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Reflections on Race and Class in America

Thu, February 16, 2017 6:00 PM | Nick Hart (Administrator)

On January 30th, I was honored to participate in a Dialogue on Race and Class in America, co-sponsored by Washington Evaluators, the American Evaluation Association, and the Trachtenberg School at George Washington University.  Issues of inequities in race and class have continued to reflect "wicked problems" in our society and in the evaluation profession.  The conversation we started last month was just an opening to the dialogue among evaluators.  The first step is acknowledging the challenge, the second is beginning to identify solutions for continued progress to address the challenge in our own work.

While the full panel discussion on January 30th was more than 90 minutes in length, I want to draw your attention to several key points from my own remarks that are especially salient for Washington Evaluators.

The Social Mobility Challenge

Social mobility in America today is simply not equitable.  This point is often taken for granted, and therefore must be explicitly acknowledged:  we know that today opportunities are not equal for everyone in this country, even if they should be.  When we stratify groups of individuals by race, ethnicity, gender, or economic status, not all are on an equal playing field, often by no fault of their own.  This is our current reality. 

The challenges have been documented in a growing body of literature and analysis.  For example, Isabell Sawhill at the Brookings Institution cites that about two-thirds of white individuals in poverty move to the middle class by middle age, but less than one-third of black individuals do the same.  Raj Chetty's recent work suggests that children today are increasingly unlikely to earn more than their parents, and this trend is amplified for minority children. 

Many communities, businesses, and non-profits across the country are committed to helping Americans realize opportunities by supporting mentoring programs or training for specific skills, to ultimately help individuals reach the workforce.  We've seen this as a consistent message from our political leaders – that transcends political parties and philosophies:  regardless of your race, gender, or upbringing, we all have a right to succeed.

The Obama Administration spearheaded an initiative that was specifically aimed at targeting disparities where they existed.  Through the creation of the My Brother's Keeper Task Force, Federal agencies and communities across the country focused attention on creating opportunities for young people to reach their full potential.  President Obama described it as one way to reinforce the core value of community.

So however we perceive the social mobility disparities that exist today, there is broad agreement that (1) the disparities are real and (2) social immobility is not a reflection of our shared values.

Addressing the Inequities of Social Mobility with Evaluation

So what can be done to address the challenge?  Three actions of particular importance come to mind that evaluators can begin to take today:  consider context, assess disparities, and communicate race and class dynamics to evaluation users.

First, context matters.  Always.  Lee Cronbach made this appeal to the evaluation community in his evaluation theses in 1984.  This is very much the case for issues related to race and class.  Evaluation of policies and programs must appropriately address the context in which they operate. 

In real estate we say "location, location, location."  Place matters in determining access to opportunity and services.  Recent re-analysis of the Moving to Opportunity demonstration project suggests that for every extra year a child avoids a low-poverty environment, that child benefits, as measured through increases in lifetime earnings.  Other recent work by Raj Chetty et al. identified substantial disparities in life expectancy based on geography; this has serious implications for race and class.

If context matters, then evaluators must be able to consider the implications of these aspects on their own perspectives evaluating projects.  In practice, this might mean that at the outset of an evaluation, an evaluator needs to develop a deeper understanding of a community or social group to effectively and fairly carry out an evaluation.  In order to be culturally sensitive, an evaluator may need to tap into networks of other evaluators or colleagues who can assist in understanding community values and group perspectives.  Washington Evaluators provides a vital network that can help fill this gap while strengthening our entire evaluation community, and other AEA affiliates around the country are positioned to do the same.

Second, evaluation of disparities is essential.  Because there are persistent challenges in realizing social mobility opportunities, we need continuous attention to current policies and programs to ensure they target real barriers.  Evaluators can offer an important contribution to address injustice, simply by providing analysis that identifies the disparities. 

We can all recognize and generally agree that generating valid, reliable, and relevant evidence about how programs work, when they work, and for whom is absolutely critical.  For addressing social mobility inequities, we must strive to understand the whom through the completion of sub-group analyses when possible, whether by race, class, gender, or some other attribute relevant to the purpose of an evaluation and the needs of the audience. 

Finally, race and class dynamics should be communicated to evaluation clients and users.  Evaluators cannot force decision-makers and funders to consider race and class in their actions, but we can encourage them to give these issues appropriate attention by including these important considerations in our evaluations and analyses.  At a minimum, drawing attention to disparities helps bring issues to light for broader accountability in communities participating in programs and policies of interest. 

Will the evaluation profession single-handedly address all the injustices in our society? Of course not.  But we can begin to take steps that move us in a positive direction.  First, we must recognize social mobility is inequitable.  Then, we can apply our expertise and draw attention to the real problems that exist.  This seemingly minor contribution will help us all design better programs and policies that provide everyone with the opportunity to succeed, including those who face the greatest inequities.  


NICK HART, PH.D. is the President of Washington Evaluators in 2017.  The views presented here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the U.S. Government.

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