Close That Gap: A Foundation Zeroes In On Inequality and Kids

Once in a while, research on an issue is so galvanizing that it can entirely shift how we think about a crucial problem. The recent publication of Robert Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis is just the latest indicator that research on kids and inequality may be poised to break out and help fuel changes in public policy. 

Putnam is one of many researchers now grappling with equality of opportunity among America's children, and quite a few of these scholars are getting support from the William T. Grant Foundation, which lately has been zeroing in on kids and inequality. We recently talked with the foundation's president, Adam Gamoran, to learn more. 

The William T. Grant Foundation has been around since 1936, the outgrowth of the department store magnate who brought us the W.T. Grant Stores. The foundation has always concerned itself with research, persistently asking difficult questions and using evidence-based research to find new answers that inform social policy and practices.

William T. Grant funds research to help society develop in ways that enable more young people to reach their full potential. It had assets of over $324 million and total giving for 2013 at $9.8 million. Over the years, it has supported a long list of breakthrough researchers including George Vaillant and the Grant Study of Adult Development at Harvard, one of the first major longitudinal (75 years!) studies of adult development, as well as Dr. Benjamin Spock in the 1950s, and Jane Goodall in the 1970s, to name just a few. These folks all impacted theory and practice in paradigm-shifting ways with their research. That's what William T. Grant is all about.

Adam Gamoran came to the foundation in 2013. His background and specialty is, not surprisingly, inequality-related. Formerly a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Gamoran is a renowned scholar of educational inequality and recipient of the 2013 Spencer Foundation Award for his contributions, through research and analysis, to the field of education policy and management.

These days, inequality is a major focus of William T. Grant. The foundation is looking to fund studies that improve the measurement of inequality in ways that enhance the work of researchers, practitioners, and policymakers. And it wants to find solutions to the problem, funding research that identifies how to help elevate America's most disadvantaged young people.  

Looking at Grant's brainy mission, a skeptic might ask why we need yet more research into children and inequality, when we already know how to reduce such disparities through policies like the EITC, early childhood education, better nutrition, and a range of other policies that work well, but don't get expanded for political reasons or are simply ignored by policymakers and practitioners. 

Well, the Grant foundation is thinking about this problem, too. It supports research that addresses the question of why data and evidence are not used in social services policy and practice. As Gamoran put it, "The quality of research is high enough [in the social sector] that it's worth paying attention to, and yet when decisions are made, the evidence is rarely consulted."

The foundation wants to understand why the research is being ignored, a hard but necessary question to ask. It is also looking to identify the circumstances under which research will be consulted, and funds descriptive studies that help to identify ways to make inroads between policymakers and researchers.

What does this look like in real time? Gamoran cited a couple of recent examples of research getting at the inequality problem. One is a study by Thomas Dee of Stanford and Brian Jacob of the University of Michigan looking at efforts to turn around low-performing schools. Under the federal education policy, school districts are required to identify and direct resources to their lowest performing schools. Dee and Jacob's study will look at the question of whether this policy actually works to turn schools around. "Is this an effective strategy? We're going to find out," said Gamoran.

He also cited work by Erica Frankenberg, studying changes in school racial composition after schools were released from court orders requiring them to de-segregate. "She's going to plot out how this policy impacts inequality," said Gamoran. Her new work, entitled, "Understanding the Diversity and Equity of a New Generation of Controlled School Choice Policies," received an award from W.T. Grant for $24,863.

Gamoran also referred to a recent report the foundation supported called "Inequality Matters" by Prudence Carter and Sean Reardon. This report documents the rising effects of inequality on children and youth. It also brings up some salient points on the language of inequality, one of which relates to the political viability of the word itself: "Everyone can support a 'War on Poverty' (in principle), but a 'War on Inequality' implies reducing the relative advantage of those with power."

An interesting point, and one which speaks to the way this foundation is grappling with the inequality issue. Yes, it wants better data and policy solutions. But it's also exploring how to overcome the obstacles that exist to closing growing disparities in U.S. society. Gamoran isn't content to simply pile up more and more alarming research that gets ignored by policymakers. 

We asked Gamoran for the foundation's vision of where inequality research might focus to be most strategic and effective for children and youth. Gamoran identified four domains that the foundation sees as "prime targets" for more research:

The Justice System. Every young life that does not get caught up in needless jail time is a life that has a better chance, and William T. Grant wants to help researchers explore models of justice that create less inequality—a red hot issue these days. 

Postsecondary Workforce Development. Jobs are key to reducing inequality for 16-25 year olds, and understanding which efforts to bolster workforce development are working and why is key.

  • Recently funded example: Bottom Line NY Career Program
  • William T. Grant funded The Forgotten Half: Pathways to Success for America’s Youth and Young Families, a powerful report that came out of a commission led by the foundation with many notables, including Hilary Rodham Clinton. In January, 2015 an update, The New Forgotten Half, was published.

Child Mental Health. Mental health issues resolved early can lead to a lifetime of payoff, but the variables are complex and factors like corporate influence from the pharmaceutical industry deserve further study. 

Immigration. Immigrant children are often uninsured and have few advocates as a constituency, so are facing even more inequality.

We also asked Gamoran about other funders covering a funding niche similar to William T. Grant, in case grantseekers are looking for more options. He referenced the Russell Sage Foundation and the Spencer Foundation. Though the focus is somewhat different for these two foundations, they share a similar approach that involves bolstering research for the social sciences.

Grants for researchers for William T. Grant are substantial, ranging in size from $100,000 to $600,000 and covering a range of time from two to three years. The foundation has several different grant programs, and does a great job of explaining what it does and does not fund on its website. A key thing to bear in mind is that, though the focus of the foundation is on youth, its definition of youth is from ages five to 25, so projects that extend into what is traditionally considered young adulthood are also within its purview.

Related: This Funder is Supporting the Data to Make Big Juvenile Justices Change