USC Price School of Public Policy

Social Policy

Critical Research Questions and Findings

A bright future for any society hinges on people having real opportunities to live successful, productive, and healthy lives. Effective social policy creates conditions that help enhance human welfare across all groups. As the USC Price School’s mission is to improve the quality of life for people and communities, our research pays particular attention to the needs of the most vulnerable among us.

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Can income inequality be fixed?

Professor Richard K. Green’s research indicates we need to reverse the decline in unionization and carefully raise minimum wages. While $15 might be too big a jump, the minimum wage is so low that pushing it up a couple of dollars will not have a major impact on employment, but will make a lot of people better off than they currently are. The trick, he notes, is to find the optimal number. Unions also have an important part to play, but they need to focus on work conditions and pay and not inhibit employers’ flexibility. Green sees unions in Germany and Japan as a model.

Are place-based initiatives helping alleviate poverty?

Place-based initiatives aim at attacking poverty on a manageable scale by infusing resources and energies into specific low-income neighborhoods. Professor James M. Ferris — director of the USC Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy — observed that, over the past five decades, many such efforts have succeeded, while others have brought only temporary benefits. He found that neighborhood poverty cannot be addressed in isolation because neighborhoods are parts of larger geographies, are impacted by wider market forces, and are influenced by broader systems and policies.

Why is inequality a bigger problem in some cities than others?

Professor Richard K. Green — senior adviser to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — examines not just inequality but also its sources. He found that places with better-educated people tend to be more unequal than cities with a less-educated populace. He also found that racial segregation leads to more inequality. In addition, Green has documented something that many have long believed but had never before been proven: As unemployment rises, so does inequality.

Can our aging population be a driver of economic growth and help secure the future of Social Security?

Assistant Professor Julie Zissimopoulos found that an aging America brings social and economic capital. Older Americans contribute both to economic growth and to the financial stability of Social Security by participating in the labor force and also through their non-market productive activities, such as caregiving for the old and young. They also provide financial support to their young adult children, helping them attain a college education and purchase homes. These transfers and non-market activities are valued in the hundreds of billions of dollars. The impact of our aging population on future standards of living will depend in large part on how long people choose to remain in the workforce before they retire. Forces such as changes in the structure of employer-provided pensions and changes in Social Security early entitlement and full retirement ages are likely to further propel increases in labor force participation among older Americans.

How do criminal convictions affect family unification for those depending on public housing?

Under Professor Raphael Bostic’s guidance, a graduate student is investigating the ramifications of federal policies forbidding those with a criminal conviction from living with their family if the family receives housing assistance. This results in a lot of broken families and also leaves the formerly incarcerated with nowhere to go, increasing the likelihood of criminal recidivism.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of China’s governing system?

According to research conducted by Professor Shui Yan Tang, China has been very successful in growing its economy over the past three decades, but less so in dealing with issues such as social conflicts, product safety, social inequality, corruption, and inadequate social services. He notes that wider accountability on the part of China’s leaders is key to solving the nation’s problems.

What roles can trade associations play in legitimizing entrepreneurial movements?

Assistant Professor Nicole Esparza examined the emerging gourmet food truck industry to see how local trade associations help reduce uncertainty and augment industry legitimacy by uniting vendors and working with local governments to change antiquated policies restricting entrepreneurship. Her findings show that trade associations, although often overlooked as important nonprofit organizations, are key players in the legitimation of creative new industries.

What does growing population diversity mean for achieving racial equity?

Professor Dowell Myers has published a “mutual benefits” strategy for achieving greater equity. Even though minorities will become the majority of children this decade, they will not be the majority of voters until 2060. Greater equity is required today to close disparities and help the diverse younger generation become its very best.

What is the effect of segregation on exposure to crime and educational access?

