As a child, Kathryn Edin recalls riding in the car as her
mom drove around their rural Minnesota county, picking up
children to bring to Sunday school and youth group. Their
church had no money to hire a parish worker, but Edin’s
mom did the job anyway, extending assistance and support
to kids whose families were experiencing trouble, who were
involved in the juvenile justice system, who were in foster
care. “This was our social network,” Edin explains.
Poverty has always been salient for Edin, a sociology professor
at Princeton University and an Institute advisor who
has spent her 30-plus-year career as a
sociologist chronicling the experiences of
America’s poorest people and places. Her
research often involves analysis of large
datasets of economic variables and health
outcomes. But what comes across most
powerfully in Edin’s research are the stories
she tells about the people she meets.
“I don’t want to write about a place
or characterize a place without knowing
something about it,” Edin said. “It’s as
much the things you notice as the things
people say.” Edin integrates these perceptions
with large data, historical archives,
and immersive interviews to chronicle the
lives of Americans and the social forces
that shape them.
Throughout your career, you’ve driven to places you’ve
never been to and started talking to the people who
live there. What do you tell people about what you’re
doing? How do you know what questions to ask?
I think friendliness, respectfulness, and curiosity are the
keys. Curiosity always. I’ll drive around the county courthouse,
find a diner, and sit down. People ask, “Where are
you from? I see your license plate, it’s from Tennessee.”
I answer, “That’s the airport where I rented this car.” “So
what are you doing here?” “Well, I’m writing a book about
so-and-so. Could you tell me your story?” And suddenly
you’re sitting there two hours later having heard this
amazing story of someone’s life.
I recognize that I get to do this in part because I present
as a White, blonde, heterosexual, nonthreatening person. It
is a privilege to be able to do this kind of thing. Not everybody
would be safe doing that.
You are a principal investigator of the American Voices Project, whose mission is “to listen to people from
across the country to find out how they’re doing.”
What was the motivation for this project, and what are
your hopes for what you and others will be able to do
with the information that is collected?
In the early to mid-2000s, I think many of us social scientists
became worried that we were not really speaking
to the series of cascading crises of our times: the rise of
populism, the opioid epidemic, the historic decline in
fertility, the retreat of working-age males from the formal
economy. Social scientists have been late to the table in all
of these cases. Our monitoring systems—our surveys and
administrative data sources—they weren’t ideal for this
purpose. But ethnography really is.
The problem is that ethnography is usually underfunded,
if it’s funded at all. Our dream was, What if there
was an ethnographic corollary to the General Social Survey
or the Panel Study of Income Dynamics that would become a permanent part of the data infrastructure, a way to hear
the voices of a representative sample of Americans? This would,
hopefully, allow us to be able to detect signs of emerging crises.
So far, the American Voices Project has captured about 2,700
American voices through immersive interviews that last many
hours. We also have administrative data consent for about 80 percent
of the sample, meaning we can access government data such as
labor market participation, earnings, and benefit receipt for the participants,
so we can create a panel and follow them into the future.
Has your initial analysis identified any themes or crises that
social scientists should be talking about?
It’s still early. But one of the principal investigators, Corey Fields,
identified a sharp racial divide in how Black Lives Matter was being
interpreted. White Americans were treating the rise in calls to racial
justice as an exercise in building their own awareness, whereas
Black Americans had the view: Enough already, what are we going
to do? There was an impatience with the “awareness” project. In
some ways we can all point to ourselves and say, yeah, maybe we
were doing more navel-gazing than planning how we could actually
address racial injustice in a meaningful way.
A second theme that has emerged is a social withdrawal
across a broad swath of Americans. Across any number of
American subgroups, the sense of withdrawal from institutions
is quite notable in the data. This is different than people
feeling “the government doesn’t work for me” or feeling
a sense of inter-group competition, what we might call “sour
grapes” that other groups are getting ahead. This is much more
pervasive in society, and it’s really a self-isolation—people
withdrawing from all social institutions.
One institution that has seen important shifts over the last
50 or 60 years is the family. For instance, there’s been an
increase in the number of children born to parents who are
not married, particularly in lower-income communities. For
a long time, conventional wisdom said that many fathers
are intentionally absent, fleeing as soon as they find
out there’s a baby on the way. That’s not what you find,
however. How do these men see their role as fathers?
We have a lot of data from both surveys and the extensive ethnographic
work we’ve done in multiple cities using very large
samples that children have become a key source of meaning
and identity for men. Parenthood is part of masculinity in a
way that the evidence shows it wasn’t in prior generations.
