Steven Durlauf, Professor and Director

More than 200 people squeezed into the Keller Center Forum as the Stone Center for Research on Wealth Inequality and Mobility hosted its inaugural Conversation on Inequality and Public Policy. 

As it’s done since its launch one year ago, the Stone Center didn’t tiptoe in. It used its platform to tackle the November evening’s topic of affirmative action with high-profile panelists and vibrant debate.

Onstage were Steven Durlauf, Steans Professor in Educational Policy at Harris and director of the Stone Center, who framed “an affirmative case for affirmative action”; Brown University Economics Professor Glenn Loury, who had a contrasting view; and Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, interim dean and Sydney Stein Professor at Harris, who moderated. 

The goal was to open minds and strive for more understanding about a complex issue – not simply to debate.

speakers at stone center event
Interim Dean Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, Professor Steven Durlauf, and Professor Glenn Loury

Taking such an approach to some of society’s biggest challenges is at the core of the Stone Center’s mission. With its multidisciplinary approach, the Center is homing in on the full range of individual, family, social, and political issues that cause contemporary inequalities, their consequences on how life turns out for Americans, and how these issues exacerbate immobility across generations.

Headed by Durlauf, the Center has two associate directors, Associate Professor Damon Jones of Harris and Associate Professor Geoffrey Wodtke of Sociology. The team also includes Executive Director Grace Hammond, whom the faculty leaders credit for much of the Center’s success.

damon jones
Damon Jones, Associate Professor and an Associate Director

The Center, with its wide-ranging footprint, is one of eight wealth inequality projects funded by the James M. and Cathleen D. Stone Foundation at institutions around the world, including Michigan, Harvard’s Kennedy School, and University College London.

Established in September 2022 with a $5 million gift, the UChicago Center formally launched two months later. Since then, the Center leadership has had an agenda packed with cutting-edge academic and pedagogical programs and pathbreaking research partnerships.

The Center’s far-reaching interdisciplinary approach, in particular, has generated a lot of excitement, Hammond said, noting that the Center is “going beyond the bounds of academia to bring big brains together on inequality and mobility from world-class universities, global think tanks, and development and regulatory banks.”

“For our Wealth Inequality Conference in September, for example, we had economists, economic historians, urban scientists, physicists, and psychologists, all tackling these problems from different angles, which is really exciting,” she said.

Different angles are also fueling innovation inside the Center with its trio of faculty leaders, Durlauf, Wodtke, and Jones. The Center builds on their scholarship to understand the origins and nature of contemporary inequalities.

Geoff Wodtke
Geoff Wodtke, Associate Professor of Sociology and an Associate Director of the Stone Center

Durlauf guides the Center’s agenda with research interests in wealth dynamics, intergenerational mobility, and systemic inequality. His latest research probes how parental income affects success, or the lack of it, for adolescents.

“That doesn’t mean early childhood investment isn’t important,” he said. “It means that the variation across families and early childhood income is not predicting things the same way it is for teenagers.”

Durlauf’s research integrates sociological ideas into economic analysis — something reflected in sociologist Wodtke’s role in the Center. Wodtke describes the Center’s approach as using research and public discourse “to craft a more complete picture of how factors including class, gender, race, and policy intertwine to shape opportunities and outcomes.”

Research that includes his work on the effects of poverty and child development, including looking at the degree to which class and racial disparities and school preparedness are due to differences in exposure to health hazards, including lead. And that includes Jones’s work on tax credits for low-income households in the United States and on racial economic inequality, including wealth inequality and mobility. 

Research is one aspect of the Center’s “exciting activity over the past year,” Jones said, a view echoed by Wodtke and Durlauf, who has said that he wants the Center “to be a champion of research.”

professors at event
Damon Jones, associate director and associate professor; Ariel Kalil professor; Melissa Kearney; Durlauf, director and professor; and Geoffrey Wodtke, associate director and associate professor of sociology

The Stones, Durlauf said, “should be applauded for being incredibly open-minded. While some Stone centers collaborate (like UChicago is with Michigan),” Durlauf said, “each center is independent, and each has been given a free hand.”

“I don't want to exaggerate differences,” he added, “but the Chicago Stone Center vision is distinct.”

That includes, he said, being more methodologically oriented, with an emphasis on developing the right statistical tools to measure income and wealth mobility.

The Center “is also oriented toward the full shape of income and wealth distribution,” as opposed to the upper tail, or the wealthiest people, he added. “And certainly, there's a lot of attention in the work that we are doing on the disadvantaged and on racial inequality.”

There has been much success. A snapshot of Center accomplishments in one short year includes:

  • A 30-member Board of Advisors and a 60-member consortium of Affiliates were instituted.
  • National and international conference series established with partners from renowned research-generating and policy-making bodies, including Federal Reserve Banks.
  • Training programs launched for early career scholars with the Summer Schools on Socioeconomic Opportunity and Inequality held with the China Center for Economic Research at Peking University and the Institute of Economic Research at Seoul National University.
  • Discourse fostered on the two-parent privilege with acclaimed author Melissa Kearney alongside Professors Durlauf, Jones, and Ariel Kalil.
  • Award, scholarship, and mentorship opportunities created for graduate and undergraduate students.
  • Topics explored on the “The Inequality Podcast” ranged from Racial Health Disparities to Disparities Women Encounter in the Workforce.
  • A planned special issue of the respected journal Sociological Methods & Research resulted from a collaboration with the University of Michigan's Stone Center for Inequality Dynamics and will feature groundbreaking papers on methods for measuring and understanding social mobility.
  • A collaboration with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago will culminate into a new Elsevier Handbook of Economics on Intergenerational Mobility to be edited by Durlauf and Stone Advisor Bhashkar Mazumder.
Director Steven Durlauf and Associate Directors Damon Jones and Geoff Wodtke with James and Cathleen Stone
Director Steven Durlauf and Associate Directors Damon Jones and Geoff Wodtke with James and Cathleen Stone

Adding another measure of diversity is the global perspective that filters into the Center's accomplishments. International scholars are among its Advisors and Affiliates, and events have been held in Beijing, Paris, and Seoul, with more destinations planned.

“The process of having conferences and summer schools in different countries creates connections with promising early career faculty and graduate students, and that creates lifetime intellectual collaborations,” Durlauf said.

“Such collaborations are coming at a time when questions about inequality and mobility are being asked more frequently,” Wodtke said, noting a surge of interest in and research on the topic.

“We have had some great programs that have attracted significant interest,” Jones said, adding that he’s looking forward to the Stone Center “firmly establishing itself as the center for research and discourse on inequality on campus here at UChicago.”

audience at event
Audience members listen to the Conversation on Inequality and Public Policy event.

The Center also has high hopes for its podcast series, which Wodkte said “takes academic research and boils it down to a more informal discussion that I think is interesting and accessible to pretty much anyone.”

“It's almost like a textbook,” Durlauf said of the Center’s podcast as well as the November Conversation on Inequality and Public Policy. “In other words, the recording of that conversation will have a set of arguments that people can go back and look at if they're thinking about affirmative action or other topics in inequality. Those types of things, I think, have a lot of value.”

Such value was evident as the conversation began. Bueno de Mesquita discussed how the Stone Center fostered “this idea that we can take evidence and analysis and sit together and talk civilly about even the most difficult of topics.”

“I’m not sure we came to agreement,” he said more than an hour later as the last question from the audience was answered and the standing-room-only crowd started to stir. “But I hope we came to a little more understanding.”

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