'Ignore the poor at your own peril': Human Ecology faculty lend their expertise to universitywide initiative examining poverty dynamics.
Subject: Social policy (Interpretation and construction)
Poverty (United States)
Poverty (Statistics)
Poverty (Control)
Author: Winter, Metta
Pub Date: 11/01/2008
Publication: Name: Human Ecology Publisher: Cornell University, Human Ecology Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health; Science and technology; Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2008 Cornell University, Human Ecology ISSN: 1530-7069
Issue: Date: Nov, 2008 Source Volume: 36 Source Issue: 2
Topic: Event Code: 680 Labor Distribution by Employer
Product: Product Code: 9105000 Health, Educatn & Welfare Programs NAICS Code: 9231 Administration of Human Resource Programs
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 231021642
Full Text: It was January of 1964 when President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the War on Poverty to address the fact that 19 percent of the citizens in the world's richest country were living' below the poverty line. Forty-five years later 20 percent still do so. And today the poor are even further behind when comparing their income to that of the "average" American.


"We had a war on poverty and poverty won," said Daniel Lichter, the Ferris Family Professor in Cornell's College of Human Ecology and director of the Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center.

Look around the world and the picture is similar, according to Christopher B. Barrett, the Stephen B. and Janice G. Ashley Professor of Applied Economics and Management in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. In other high-income countries, the numbers of poor people are large and have remained constantly so over the past generation. In the developing world, the number of Africans living on less than $1.00 a day has doubled in that time. There are more poor people in Latin America than a generation ago, and even the rapidly growing economies of south Asia have left hundreds of millions in extreme poverty. Only in east and southeast Asia have the numbers of people suffering abject poverty fallen in the past generation.


Barrett is directing the Persistent Poverty and Upward Mobility Project, a three-year campuswide initiative in Cornell's Institute for Social Sciences (ISS) that is investigating "poverty traps" and how to transform ineffective programs aimed at releasing the poor from the bonds of ongoing deprivation. When Barrett began looking for individuals with the expertise and experience to join this effort and solidify Cornell's reputation as a preeminent place for research on poverty, he turned to faculty in the College of Human Ecology.

One of the first people he approached was nutrition professor Christine Olson.

"The idea of applying the best social science Cornell had to offer to this real-world problem fascinated me right from the start," said Olson, a nutritionist also trained in sociology who has spent 30 years addressing the dynamics of poverty in rural America--most recently the interrelationship between food insecurity and health and how those factors may constrain people from becoming upwardly mobile.

Another call was made to Jordan Matsudaira. Matsudaira arrived in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management in the fall 2007 after completing a Robert Wood Johnson Post-doctoral Fellowship in Health Policy Research at the University of California, Berkeley. He's a labor economist with special expertise in quantitative research design and causal inference. Much of his work focuses on urban poverty and such issues as how welfare programs might be designed and education systems transformed to help improve the lives of poor children.

"I immediately saw the possibility of theoretical advances in the way we think about poverty and how those advances could inform interventions on the ground" said Matsudaira who, as a new faculty member, also recognizes the value of this opportunity to exchange ideas with scholars and citizens across disciplinary and geographic perspectives.

Olson and Matsudaira agreed to join Barrett and Stephen L. Morgan, an associate professor in the sociology department, as core team members in framing the project proposal, which was ultimately chosen in a highly competitive selection process as the ISS theme project for 2008 to 2011.

Soon after two other Human Ecology college faculty were competitively selected as the project team members--Daniel Lichter from the Department of Policy Analysis and Management and David Sahn from the Division of Nutritional Sciences.

"There's never been as much interest in inequality in policy circles as there is now," said Lichter, a noted demographer who has studied issues of poverty and inequality for 25 years, "especially in the growing gap between the rich and poor."

David Sahn, the International Professor of Economics in the college's Division of Nutritional Sciences and a professor in the economics department in the College of Arts and Sciences, has spent 30 years investigating the determinants and causes of poverty and inequality and related outcomes such as health, nutrition, and education in developing countries, particularly those in Africa.

