Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

Fall 2017

Coming of age in the other America



For sociology professor Stefanie DeLuca (PhD02), summer days are not for lounging on the beach.

Instead, DeLuca hits the Baltimore streets like a reporter, guiding her Johns Hopkins students as they interview families as part of a desegregation study.

“I had one day off in the whole month of June,” DeLuca says of her non-stop schedule. “And my assistant scheduled a meeting in the middle of (that) day with the Federal Reserve!”

DeLuca, 41, is able to laugh off such hiccups because she truly loves her career, which involves collaborating with fellow sociologists and economists to solve some of the most vexing issues affecting poor neighborhoods.

Using statistical data as well as surveys and interviews, a comprehensive research approach that she fostered while pursuing her doctorate in the School of Education and Social Policy, DeLuca is currently looking at how housing policies and neighborhood revitalization impacts lower income families.

“There’s something very powerful about not being locked into the paradigm of only one discipline,” says DeLuca, who co-directs the Poverty and Inequality Research Lab at Hopkins with Kathryn Edin (WCAS91), a former Northwestern faculty member and fellow at the Institute for Policy Research. “With an interdisciplinary approach, you have a bigger world and more chances to use the right tools.”

By meeting with families on their home turf, DeLuca and her team immerse themselves in their subjects’ worlds, particularly through what she calls “narrative interviewing.”

“It’s an extraordinary and life-changing experience for my students to hear about the lives of America’s poorest families,” says DeLuca, who has used her immersive research approach in Dallas, Cleveland, and Mobile, Alabama.

In their 2016 book Coming of Age in the Other America, DeLuca, Edin and Susan Clampet-Lundquist drew on their in-depth interviews and fieldwork to highlight how the right public policies might help break the cycle of disadvantage for resilient young people from poor environments.

Those who had been able to move to better neighborhoods—either as part of the Moving to Opportunity program or by other means—were more likely to complete high school or enroll in college than their parents. Yet they also found troubling evidence that some of the most promising young adults often remained mired in poverty.

DeLuca says SESP’s multidisciplinary training inspired her to delve deeper into learning how social policy impacts everyday life. Through her research, she’s discovered that the way people learn about and use policies greatly affect how successful the guidelines ultimately will be.

DeLuca is particularly proud of the work she and her team have done around the Housing Choice Voucher Program, formerly known as the Section 8 Voucher Program. The work, started while DeLuca was at SESP, has helped at-risk young people move to resource-rich neighborhoods where educational and employment opportunities abound.

“It has been a game changer for these kids,” says DeLuca, who was recently named James Coleman Associate Professor of Sociology and Social Policy.

DeLuca’s next project involves collaborating with several economists to examine the troubling trend of young African-Americans attending for-profit schools instead of traditional colleges. In most cases, she says, the schools don’t deliver what they promise, leaving students in debt and unemployed. She hopes to help develop social policy to address the problem.

“The focus on social policy was transformative for me,” DeLuca says of her time at SESP. “When you work as hard as we do, you want to wake up in the morning and feel like you have a reason to do it.”

Looks like the beach will have to wait.