Scholars at the Brookings Institution and Washington University are collaborating on a project related to America’s current crisis of disaffection and divide. It aims to connect to urban and rural populations and communities “in the middle of the country” experiencing the consequences of dramatic employment shifts, health threats, and changes in public policy. The research will focus on issues that cut across populations, places, and problems. The ultimate goal is to generate policy ideas and analysis that responds to the widespread desperation and divide in the country.

Focal areas include: blue collar whites in communities hit by the decline of manufacturing, the opioid crisis, and associated “deaths of despair”; African Americans living in urban areas of concentrated poverty, crime, and limited opportunity; and working immigrant populations without access to legal status, health care, and social security. While all of these groups face weak public education systems, precarious access to health insurance, and a scarcity of low skilled jobs, two sub-groups face specific hurdles. Poor whites are experiencing a dramatic increase in premature mortality due to drugs, alcohol, and suicide, while the long reach of historical racism haunts African Americans.

Missouri, which is a microcosm of these problems, is a natural place to locate the research effort, given Wash U’s already established reach there. The strength of the partnership is that it will combine the on-the-ground, community-based research of scholars at Washington University with the large scale data set- and policy-oriented work of Brookings scholars.

A key objective is to develop and communicate public policy that is responsive to the circumstances and felt-needs of communities that are often disconnected from many of our institutions—media, government, universities, and think tanks. That will require reaching out beyond traditional outlets to seek inputs from community based organizations, local media, and other local actors embedded- and in-touch with the various places and populations that are the focus of the project.

A more detailed description of the project and its research components is available here.

Project Participants

Carol Graham of Brookings, an economist with expertise in well-being, poverty, and inequality; and Edward Lawlor of Washington University, an economist with an expertise in public health and social policy will jointly lead the project.

 At Brookings, collaborators will include:

  • Gary Burtless, an expert income distribution and poverty, public finance, aging, labor markets, social insurance, and the behavioral effects of government tax and transfer policy;
  • Stuart Butler, an economist with expertise on health care reform and community level health initiatives;
  • Camille Busette, Director of the Race, Prosperity, and Inclusion Initiative;
  • Bradley Hardy, an expert on race and income mobility issues;
  • Jonathan Rauch, an expert on governance issues and public policy;
  • Richard Reeves, the Director of the Center on Children and Families and a well-known scholar of social mobility;
  • Isabel Sawhill, an expert on the link between family structure, social welfare policy, and income mobility.

At Washington University, involved scholars will include:

  • Marion Crain, Professor of Law and an expert on labor law, employment, gender, and family.
  • David Cunningham, a sociologist who studies race, segregation, the Ku Klux Clan and southern communities;
  • Steve Fazzari, an economist with interests in macroeconomics, inequality, and public policy.
  • Michal Grinstein-Weiss, Director of the Envolve Center for Health Behavior Change and an expert on asset building, behavioral economics, and health behavior change.
  • Debra Haire-Joshu, Director of the Diabetes Research Center and an expert on nutrition, obesity, and health behavior
  • Matthew Kreuter, Director of the Center for Health Communications Research, and an expert on tailoring communications to low-income and minority populations.
  • Timothy McBride, Director of the Center for Health Economics and Policy, a scholar and health policy practitioner who specializes in rural health;
  • Jason Purnell, a scholar specializing in how social determinants of health influence health behaviors and health outcomes;
  • Mark Rank, an expert on poverty, social policy, and inequality