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The wealthiest ten percent of the population own more than seventy-five percent of the wealth. The wealthiest 150 people have more than half the wealth within the United States.

The wealthiest ten percent of the population own more than seventy-five percent of the wealth. The wealthiest 150 people have more than half the wealth within the United States

Flapper dresses and prohibition may not be back in style, but the dramatic wealth inequality of the Roaring Twenties is still right on trend. In 1929, just before Wall Street crashed and dragged the country into the Great Depression, the richest one percent of the population held nearly half of all the wealth. Today’s wealth distribution is trending in that direction says Fabian Pfeffer, associate professor of sociology. “The top one percent holds about 40 percent of all wealth,” he says. “And once we have post-pandemic data, I’m afraid the wealth inequality of the last few years will pale by comparison.”

Such data are the focus of the Center for Inequality Dynamics (CID). Founded by Pfeffer in 2020, CID is a partnership between LSA and the Institute for Social Research (ISR). It draws faculty and students from the fields of sociology, economics, public policy, social work, education, information science, urban planning, and philosophy to examine the dynamics of social disparity and develop innovative models to address it.

By dint of their training, social scientists are skilled at analyzing social inequalities and the forces that create them; combining that analysis with data about the dynamics that maintain those inequalities can create powerful insights and teaching opportunities.

“Traditionally, as social scientists, we tell students how the world works, and how and why we got here. We typically don’t say, ‘These are the ways inequality is bad,’” Pfeffer says. “We tend to show them data that convey what inequality looks like.

“Students want to learn skills based on real problems,” Pfeffer continues. “And often they don’t just want to understand the problems—they also want to know how to fix them.” It’s an aspiration that aligns with Pfeffer’s own goals. “As social scientists,” he says, “I believe we have thought about the problems and injustices of society hard enough that we should also dedicate some intellectual energy to thinking through novel solutions.” Generating such solutions is, in fact, part of CID’s mission.

Flapper dresses and prohibition may not be back in style, but the dramatic wealth inequality of the Roaring Twenties is still right on trend. In 1929, just before Wall Street crashed and dragged the country into the Great Depression, the richest one percent of the population held nearly half of all the wealth. Today’s wealth distribution is trending in that direction says Fabian Pfeffer, associate professor of sociology. “The top one percent holds about 40 percent of all wealth,” he says. “And once we have post-pandemic data, I’m afraid the wealth inequality of the last few years will pale by comparison.”

Such data are the focus of the Center for Inequality Dynamics (CID). Founded by Pfeffer in 2020, CID is a partnership between LSA and the Institute for Social Research (ISR). It draws faculty and students from the fields of sociology, economics, public policy, social work, education, information science, urban planning, and philosophy to examine the dynamics of social disparity and develop innovative models to address it.

By dint of their training, social scientists are skilled at analyzing social inequalities and the forces that create them; combining that analysis with data about the dynamics that maintain those inequalities can create powerful insights and teaching opportunities.

“Traditionally, as social scientists, we tell students how the world works, and how and why we got here. We typically don’t say, ‘These are the ways inequality is bad,’” Pfeffer says. “We tend to show them data that convey what inequality looks like.

“Students want to learn skills based on real problems,” Pfeffer continues. “And often they don’t just want to understand the problems—they also want to know how to fix them.” It’s an aspiration that aligns with Pfeffer’s own goals. “As social scientists,” he says, “I believe we have thought about the problems and injustices of society hard enough that we should also dedicate some intellectual energy to thinking through novel solutions.” Generating such solutions is, in fact, part of CID’s mission.

CID’s cross-disciplinary approach to studying inequality reaches deep into the social sciences and humanities and across Ann Arbor to North Campus and U-M’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. CID’s physical space has been democratically designed through a partnership between members of CID and a team of graduate students led by Kathy Velikov, associate professor of architecture. With support from Rackham Graduate School, the group designed a space that literally broke down walls and replaced them with modular, movable structures that enable flexible training and collaboration spaces suited to different kinds of work. Besides equitably allocating office space, CID also tries to make other aspects of its operations more equal. It apportions part of the center’s budget through participatory budgeting, for example, a practice that gives students a greater say in shaping the organization.

Graduate students have ample formal occasions to present their work in its more mature stages, Pfeffer says, but because there are fewer opportunities to collaboratively discuss questions and problems that arise early in the research process, regular lab meetings are important. “Lab meetings have a totally different structure from an academic talk,” Pfeffer says. “Students are not trying to defend an argument or convince us of anything. It’s 10 minutes of just presenting a problem, and then 20 minutes of discussion to help them solve it.”