Assistant Professor Jorge De la Roca and his colleagues found that, in more segregated cities, Hispanics and African-Americans who continued to live among more disadvantaged neighbors were exposed to higher levels of crime and had access to lower performing elementary schools. Using individual-level data from the census, the researchers also found that the negative consequences of segregation on Hispanics appeared to be of the same order of magnitude as for African-Americans.

How important are immigrants to this nation’s economic future?

Professor Dowell Myers and his cohorts found that, without immigration, the U.S. would be unable to replace the number of workers expected to retire between 2010 and 2030. Their projections indicate that 51.3 million native-born workers are likely to enter the workforce during this period — 7.3 million short of the total number who will be exiting. Immigrant workers are needed not only for these vacancies but also to provide workers required by added economic growth in the future.

How significant are immigrant entrepreneurs to the U.S. economy?

Using microdata from the Decennial Census of Population and Housing, Professor Gary Painter and his co-researcher found immigrants are consistently more likely than those born in the U.S. to establish incorporated businesses. Further, they are more likely to be high-tech entrepreneurs than those born in the U.S.

How can cities accommodate diverse populations in ways that are economically and socially inclusive?

While population diversity in urban areas can bring about cultural innovation, it also carries great potential for conflict. To serve today’s reality, city codes and plans must be brought up to date to meet shifting needs in terms of housing, commerce, transportation, and other sectors. Associate Professor Annette Kim, director of USC Price’s Spatial Analysis Lab, uses a unique mapping approach to focus the attention of civic leaders on the needs of underserved people and the potential of overlooked spaces.

How do we improve our methods for understanding youth fear in gang neighborhoods?

A critical policy question is where youth feel safe and afraid in their neighborhoods, especially in areas with long-standing youth street gangs. Developing methods to improve our understanding of this issue is crucial. In a paper awarded the Michael Breheny Prize for innovation, Professor David Sloane and colleagues developed a new Geographical Information Systems (GIS) methodological approach that helped determine how youth felt about the places around them. GIS brings an analytical and data-rich component to the study of urban emotional perceptions, with a result that has broader applications in participatory mapping.

What role do state and local governments play in immigration policy?

Professor Roberto Suro, director of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at USC Price and founder of the Pew Hispanic Center, sees a patchwork of policies operating at all levels of government. A lack of uniform policy at the national level has resulted in some state and local initiatives that defy federal policies, while others have been encouraged by Washington. At times, civil society activism has swung the pendulum of immigration policy reform back and forth between state and federal government. As the impact of immigration is experienced differently among ideologically diverse regions across the country, policy implementation at the state and local level will likely continue to dictate the nature of U.S. immigration policy. Policy analysis stemming from this research was published in the New York Times as an op-ed titled, “Think of undocumented immigrants as parents, not problems.”

How is the demographic composition of the U.S. Hispanic population changing?

Immigration expert Professor Roberto Suro, director of the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute at USC Price and founder of the Pew Hispanic Center, has studied the changing patterns in Hispanic population growth throughout the U.S. for several decades. His research indicates a fundamental change underway in that demographic. While foreign-born Latinos have long accounted for the largest source of Hispanic population growth, that is rapidly changing as U.S.-born Hispanics will soon emerge as the largest component of that population.


Annette Kim

“USC Price is really publicly minded, putting our strong empirical research to work influencing policy in everything from immigration and transportation to housing and urbanization.”

Annette Kim
Associate Professor

Price School Impact

With strong expertise in labor, immigration, aging populations, race and diversity, social justice, and demographic research, Price School faculty are at the forefront of some of the most compelling and applicable social policy research being conducted today. From improving healthcare access in underserved areas to reversing income inequality, from education disparities to housing discrimination, and from alleviating poverty to exploring the equity impacts of environmental policy, Price faculty provide thought leadership and novel solutions to entrenched social imbalances.

As cities provide the most intense reflection of social challenges faced around the world, Price research emphasizes metropolitan areas and populations. We seek to generate innovative solutions that enhance the environment, economic vitality, and social equity of cities globally.