Methods: This project uses an iterative mixed-method approach to paint a vivid portrait of the conditions and social and physical environments of communities of deep disadvantage, and uncover contextual factors that may drive disparities. We constructed a unique, multi-dimensional “Index of Vulnerability” for counties and cities in the U.S, drawing on a broad range of census and administrative data in three inter-connected domains holding great salience to Americans: income, health, and social mobility. Through a principal component analysis weighing variables in these domains, we rank communities on a continuum of vulnerability. Starting last summer and through next year, graduate students from Princeton and the University of Michigan are embedding in six of the most vulnerable communities according to this index. They conduct interviews with community leaders as well as low-income residents using standardized qualitative protocols, and attend community meetings and events. Additionally, we visit each site extensively. The data are transcribed and coded using qualitative software, and externally validated with other data sources whenever possible.
Results: Five geographic clusters of deep disadvantage come into view: The Mississippi Delta, The Cotton Belt, Appalachia, the Texas/Mexico border, and a small cluster of rust belt cities (most notably Flint, Detroit, Gary, and Cleveland). Many Native Nations also score high on our index though are not clustered for historic reasons. The communities ranking highest on our index are overwhelmingly rural. One key theme among the places of deep disadvantage we have identified is a long history of racial and ethnic exploitation. When we compared our map to a historical map of the concentration of enslavement from the 1860 census, we find striking similarities. Among the 100 most disadvantaged places by our index, 21 include tribal lands. Much of the history of deep disadvantage in America is centuries old.
Implications: Through connecting directly with communities, we seek to help the nation gain a deeper understanding of vulnerability at the community level, and shape policy responses that might surprise us, and perhaps even span the boundaries of current political divides.