Previously, a lot of fathers saw the mother-father bond as
essential and they were connected to their children and their
responsibilities as fathers through
the mothers. But men, and maybe
even especially less-advantaged men,
don’t think that way anymore. Many
see that father-child bond as the
essential bond and the mother-father
bond as less important. So fatherhood
has become more important to some
men just at the time when fewer of
them are living stably with their children,
which creates real dilemmas.
Edin teaches sociology classes at Princeton that investigate the causes and consequences of poverty in America.Trustees of Princeton
What we saw in our ethnographic
work was men who were actively fathering, but they weren’t
fathering all of their children. They were investing in children
for whom the transaction costs were lower. Having to go
through a tough and contentious relationship with the mom
to get access to their children raises those costs.
These men are often fathering “social” children as well, the
biological children of other fathers who might be incarcerated,
or out of contact, or in contact but not living in the house. Our
ethnography finds this is a tremendously meaningful relationship
both to men and to kids. But, many fathers were simultaneously
not involved with some of their biological kids. So it
isn’t as if you can divide the fathers into the demons and the
angels. People are both.
America’s impoverished places
You’ve written about what life is like for America’s poorest
families. In your ninth book, published in August, you
turn your attention to America’s poorest places. Why is it
important to study impoverished places in addition to the
people who live there?
In 1987, the year I started graduate school, the landmark book
The Truly Disadvantaged by William Julius Wilson was published.
This book was monumental in that it argued something
simple that really changed social science research in America—and, eventually, policy. It said, if you were a poor kid, it
was worse to grow up in a poor community than a mixed-income
community—that where you grew up mattered, that
outcomes weren’t only the result of family income.
At the same time, there was a growing body of research into
the social determinants of health, which shows how poverty
and place get under your skin and manifest themselves in deleterious
health outcomes. Together, these ideas were pointing to
the fact that to understand any number of economic outcomes,
it might well be the case that the place you grew up or the place
you were living was as consequential as your genes or the quality
of health care you received or even your own behavior.
By the time my co-authors and I started to study place, it
wasn’t new, but almost all the research on place was happening
at the neighborhood level and not at the community level—
that of a city or county. If you study neighborhoods, you never end up studying rural America, which is about 70 to 80
percent of the land mass of the United States. Inadvertently, I
returned to my rural roots just by allowing rural America back
in to the study of place.
Your first task in this project is to identify where America’s
most deeply disadvantaged places are. That means coming
up with a concept of an impoverished place that you can
measure across the entire United States. How do you
When we measure poverty, what we’re really trying to measure
is well-being. We wanted to include income because it
tracks very closely with all measures of material hardship. For the book, we chose the percentage living below the federal
poverty line and the percentage living below half the federal
poverty line—the very poor.
But we also wanted to bring in direct measures of well-being.
Income measures are cyclical—they rise and fall with the
economy. Health measures, in contrast, are cumulative. Just
because the unemployment rate goes down doesn’t mean that
a lifetime of living under harsh conditions is going to go away.
These are the things that get under your skin. So we included
the percentage of infants with low birth weight and average
life expectancy in each place.
And then there is the structure of opportunity in a place,
which we captured with the likelihood that a low-income
child in each place will enter the middle class in adulthood.
When you map your index of deep disadvantage for
the roughly 3,600 counties and cities in the United
States, what patterns do you see? Where are the most
disadvantaged areas located?
“I have to say, this was a total surprise
because we were expecting urban areas
to be among the most disadvantaged.
Instead, we see four huge concentrations
of disadvantage that are largely rural.”
I have to say, this was a total surprise because we were expecting
urban areas to be among the most disadvantaged. Instead,
we see four huge concentrations of disadvantage that are
largely rural. The largest is the historic Cotton Belt, with 60
of the top 100 most disadvantaged places. These are the very
counties that had the highest rate of enslavement in the rural
South. That’s followed by the historic Tobacco Belt, which
runs through Virginia down into the Carolinas. The third area
is central Appalachia, which is western West Virginia and
eastern Kentucky. That’s the bituminous coal region, which
was especially exploitative. Finally, there’s South Texas, which
is home to huge underground aquifers. That plus the mild
weather, at least prior to climate change, led to the largest production
of irrigated vegetables in the nation.
You describe these places of deepest disadvantage as
“America’s internal colonies.” That word choice is powerful,
suggesting a system of power and subjugation. When
you look at the history of the most deeply disadvantaged
places, in what ways do they resemble colonies?
