement, our infrastructure for measuring poverty is otherwise quite antiquated. The key challenges include (a) developing real-time measures of poverty (much like we have real-time measures of unemployment), (b) building the capacity to monitor poverty at the local level, and (c) developing new ways to integrate qualitative and quantitative assessments of poverty. A selection of relevant readings (go here for a full list of relevant work):

Theories and mechanisms of inequality

Why is there so much inequality? Does it take on much the same form everywhere? How do stratification systems change and evolve? A selection of relevant readings (go here for a full list of relevant work):

Resources for training in poverty and inequality

Do you want to train up in the field of poverty, inequality, and mobility? Here are some opportunities:

  • An online course: In America’s Poverty and Inequality Course, 40 top scholars deliver five-minute videos exploring why income inequality has reached unprecedented levels, why poverty remains so extreme, and why racial and gender inequalities are so intransigent.
  • An undergraduate reader: The new volume Inequality in the 21st Century is intended for undergraduate students requiring an introduction to the field as well as general readers who would profit from a compilation of accessible scholarship on poverty and inequality.
  • A graduate reader: The new volume Social Stratification (fourth edition) is designed for graduate students, scholars, and others seeking full exposure to advanced scholarship in the field.
  • A compilation of the classics: For those interested in just the classics, Inequality: Classic Readings in Race, Class, and Gender is a slimmer volume of essential readings.
  • A web and hardcopy magazine: Pathways Magazinereports on trends in poverty and inequality, summarizes cutting-edge research, evaluates key interventions, develops bold visions for the future, and stages debates among top commentators.

Opinion pieces

Brief missives on why the U.S. has been so reluctant to take on poverty, how the science of poverty has developed, new approaches to reducing poverty, and much more. A selection of recent pieces (go here for a full list of relevant work):