Inequality has become both more severe and more visible in American cities over the past decade. As dramatically illustrated by recent incidents of rebellion and civil unrest in Los Angeles, New York and other major cities, urban inequality is deeply embedded in the economy, geography, and racial and ethnic group relations of the inner cities. In work stemming from the activities of the Committee for Research on the Urban Underclass, the Council is currently involved in a collaborative research project to document and analyze how labor markets, residential patterns, and racial attitudes contribute to race and class polarization in metropolitan areas across the country.

The Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality is designed to investigate the interrelationships among labor market dynamics, residential segregation, and racial attitudes through linked employer and household surveys in the Detroit, Los Angeles, Boston, and Atlanta metropolitan areas. With principal funding from the Russell Sage and Ford foundations, teams of researchers located at the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, the University of California, Los Angeles, Boston University and a consortium of scholars from the Atlanta area are working together to develop and conduct core household and employer surveys in their respective metropolitan areas during 1992–93. An additional component, funded by the Russell Sage, Ford and Rockefeller foundations, involves researchers from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and the University of Chicago in face-to-face interviews with employers in all of the metropolitan areas.

Three components

More specifically, original data will be collected for the study in three major components:
(1) A survey of white, African American, Asian, and Latino households including questions on labor market experience, residential location decisions and experiences, and racial attitudes. A follow-up telephone survey focusing on job history, search behavior and resources, and other aspects of labor market experience, will be administered to a subsample of young adults in the households.

(2) A telephone survey of employers to obtain information about recruitment, hiring and promotion practices, types of skills required, firm location decisions, and other issue of importance to the structure of job opportunities. A portion of the employer sample in each city will be drawn directly from the household survey.

(3) A series of open-ended, face-to-face interviews with a subset of these employers to explore their hiring practices and experiences, racial and gender attitudes, perceptions of the labor market, and how these influence their policies and decision-making with regard to recruitment, location, and other factors relevant to labor market opportunities.

Each of these components will yield important data in its own right. By coordinating the three and integrating information from existing contextual sources, the investigators expect to gain a unique, multi-dimensional view of the dynamics of urban inequality. Furthermore, as cities with varying experiences of industrial restructuring, and very different racial and ethnic compositions, Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, and Los Angeles offer excellent opportunities for comparative analysis. The survey samples are also constructed to allow comparative analysis along the lines of race, class, and gender within and across the four cities.

Origin of the project

“The findings from that study underscored the importance of white resistance to residential integration in explaining patterns of racial segregation.” The multi-city project grew out of an initial collaboration between researchers at the University of Michigan and UCLA to conduct a revised and expanded version of the 1976 Detroit Area Study (DAS), which focused on the causes of racial segregation by exploring the relative importance of economic status, racial attitudes, knowledge of housing markets, and preferences of residents. The findings from that study underscored the importance of white resistance to residential integration in explaining patterns of racial segregation. The objective of the Michigan/UCLA collaboration was to build on the original DAS to learn more about labor market as well as residential disparities, while providing research training opportunities for graduate students at both institutions.

With sponsorship from the Council’s Committee for Research on the Urban Underclass, a planning conference was held in June 1991 to solicit advice from scholars engaged in research on labor markets, residential segregation, and racial attitudes. Among the participants were researchers who had recently conducted employer surveys, as well as scholars who were interested in conducting similar studies in other cities. As a result of this and subsequent planning meetings, interdisciplinary research teams from several cities began to work as a network to plan the linked employer/household surveys that form the core of the multi-city study.

The surveys are being conducted in stages, beginning with Detroit in spring 1992. Other cities will follow in early 1993.

Among the key questions informing the multi-city study research design are a series of explanations for disparities in labor market outcomes that have been generated by research on the urban underclass. Much of that research has focused on why low-income minorities—and specifically African American men—are disadvantaged in the labor market. To what extent can this be explained by a skill or spatial “mismatch” between minority applicants and potential employers? How has the shape of industrial restructuring affected low-income minorities in different cities? How have employer practices, attitudes, and perceptions affected job opportunities for minorities and women? What are the different “social resources,” such as job networks, that different groups bring to the job search? The multi-city study is designed to generate data that will help answer these questions, and to permit comparisons across race, gender, and class lines.

In a broader sense, the multi-city study is designed to move beyond one-dimensional explanations to the interaction among a variety of processes that contribute to disadvantage. The surveys also feature innovative approaches to asking about such issues as job search behavior, residential preferences, interethnic attitudes, race, and gender-based stereotypes. Moreover, due to the complementary design of the survey and face-to-face interview questions, the researchers will be able to combine a variety of data source in answering these questions.

Role of the SSRC

“The project has been consciously set up to create research and training opportunities for graduate students and younger scholars, who will be involved not only in initial data-gathering and analysis, but also in ongoing work with the rich data resources created by the study.” Among the notable features of the multi-city study is the role the Council has played in its development. Since the outset, the Council has been closely involved in the research planning, recruitment, and coordination among the various research teams; it has acted as a liaison with foundations, and has organized an interdisciplinary advisory committee to provide guidance and oversight through each stage of the research and analysis.1 Throughout this process, staff has made a conscious effort to tap networks established as a result of the urban underclass program, and to ensure diversity in the race and gender as well as the disciplinary make-up of the scholars involved. In addition, the project has been consciously set up to create research and training opportunities for graduate students and younger scholars, who will be involved not only in initial data-gathering and analysis, but also in ongoing work with the rich data resources created by the study. To encourage use of the survey data among young scholars, a workshop will be held during 1994, for which minorities, women, and scholars from historically black colleges and universities will be specially recruited.

Among the products envisioned from the project are monographs, jointly-authored papers, conferences, and possibly an edited volume on new patterns of urban inequality and their policy implications. In addition to the cross-city analysis, each research team intends to produce city-specific studies focusing on local concerns. In planning these and other products, the researchers will pay close attention to the policy implications of their research, and will augment their dissemination efforts to include briefings with state and federal policymakers, community groups, and a wide variety of local and national organizations with a concern for strengthening urban programs and policies.

Alice O’Connor is professor and director of Graduate Studies in the Department of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She teaches and writes about poverty and wealth, social and urban policy, the politics of knowledge, and the history of organized philanthropy in the United States. Her publications include Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History (Princeton University Press, 2002); Social Science for What?: Philanthropy and the Social Question in a World Turned Rightside Up (Russell Sage Foundation, 2007); and Poverty and Social Welfare in the United States: An Encyclopedia (with Gwendolyn Mink; ABC-CLIO, 2004). She is also co-editor, with Lawrence Bobo and Chris Tilly, of Urban Inequality: Evidence from Four Cities, one in the seven volume series produced from the Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality that draws on cross-city comparative data from the household and employer surveys (all published by the Russell Sage Foundation). Before joining the UCSB faculty in 1995, she was a program officer at the Ford Foundation and the Social Science Research Council and a National Science Foundation fellow at the Center for the Study of Urban Inequality at the University of Chicago. She has also been a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation and a fellow at the Charles Warren Center at Harvard University. Her current research focuses on wealth and inequality in the post-World War II United States.

This essay originally appeared in Items/Items & Issues Vol. 46, No. 4 in the winter of 1992. Visit our archives to view the original as it first appeared in the print editions of Items.

Posted on January 24, 2017