What are the social issues that we’ll be talking about in five years?

I took a highly unscientific survey of social scientists I know, asking them what they’re working on. I asked them because they tend to hone in on topics far before the media picks up on them.

Here’s what they said:

    • Inequality: One team is tracking 40 years of private school enrollments to see what role family income inequality plays in education disparities.


    • Jobs: Others are thinking about how to make community college more productive for low-income students, and oriented toward a credential that employers actually value. “Tens of billions of Pell dollars are wasted without results to show for it. We need a Race to the Top for states that make their community colleges more accountable, based on education and employment outcomes. We also need to make Pell grants easier to spend on short-term certificate programs that are tied to job demands, and on programs like apprenticeships.”


    • Others are looking at the intertwining worlds of the prison industrial complex and concentrated poverty. Relocating to a new neighborhood or city after release provides a fresh start for many parolled prisoners, but lack of income, housing discrimination, and even parole policies make it extremely difficult for ex-prisoners to move away from their old neighborhood.


    • Others are looking at a new twist on gentrification—the suburbanization of poverty, and now the suburbanization of ex-offenders. Because of the high costs of residing in urban areas, tight rental markets, and housing discrimination, ex-prisoners are increasingly residing in the suburbs. A decade ago, about 50% of prisoners leaving the Illinois Department of Corrections returned to a Chicago neighborhood. Now, about 38% do, with more living in lower-income suburbs. Given that social services for returning prisoners (e.g., mental health, job training, drug treatment) tend to be located in cities, it may become harder for ex-prisoners to turn their lives around.


    • And a twist on the immigration debate. Will punitive immigration policies and practices make it less likely that immigrants will rely on the police? Seems so. They are less likely to report crimes to the police, which makes it harder for the police to do their jobs.


    • Even more novel, an approach to health and longevity that moves away from the “disease model” and treatment to altering our biologies to let us lead longer and healthier lives. Simply put, “the choice would come down to the two extremes: (1) the current health-care approach, with most individuals enjoying a relatively long life span but reduced health span and increased, ballooning health-care costs; or (2) the biology-of-aging-based health-span extension, which, if successfully translated to humans, would provide increased health span at a fraction of today’s health-care cost, with a vigorous and engaged older adult population and even a potentially productive older workforce.” Whoa.


    • And once we’re living those longer, more productive lives, others are looking at what we might do with all that time. How might we tap the productivity of those over age 60 to benefit society?


    • And how might we tap the same among those under age 30? Another group is looking at children’s and adolescents’ understanding of and sense of responsibility for the “environmental commons” – an expansive term that refers to the natural resources on which life depends and the public spaces where people act, discuss, and decide how to defend the commons they share with fellow community members.  They’re asking, can an eco-justice model develop kids’ motivation and capacities for collective action? They’ve been collecting data on kids in Michigan (predominantly from low-income and ethnic minority communities) working to preserve their environmental commons (e.g., river stream mitigation, retrofitting of houses for energy savings, etc.).


    • Speaking of health care costs, some are looking deeply at the social determinants of health. Hospitals are looking beyond their in-house mission to cure disease to preventing it (and thus lowering costs). But beyond the calls to lose weight and quit smoking, they’re looking at how our communities contribute to our well-being and health, whether that’s access to parks, clean air,  housing that is both affordable and safe, or access to good jobs.


All fascinating ideas, and so critical as we enter this new era of rising inequality amid a country that is rapidly diversifying and changing. Expect to be reading about these innovations… in about five years.

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