Harvard think tank gets millions to study poverty — but will it learn anything new?
Income inequality is more than just a trendy buzzword — especially in Boston, where the growing gap between rich and poor has become both a frequent source of discussion and fertile ground for research in the past couple of years.
So news that a multimillion-dollar grant to a Harvard institute would be devoted to another analysis of the same issue was met with annoyance and consternation among some activists who argued that some of that money could be used to actually address inequality, rather than just measure it again.
“I could do a lot with that money,” said Horace Small of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods. “We don’t need another study.”
Small and others suggested the money could be put to such tangible uses as lobbying for more early childhood education, or a $15 hourly minimum wage. “We could use it to influence people to invest in Madison Park [High School] and make it the premier educational institution it needs to be,” Small said.
Investor Glenn Hutchins made the $10 million grant to the center that bears his name, the Hutchins Center of African and African-American Studies. The center is run by Henry Louis Gates Jr., the ubiquitous literary scholar and television host. Of that grant, $2 million will be devoted to the project of researching poverty. The project is awash in boldface names: it will be directed by William Julius Wilson, a sociologist justly celebrated for his investigations of race and class. Other luminaries, like Matthew Desmond — whose recent book on housing, “Evicted,” has made him a star — are also on board.
Gates and Wilson both insisted Thursday that not nearly enough is understood about causes and effects of poverty. They believe new research will help inspire effective public policy that can address the growing gap between haves and have-nots, and begin to mitigate the pernicious effects of racism.
“From my point of view, we’re living with an anomaly in America,” Gates said. “The black upper-middle class has quadrupled since 1970, but the number of black children living beneath the poverty line is slightly higher. So we have this class divide within the race . . . [Wilson] will examine both the wealth gap between the black community and the white community, and the gap within the black community.”
Gates is unabashed in his hope that the study can make the Hutchins Center a bigger player in the field of public policy. Ever one to think big, he’s hoping to turn the three year-old center into a central resource on issues of race.
“I’ve always seen our mission as a public policy institute like the Aspen Institute and the Brookings Institution, except looking at race and class,” Gates said. “This will establish our presence as a think tank.”
Wilson said his team will study how poverty, criminal justice, and discrimination affect one another, and how their effects are felt from generation to generation. That information, he said, will inform smarter policy decisions.
He rejected the idea that the causes of inequality have been studied enough. “You constantly come up with findings you did not anticipate,” he said. “We’re not doing this just to engage academics.”
The impact of the project will be determined by whether its high-powered research can ultimately affect the trajectory of people’s lives. That’s not what a standard academic work is usually measured by, but it’s the nature of delving into charged, real-life territory.
Will this research mean anything for poor people in Boston, or will it just become fodder for academic conferences? That’s what people are waiting — with cautious optimism — to see.
“Any time you can help people convey the visceral experience of poverty and trauma and all the things our communities are experiencing, I say go for it,” said Natanja Craig, director of grass-roots programs at The Boston Foundation. “Hopefully, this will be not just transactional, but transformative.”