Princeton sociologist Kathryn Edin has spent her career studying America’s poorest people in cities across the country. When she received an invitation to focus on America’s poorest places, she thought she’d know what to expect. But when she and two co-researchers used big data to create the Index of Deep Disadvantage — a map of the poorest places in the U.S. — they were stunned.
The map revealed that the most disadvantaged places are mostly rural, centered in three pockets: Appalachia, the Cotton and Tobacco Belts of the Deep South, and South Texas. Cities including Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami didn’t rank even among the 600 most disadvantaged places in the nation. Edin and her collaborators, H. Luke Shaefer at the University of Michigan and Tim Nelson at Princeton, realized that big data wasn’t enough; they would have to road-test the Index — literally.
Here, Edin recounts what they discovered by getting in their car and embedding themselves in communities across 14 states and their groundbreaking new book, “The Injustice of Place: Uncovering the Legacy of Poverty in America” (Mariner Books).
What does place tell us about poverty that readers might not have thought about?
The place where you grew up is as consequential for your life outcomes as your behavior, your genes and the quality of healthcare that you receive.
Sociology is the study of context — the contextual explanations for human behavior. Studying a place — a whole community such as a town, city or county — gives you this very rich picture of context, which has huge impacts on individual outcomes.
Tell us about the Index of Deep Disadvantage.
Poverty has traditionally been measured by income. But we wanted to capture something more fundamental: well-being. Poverty isn't just a point in time. Poverty gets under your skin. Poverty leads to deleterious health outcomes of all sorts. And so experiencing poverty over a lifetime can be captured with health measures really well.
To build the Index, we combined income- and health-based indicators: poverty; deep poverty — that means living on less than half the poverty level; life expectancy; intergenerational mobility; and low birth weight, which is a huge predictor of the child's future health outcomes. We gave each of the 500 largest cities and all 3,200 counties in the U.S. a composite score and put them on the map.
You have studied poverty your whole career. What drew you to this focus?
I'm from Staples, a small town of 2,000 people in northern Minnesota. Small town people, we have something I call country manners. You have to be willing to sit down and visit with somebody. My mom did parish work at our little church. I was in the van when she went calling on families living on tiny farms and trailers all over the county. If there was a kid in trouble, we were at the juvenile detention center visiting. If there was a kid who didn't have a dress for the prom, we were at the department store.
This sunk in. At North Park College in Chicago as an undergrad, I did an internship in the Cabrini-Green housing project. Many residents were from Mississippi. We just bonded, country manners. I continued studying 25 families at Cabrini-Green for my dissertation, then expanded it into my first book (with Laura Lein) “Making Ends Meet,” about low-income single mothers making ends meet.
History comes alive on practically every page of the book. How did the need for historical research surface?
When we created the Index, we saw these amazing regional patterns. The communities that gave President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty its face 60 years ago were the same communities with the highest scores on the Index. Many of the places that produced the greatest American wealth were also the places of deepest impoverishment, tracking back generations.
We started this project in 2019 and had even sent some graduate students out into these communities to embed, but when the pandemic hit, everyone went home and hit the history books.
When Tim (my husband) and I were in lockdown in our house in Trenton, the Princeton University Library became our best friend. You can’t imagine the stuff those librarians were able to get for us: stacks and stacks of original source material, for example, WPA field guides for each of these communities, like Marion, South Carolina, or Crystal City, Texas, written from 1939-43. And dissertations, some dating from the early 1900s, that revealed patterns of corruption and exploitation in these same communities highest on our Index.
If you're going to study the power of place, you need to know its history. When my father read the book, he said, “I thought I knew history. But I did not.”
You describe these regions as “internal colonies.” What does that mean?
We found that for each place, the economy was organized around a single commodity. Each was the “capital” of something: Clay County, Kentucky, was once the salt capital of the Northeastern United States, succeeded by timber and then coal. South Texas at one time produced 80% of the nation's spinach and most of its Bermuda onions. Marion County, South Carolina, led the region in the production of the Brightleaf strain of tobacco, so smooth it led to the widespread adoption of the cigarette. Leflore County, Mississippi, even after the Civil War, was the cotton capital of the world.
One single commodity, or in some places just one factory, sucked up all the air. There was no other industry or competition for labor. All these places had a very small cadre of "haves" and a huge laboring class of "have-nots." All have a history of wholesale extraction of the land or human exploitation — or both — and corruption that continues into the present.
