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How equal is opportunity? Seminars engage alumni in social sciences research

One in three black children lives in poverty, in contrast to one in seven white children. Unemployment rates for blacks are consistently twice as high as they are for whites. Black males are more than six times more likely than white males to be incarcerated at some point in their lives.

Racial disparities have characterized American society for so long that statistics like these are accepted as normal. Their persistence, however, signals the need for better answers, argues David Harris, interim provost, vice provost for social sciences and professor of sociology.

Harris, a scholar on race, ethnicity and public policy, is one of four Cornell social scientists leading a series of interactive seminars for alumni and friends of the university on inequality and socio-economic mobility. The sessions in New York City are meant to engage them in current research and encourage an exchange of ideas.

"I hope these seminars will help participants develop a deeper understanding of inequality and become more effective change agents," Harris says.

In his June 18 presentation, "Opportunity 101: What Affects Access," Harris introduced data from his new book, "The Colors of Poverty: Why Racial and Ethnic Disparities Persist," which he co-edited with Ann Chih Lin, associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan. The book, which was published this summer by the Russell Sage Foundation, is a collection of essays by social scientists across disciplines on approaches their fields have taken to understanding poverty.

All the essays, says Harris, point to the same conclusion: "Poverty reflects not single causes but cumulative disadvantages. For too long the policy debate has been dominated by the search for magic bullets, policies that address one determinant of economic success. It's the interaction across factors such as low income, hunger, unemployment, family dynamics, education and lack of access to health care that creates a system of disadvantage that makes individuals vulnerable to more disadvantages."

Harris says a new framework for looking at the dynamics of poverty in the United States is needed -- one that takes into account the cumulative effect of disadvantages.

"If you don't deal with the system then you can't really expect to see change," he explains.

Harris also believes that the problem of poverty in this country cannot be extricated from the issue of race.

"It is simply shortsighted to argue that Americans have gotten beyond race or to assume that policies are race-neutral because they do not mention race," he says. "Creating a race-blind society requires that we pay attention to the effects of race, and not that we seek to forget it."

Harris' seminar will be followed on Sept. 4 by "Opportunity 102: Inequality in Education," led by Stephen Morgan, associate professor of sociology and director of the Cornell Center for the Study of Inequality.

"The relationship between inequality and education is one of the most widely studied topics in the social science literature," says Morgan. "In spite of this attention, few of the most fundamental questions have been answered definitively."

Morgan's talk will explore such questions as why achievement varies so much across students, whether school funding is an important determinant of achievement and what impact new funding interventions might have.

Francine Blau, the Frances Perkins Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Labor Economics, will extend the topic of inequality to workplace issues in her Oct. 2 session. Chris Barrett, the Steven B. and Janice G. Ashley Professor of Applied Economics and Management, will host the fourth and final seminar, "Inequality in Developing Countries," Oct. 30.

By reaching a nonacademic audience, the seminar series puts Cornell social sciences research into the hands of people who can apply it. In turn, their firsthand experiences with poverty and other social issues can inspire new research questions and approaches.

"Interacting with diverse groups of people provides me with new ideas," says Harris. "I have benefited from hearing about the anti-poverty programs that many of our alumni support with their time and money."

For audio clips, slide shows and more information on the opportunity seminars, go to http://www.campaign.cornell.edu/events/opportunity.

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