He was a member of the Cornell Social Sciences Advisory Committee that conceived of ISS before it was formally established in 2004. Sahn sees the institute as enormously successful in meeting its goals of encouraging collaborations among social scientists across disciplinary and institutional boundaries so as to generate new discoveries and to stimulate provocative conversations among scholars and citizens inside and outside the Cornell community on complex topics in the social sciences.

Collaborative model

ISS is modeled after Cornell's Society for the Humanities and advanced research centers at the universities of California and Michigan. What's different and unique about the institute is its thematic approach. Each year faculty across campus are invited to submit theme project proposals, with three years to plan, put into action, and complete them. At the core of each project is social science research that will attract attention from national and international academic communities as well as private and government funding agencies. Each theme project challenges those within and beyond Cornell to look anew at critical issues in the social sciences and reconsider their own scholarly perspectives.

"In complex problems, it is rare that a single investigator, or even a team of investigators from a single disciplinary tradition, can really come up with a convincing package of findings that present workable solutions," explained Barrett of why he proposed examining persistent poverty as an ISS theme project. "The collaborative, interdisciplinary team approach provides a more holistic package that is more readily communicable to a wide range of outside stakeholders and is less likely to have made fatal, herculean assumptions that will prove its downfall."

Project members will focus on the experiences, histories, and future prospects of poor individuals, households, and communities both within the United States and abroad. Some of the research questions to be examined revolve around the role of human capital--health, nutritional status, and education--in helping or impeding people's exit from poverty. For example, it is known that obese women are discriminated against in the workforce. Olson will look at the relationship between childhood poverty and adult obesity, particularly as it might impact the future upward mobility' of girls and young women.

Matsudaira wants to know more about how school policies affect economic prospects later in life for those who immigrate while they are young and still in school. For example, how does bilingual education affect their school achievement and, subsequently, their economic circumstances later in life?

Sahn, too, is interested in education and health. In his case, he will focus on the education of young women in Madagascar and Senegal. How, he wants to know, does the availability of education and quality of schools and home environment for young girls influence the opportunities and choices they make as they transition into adulthood, and how those will, in turn, impact their success in the workplace and their decisions regarding marriage and fertility, and the subsequent health of their children?

Lichter will focus on economic mobility, particularly between generations. Why is it, he asks, that some poor people--based on their own ambition and ability--move forward while others remain trapped by their unfavorable circumstances (such as being raised by a single parent or growing up in a high-risk neighborhood) and reproduce the poverty experience of their parents?

The project's members will have varying responsibilities. Olson, who was involved in the initial development of questions assessing food insecurity for the Current Population Survey (conducted by the Bureau of the Census for the Bureau of Labor Statistics to provide a snapshot of the nation's economic health), will provide leadership in the area of developing accurate measures of other nonmonetary deprivations associated with poverty. She'll also bring nearly 30 years of experience in designing outreach programs for low-income populations for Cornell Cooperative Extension.

"Because of this I'm able to evaluate from an on-the-ground perspective whether the proposed solutions that come from theoretical models have any potential for really working," Olson said.

With his expertise in policy analysis and causal inference, Matsudaira will endeavor to keep discussions practical and focused on determining those public policy levers that hold the most promise to be effective. He is also keen to take many of the examples of well (and of poorly) designed studies that are identified in the project and incorporate those into his undergraduate class Causal Reasoning and Policy Evaluation and graduate seminar Empirical Strategies for Policy Analysis.

"The research design you bring to an analysis crucially affects the conclusions you draw and whether those are valid," explained Matsudaira, adding that while there have been thousands of studies on poverty, many proved useless due to fundamentally flawed designs.

A hallmark of ISS is its international scope, according to Beta Mannix, the Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Management at the Johnson School and the vice provost for equality and inclusion who is also finishing up her term as director of the institute this semester. "One thing that is new to the social sciences at Cornell is the need to work across the world to understand what's happening cross culturally."