In summer 2021, you and Tim took a 14-state road trip to visit as many of the most disadvantaged places as possible. Could you describe one place that exemplifies how a deep disadvantage of the past is being replicated in the present?
When we got to Clay County, Kentucky, we began reading the local newspaper; we couldn’t believe how corrupt this little place was. And then we began to read histories of Clay County and learned this has been going on since the 1820s. The politicians who had recently been locked up for collaborating with the drug dealers when we were there in 2021 were direct descendants of those who made their fortunes in the salt works in the 1820s through the Civil War, timber, and then coal.
When we began our field work in Manchester, the county seat, the population was 1,800 people but had 13 pharmacies. The whole economy had become organized around pain. Clay and its neighboring counties have seen some of the highest opioid prescribing rates in the nation. We learned that one politician after another in the early 2000s got put away for corruption, including collaborating with the drug dealers. But some local family practitioners and pharmacists were also apparently turning a blind eye. These local elites were exploiting, or extracting, value — the health and wellbeing — from the very bodies of their most vulnerable residents just as they had extracted salt and coal.
How did you get people to talk to you, and what’s something you learned on the ground that you could never extract from big data alone?
Well, country manners is part of it. But you also have to find a way to weave in, volunteering, helping with Spring Cleanup Day, going to community events. This builds on my colleague Matt Desmond’s idea of relational ethnography. When you go to a place, don't just talk to your target population, say, single moms. Talk to everybody. To really understand how a place works, you have to look at the relationships. We talked to mayors, teachers, health commissioners, fast food workers, people really living on the margins — under bridges, up the road in the hollers, people who’d lost their children to child welfare.
In Manchester, a woman named Sweet Pea who would come to God's Closet, a homeless shelter and multiservice center run by Manchester Baptist Church, told us, "The reason people are on drugs is because there's nothing to do around here." This happened over and over. People would say, "We used to have a movie theater, it's gone. We used to have a bowling alley, it closed down. The roller rink, gone. Nothing to do but drugs.” We heard about beauty shops, barbershops, all closed.
We learned that as the mono-economies of these communities collapsed, the social infrastructure also collapsed. When we pulled into Selma, Alabama, on our tour of America’s most disadvantaged places, we went to a restaurant called the Tally-Ho. This young man serving us was fascinated by our research and asked, "Are you coming back to Selma?" We said, "We'd like to." He said, "If you do, you have to bring something back for our city." “What would that be?" we asked. He thought a moment and said, "A bowling alley. There's nothing for young people to do." Literally the same words, four states away. Big data doesn’t tell those stories.
In summer 2022, you took a second road trip to the other end of the Index — America’s most advantaged places. What did you learn about the characteristics a place needs for people to thrive?
We thought America’s most advantaged places would surface in cities like New York, Boston, San Jose. But we were wrong. The most advantaged places are in parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
On our first road trip to America’s most disadvantaged places, we saw splendor and squalor in every place we visited. Mansions on one side of town, shacks on the other. But on our second road trip, this time to the Upper Midwest, the dwellings are all pretty modest, the farms all about the same size.
Of course, these farms originated via the Homestead Act, a very different history with land ownership widespread. Here, there is a middle class, and a poor kid has pretty much an even chance of making it into the middle class. Mostly, the kids go to the same schools. And these states have invested a lot historically in education. But we saw diverse economies — not just farms, but also small industry. Here, people produce a lot of super healthy babies, they live till old age.
At the end of the book, you offer six principles for action from raising teacher pay to investing in social infrastructure to rooting out corruption. If you were to bring one person — one changemaker you met who embodies one of those principles — to Capitol Hill to talk to policymakers, who would it be?
I would bring Ernest and Debra Adams, the couple who run the community center in Greenwood, Mississippi. Ernest grew up in Greenwood, where the Baldwin Piano factory was. Losing that factory was a psychic and economic wound on the population.
Ernest and Debra became very successful business people in Atlanta. But Ernest had always felt this call to return home, to give back. One day he heard that a community center associated with the Catholic church in South Greenwood — one that had played a key role in the Civil Rights movement — was for sale. Ernest and Debra bought it and revived a key piece of social infrastructure, one that really brought that community together, with regular programming during the summer and after school for children of all ages, plus sponsoring community-wide events.
I think the new leadership in these places are often hometown kids who go away, make it, and then return with a motive to give back. One thing I think we discount as scholars is how powerful the call to home often is.