CID’s lab meetings have worked so well, in fact, that Pfeffer decided to expand them. Because everyone was working virtually, it was easy to broaden CID’s circle, beginning in the United States with inequality centers at Cornell, the City University of New York, and Duke in fall 2020, and then expanding to include European inequality centers in Amsterdam, Berlin, Florence, London, and Paris in winter 2021. “We eventually hope to create an even more global network, although time zones are making that a bit difficult,” Pfeffer says with a laugh.

These meetings bring several benefits: In a period without visiting scholars, conferences, or talks, they give students a way to enlarge their professional networks. But they also enable rigorous conversations about the process of academic work. “Ninety percent of research is about problems and questions you encounter on the path to the final answer,” Pfeffer says. “These meetings center on that research journey rather than the product. They provide a platform—an international platform even—to exchange ideas and hear different perspectives early on, when they matter most.”

Once people can meet again in person, CID intends to test additional meeting formats. Borrowing from the “studio model” used in art, design, and architectural schools, for example, it will run “charrettes” in which groups of scholars work simultaneously and highly interactively to tackle a particular problem.

CID may be willing to try different approaches, but its attention stays trained on issues tied to inequality—and to work on these issues, you need to have data. In collaboration with the Internal Revenue Service, a CID team has recently launched an innovative multi-year data project that will allow researchers to compare wealth and its intergenerational persistence across the entire United States. Having direct access to sensitive tax data will allow CID to distribute estimates of wealth and wealth mobility on national and regional scales—estimates that will help shape research and policymaking, and the public conversations about wealth and its relationship to inequalities in opportunity for the next generation.

CID’s cross-disciplinary approach to studying inequality reaches deep into the social sciences and humanities and across Ann Arbor to North Campus and U-M’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. CID’s physical space has been democratically designed through a partnership between members of CID and a team of graduate students led by Kathy Velikov, associate professor of architecture. With support from Rackham Graduate School, the group designed a space that literally broke down walls and replaced them with modular, movable structures that enable flexible training and collaboration spaces suited to different kinds of work. Besides equitably allocating office space, CID also tries to make other aspects of its operations more equal. It apportions part of the center’s budget through participatory budgeting, for example, a practice that gives students a greater say in shaping the organization.

Graduate students have ample formal occasions to present their work in its more mature stages, Pfeffer says, but because there are fewer opportunities to collaboratively discuss questions and problems that arise early in the research process, regular lab meetings are important. “Lab meetings have a totally different structure from an academic talk,” Pfeffer says. “Students are not trying to defend an argument or convince us of anything. It’s 10 minutes of just presenting a problem, and then 20 minutes of discussion to help them solve it.”

CID’s lab meetings have worked so well, in fact, that Pfeffer decided to expand them. Because everyone was working virtually, it was easy to broaden CID’s circle, beginning in the United States with inequality centers at Cornell, the City University of New York, and Duke in fall 2020, and then expanding to include European inequality centers in Amsterdam, Berlin, Florence, London, and Paris in winter 2021. “We eventually hope to create an even more global network, although time zones are making that a bit difficult,” Pfeffer says with a laugh.

These meetings bring several benefits: In a period without visiting scholars, conferences, or talks, they give students a way to enlarge their professional networks. But they also enable rigorous conversations about the process of academic work. “Ninety percent of research is about problems and questions you encounter on the path to the final answer,” Pfeffer says. “These meetings center on that research journey rather than the product. They provide a platform—an international platform even—to exchange ideas and hear different perspectives early on, when they matter most.”

Once people can meet again in person, CID intends to test additional meeting formats. Borrowing from the “studio model” used in art, design, and architectural schools, for example, it will run “charrettes” in which groups of scholars work simultaneously and highly interactively to tackle a particular problem.

CID may be willing to try different approaches, but its attention stays trained on issues tied to inequality—and to work on these issues, you need to have data. In collaboration with the Internal Revenue Service, a CID team has recently launched an innovative multi-year data project that will allow researchers to compare wealth and its intergenerational persistence across the entire United States. Having direct access to sensitive tax data will allow CID to distribute estimates of wealth and wealth mobility on national and regional scales—estimates that will help shape research and policymaking, and the public conversations about wealth and its relationship to inequalities in opportunity for the next generation.

 

 


 


 

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College has looked a lot different this year for first-year students like J.J., with many courses and activities meeting online. The LSA Annual Fund provides support for tuition, room, and board, as well as the technology and tools necessary to connect to classes and campus. Your support means LSA students won’t miss a beat.


 

 

 

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Release Date: 05/10/2021
Category: Students
Tags: LSA; Physics; Astronomy; LSA Magazine; Anna Megdell; NS - Natural Sciences; DEI; Becky Sehenuk Waite