Sahn anticipates a high degree of synergy to result from interactions between the domestic and internationally focused participants in the project. "To be able to spend time with an excellent demographer like Dan [Lichter] in terms of identifying questions and problems that arise out of his experience in the United States may be quite relevant or provocative in a developing country context," he said.

Harnessing Cornell's expertise

Collaborating with other Cornell programs concerned with the well-being of individuals is an integral part of this ISS project. The Cornell Population Program, located in the Bronfenbrenner Family Life Course Center, is one. The Center for Social Inequality, directed by Stephen Morgan, is another. And the Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future (CCSF) is a third.

The Cornell Population Program was established through a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) under Lichter's guidance. He'd created two such NIH-funded demographic centers before, one at the Pennsylvania State University and the other at Ohio State. Rectifying inequality and relieving poverty, both domestically and globally, is one of the center's main pursuits.

As to the Center for Social Inequality, Lichter expects close ties to its education mission through team teaching, practicums, and films for undergraduates. "Increasingly more affluent people, like most of our students, are separated geographically, culturally, and socially from people who aren't so affluent and consequently don't always appreciate the problems people with low incomes have," he said.

The newly established Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future brokers partnerships between Cornell faculty and external partners in the areas of energy, the environment, and economic development.

"CCSF has a core objective of helping find environmentally sustainable means of bringing a brighter future to the billions who presently and unnecessarily suffer low standards of living in a rich world. The shared vision is, in this circumstance, considerable," said Barrett, who is the center's associate director for economic development programs.

Cornell has 600 social scientists and ISS works with more than 80 units and departments across campus. During the three years of the project, it's anticipated that Cornell's faculty and distinguished scholars will participate in research projects, seminars, lectures, conferences, and team-teach courses with scholars, government officials, and members of nonprofit organizations from across the nation and around the world.

And, perhaps, as Lichter notes, build a poverty research center here at Cornell.

All four of the Human Ecology college faculty members serving on the project are committed to creating outreach activities that help educate political leaders and the public-at-large--to bring home the harsh realities of the gap between the rich and poor citizens of the United States that is greater than at any time since the Great Depression.

"If people in America are worried about their security, whether it be economic security or their physical well-being due to terrorism, disease, or political incivility, then, as they say in rural Africa, 'Ignore the poor at your own peril,'" said Sahn.

Water Cooler Conversations

"The sad truth is that most of the faculty at this university are so busy doing their own work that they can have colleagues down the hall who have great ideas and if they only had a moment to talk to each other they could see how their ideas might be synergistic and what would result would be better than what either one is working on alone," said nutrition professor Christine Olson.

Putting renowned faculty next door to each other and giving them greater opportunity to interact is exactly what will happen to the team members of the Persistent Poverty and Upward Mobility Project. During the middle of the three project years, its 10 members will have offices together in Myron Taylor Hall, where they'll spend half their time.

Olson is confident that during the year there will be many informal conversations resulting in '"I never thought of it that way' flashes. Such moments of thinking anew build relationships between people that will cause them to write proposals and articles, and generate new ideas that will generate new funding for the university."

Persistent Poverty and Upward Mobility Project Team Members

Christopher B. Barrett (Applied Economics and Management)

Christopher J. Anderson (Government)

Susan Christopherson (City and Regional Planning)

Matthew Freedman (ILR Labor Economics)

Daniel Lichter (Policy Analysis and Management and Sociology)

Jordan Matsudaira (Policy Analysis and Management)

Stephen Morgan (Sociology)

Christine Olson (Nutritional Sciences)

David Sahn (Nutritional Sciences and Economics)

Nic van de Walle (Government)

For more information:

Christopher Barrett


Daniel Lichter


Jordan Matsudaira


Christine Olson


David. Sahn@cornell.edu
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