Education, employment, and home ownership have long been considered stepping stones to the middle class. But in Abandoned Families, social policy expert Kristin Seefeldt shows how many working families have access only to a separate but unequal set of poor-quality jobs, low-performing schools, and declining housing markets which offer few chances for upward mobility. Through in-depth interviews over a six-year period with women in Detroit, Seefeldt charts the increasing social isolation of many low-income workers, particularly African Americans, and analyzes how economic and residential segregation keep them from achieving the American Dream of upward mobility.
Seefeldt explores the economic and political obstacles that have altered the pathways for opportunity. She finds that while many low-income individuals work, enroll in higher education, and attempt to use social safety net benefits in times of crisis, they primarily have access to subpar institutions, which often hamper their efforts to get ahead. Many of these workers hold unstable, low-paying service sector jobs that provide few paths for advancement and exacerbate their social isolation. Those who pursue higher education to gain qualifications for better paying jobs often enroll in for-profit schools and online programs that push them into debt but rarely lead to secure employment or even a degree. And while home ownership was once the best way to establish wealth, Seefeldt finds that in declining cities like Detroit, it can saddle low-income owners with underwater mortgages in depopulated neighborhoods. Finally, she shows that the 1996 federal welfare reform and other retrenchments in the social safety net have made it more difficult for struggling families to access public benefits that could alleviate their economic hardships. When benefits are difficult to access, families often take on debt as a way of managing. Taken together, these factors contribute to what Seefeldt calls the “social abandonment” of vulnerable families.
Abandoned Families is a timely, on-the-ground assessment of hardship in contemporary America. Seefeldt exposes the shortcomings of the institutions that once fostered upward mobility and shows how sweeping policy measures—including new labor protections, expansion of the social safety net, increased regulation of for-profit colleges, and reparations—could help lift up those who have fallen behind.
The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s seemed to mark a historical turning point in advancing the American dream of equal opportunity for all citizens, regardless of race. Yet 50 years on, racial inequality remains a troubling fact of life in American society and its causes are highly contested. In The American Non-Dilemma, sociologist Nancy DiTomaso convincingly argues that America's enduring racial divide is sustained more by whites' preferential treatment of members of their own social networks than by overt racial discrimination. Drawing on research from sociology, political science, history, and psychology, as well as her own interviews with a cross-section of non-Hispanic whites, DiTomaso provides a comprehensive examination of the persistence of racial inequality in the post-Civil Rights era and how it plays out in today's economic and political context. Taking Gunnar Myrdal's classic work on America's racial divide, The American Dilemma, as her departure point, DiTomaso focuses on "the white side of the race line." To do so, she interviewed a sample of working, middle, and upper-class whites about their life histories, political views, and general outlook on racial inequality in America. While the vast majority of whites profess strong support for civil rights and equal opportunity regardless of race, they continue to pursue their own group-based advantage, especially in the labor market where whites tend to favor other whites in securing jobs protected from market competition. This "opportunity hoarding" leads to substantially improved life outcomes for whites due to their greater access to social resources from family, schools, churches, and other institutions with which they are engaged. DiTomaso also examines how whites understand the persistence of racial inequality in a society where whites are, on average, the advantaged racial group. Most whites see themselves as part of the solution rather than part of the problem with regard to racial inequality. Yet they continue to harbor strong reservations about public policies—such as affirmative action—intended to ameliorate racial inequality. In effect, they accept the principles of civil rights but not the implementation of policies that would bring about greater racial equality. DiTomaso shows that the political engagement of different groups of whites is affected by their views of how civil rights policies impact their ability to provide advantages to family and friends. This tension between civil and labor rights is evident in Republicans' use of anti-civil rights platforms to attract white voters, and in the efforts of Democrats to bridge race and class issues, or civil and labor rights broadly defined. As a result, DiTomaso finds that whites are, at best, uncertain allies in the fight for racial equality. Weaving together research on both race and class, along with the life experiences of DiTomaso's interview subjects, The American Non-Dilemma provides a compelling exploration of how racial inequality is reproduced in today's society, how people come to terms with the issue in their day-to-day experiences, and what these trends may signify in the contemporary political landscape.
Over the past three decades, average household wealth in the United States has declined among all but the richest families, with a near 80 percent drop among the nation's poorest families. Although the national debate about inequality has focused on income, it is wealth—the private assets amassed and passed on within families—that provides the extra economic cushion needed to move beyond mere day-to-day survival. Assets for the Poor is the first full-scale investigation into the importance of family wealth and the need for policies to encourage asset-building among the poor. Assets for the Poor shows how institutional mechanisms designed to encourage acquisition of capital and property favor middle-class and high-income families. For example, the aggregate value of home mortgage tax deductions far outweighs the dollar amount of the subsidies provided by Section 8 rental vouchers and public housing. Banking definitions of creditworthiness largely exclude minorities, and welfare rules have made it nearly impossible for single mothers to accumulate savings, let alone stocks or real estate. Due to persistent residential segregation, even those minority families who do own homes are often denied equal access to better schools and public services. The research in this volume shows that the poor do make use of the assets they have. Cash gifts—although small in size—are frequent within families and often lead to such positive results as homebuying and debt reduction, while tangible assets such as tools and cars help increase employment prospects. Assets for the Poor examines policies such as Individual Development Account tax subsidies to reward financial savings among the poor, and more liberal credit rules to make borrowing easier and less costly. The contributors also offer thoughtful advice for bringing the poor into mainstream savings institutions and warn against developing asset building policies at the expense of existing safety net programs. Asset-building for low-income families is a powerful idea that offers hope to families searching for a way out of poverty. Assets for the Poor challenges current thinking regarding poverty reduction policies and proposes a major shift in the way we think about families and how they make a better life. A Volume in the Ford Foundation Series on Asset Building