First, the economies are all dominated by a sole commodity,
which pushed out any kind of economic diversification. Second,
the expectation of the land-owning class was to build great
wealth on the backs of subjugated, cheap labor. In contrast, in
the upper Midwest, you’ll see many farms, most of them homesteads,
most about the same size, with similar-size houses.
Farming was hard, but people made a fine living—they got by.
In contrast, in the internal colonies, the vast majority of
those doing the labor had very little power. Until the 1960s,
in practice most laborers lacked voting rights. The mine owner
told you how to vote in Appalachia. In South Texas, there
were White primaries and poll taxes that kept Hispanics
away from the polls. And of course, these tactics and others
were used in the historic Tobacco and Cotton Belts to keep
Black Americans from voting. So there was an extreme denial
of citizenship in these places.
The result is a very distinctive class structure: a small cadre
of the haves, virtually no middle class, and then a large mass
of landless laborers who had very few rights and experienced
incredibly harsh labor and living conditions.
Was this a matter of more greed in certain times and
places? Why did the economies evolve so differently in
these internal colonies?
“The day our dean of research at Princeton said we could return to doing in-person research [in 2021],” Edin said, “we jumped in the car and did a 14-state road trip to 150 of the top 200 most disadvantaged places.” That included Pearsall, Texas, which claims to be peanut capital of the world.Photo courtesy of Kathryn Edin
Well, there’s a very different logic between extraction and investment.
I grew up in a farming community, and while my family
didn’t farm, my grandparents did and most of our neighbors did.
You invest in the soil, you rotate your crops, you hope to pass
your farm on to future generations. So you invest in and care for
your asset. Extraction is different—it’s really about taking the
money and running. And if you look at cotton, for example, people
were moving westward, literally destroying the soil as they
went. This didn’t have to happen. In fact, you can grow cotton
just as profitably as a small-scale venture, much like the family
farms in the upper Midwest. But it didn’t play out that way.
Even now, we argue, there are new forms of extraction
occurring in these areas. In South Texas, for example, fracking
is everywhere, and it’s draining the very aquifers that are necessary
to sustain agriculture. It is
draining the future of the place.
We also make the claim that
in central Appalachia, where
the opioid crisis has been at its
worst, the economy has become
captured by a new commodity:
the commodity of pain. A whole
slew of secondary industries has
sprung up, particularly pharmacies
and health clinics, which one
could argue are extracting the
very health of the people. For example, in Manchester, a tiny
little town in eastern Kentucky with around 1,500 people, there
are 13 pharmacies. Now, why do you need 13 pharmacies?
That’s extractive rather than investment logic.
Drug use appears to be both a cause and a consequence
of deep disadvantage.
This was a theme that bubbled up inductively from our
respondents. We chose to visit Clay County not because it was
the epicenter of the opioid epidemic—we didn’t even know that—but because of its place in our index of deep disadvantage.
And when we went there, that’s what everyone wanted
to talk about. People kept saying over and over that the reason
people were dying from overdoses is that, “There’s nothing to
do here but drugs.”
“In these communities of deepest
disadvantage, there has been a collapse of
social infrastructure. The bowling alley,
the beauty salon, the roller rink, the
playground … have faded away, collapsed.”
At first, our reaction was skeptical—I didn’t believe it could
be true. But we took the claim seriously, and it turns out that in
these communities of deepest disadvantage, there has been a
collapse of social infrastructure. The bowling alley, the beauty
salon, the roller rink, the playground—they get plowed under
by the powers that be to expand the width of the highway—
more and more of the community institutions have faded
Existing data on the loss of these institutions over time are
flawed. But if you measure the loss of these institutions over
time—what the sociologist Eric Klinenberg calls “social infrastructure”—
that decline is as strong a predictor of deaths due
to overdose as other, more obvious factors, such as changes in
the unemployment rate.
Helping even one person
How do you stay hopeful when your research confronts
some of the worst failings of our country?
In the time that I’ve spent in the rural South among African
Americans and Mexican American families, people living in
deep disadvantage and poverty, there’s an attitude of gratitude.
Students will sometimes say to me, “Well, I learned
about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and I don’t understand
how the people you talk to can have all the feelings you say
they have because their basic needs aren’t being met.”
And I say, “Well, I have found people have the same hopes
and dreams and aspirations as everybody else.” Here’s a telling
story. At the end of my research for $2 a Day: The Art of Living on Virtually Nothing in America, which was a tough,
tough book, I went back to each respondent at the end of
our interaction and I asked, “What was it like participating in
this study?” These are the poorest people in America. And to
a person, they said something like this: “If my suffering can
help even one person, it will have been worth it.” That holds