The story behind the project

The principal investigators—Peter Cookson, Kathy Edin, and David Grusky—offer their thoughts on the American Voices Project and what they hope it will achieve.


How can the American Dream be revived?

David: The United States was initially imagined as a country in which we could free ourselves by perfecting our institutions. Set against that backdrop, it’s surprising that we’ve become a country in which we now give our institutions a free pass, all the while blaming individuals and groups for failing to take advantage of opportunities they never had. The purpose of the American Voices Project is very simple: To stop blaming people, to start listening and learning, and to find a way to make this country become what it set out to be.

Why does the United States need the American Voices Project?

Kathy: A lot of policymakers imagine that they know what people want—whether that’s a guaranteed basic income or more work opportunities or free college. But if we don’t listen to the voices of people expressing themselves, we’re not going to know what people really need, and we’re not going to get policy right.

The marriage of stories and numbers is really unique; this research will help challenge the misconceptions people have about life in America.
— Kathy Edin

What is unique about the American Voices Project?

Kathy: Qualitative researchers often work alone in one locale or among a single group, so their studies are small, targeted, and often cannot be generalized to a broader population. In the American Voices Project, participants will be drawn from a nationwide stratified random sample, allowing us to make inferences about opportunity in America in ways no other qualitative study really can.

The interview protocol itself is also unique because it captures life histories, survival strategies, and how people make sense of their lives, including whether they feel included or dismissed by society. With these questions, we hope to learn how to create communities that catalyze civic engagement, political participation, and healthier families.

How will the findings benefit individuals living in the United States?

Peter: The American Voices Project will shed light on the ways that the nation provides—or fails to provide—economic and social opportunities for Americans. For example, we live in a country without a safety net for millions of people, and I hope that this project will provide policymakers with the data they need to make this a country that works for everyone. The project will also affect the public’s consciousness as a whole, because stories and narratives run deeper than statistics.

Kathy: A fundamental fact of American life is that we are more segregated by income now than ever before in history. This is true in our neighborhoods, in our schools, and even in our places of worship. Because middle-class and upper-middle-class Americans have less personal contact with disadvantaged Americans than ever before, we have created opportunities for myths and misperceptions to grow. We are seeking to bring the voices of all Americans back into the discussion in a way that privileges their own first-person narratives.

How will policymakers be able to use the findings from the American Voices Project?

David: The American Voices Project will provide a diagnostic toolbox that allows communities to recognize the types of problems they’re facing and to learn from other communities that are facing similar problems. The necessary precursor to any diagnosis, however, is to listen and learn… and that’s what the American Voices Project is all about. Most of us don’t do enough listening: We lecture, we prognosticate, we warn. But rarely do we listen, and it’s high time to start.

What is the role of the research fellowship in the project?

Peter: The fellows will be at the forefront of the biggest study ever on everyday life in America, and they will become a new cohort of leaders in academia, politics, and beyond. The research fellowship provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be an active participant in a movement of social change.

Kathy: It’s that rare and special type of work that brings a closeness to the group and a sense of solidarity. It’s hard and grueling work, but it’s really deep and meaningful.

About the Principal Investigators

Peter W. Cookson
Peter W. Cookson, Jr. is a senior researcher at the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) and a principal researcher at the American Institutes of Research (AIR), with three decades of research experience. His areas of expertise include school reform, school choice, charter schools, private schools, and the integration of technology into classroom learning. He is recognized as an authority on the effects of social class on educational attainment. He has conducted numerous studies on school choice, the consequences of educational stratification, and new models of learning. He teaches in the Department of Sociology at Georgetown University. His most recent publications include: Exploring Education (fifth edition), co-authored with Alan R. Sadovnik, Susan Semel and Ryan Coughlan (Routledge, Winter 2017), Class Rules: Exposing Inequality in American High Schools (Teachers College Press, Fall 2013), Hearts on Fire: Stories of Today’s Visionaries Igniting Idealism into Action, co-authored with Jill W. Iscol (Random House, Winter 2013), and Sacred Trust: A Children’s Education Bill of Rights (Corwin Press, Spring 2011).

Kathy Edin
Kathy Edin is one of the nation’s leading poverty researchers, working in the domains of welfare and low-wage work, family life, and neighborhood contexts, through direct, in-depth observations of the lives of low-income populations. A qualitative and mixed-method researcher, she has taken on key mysteries about the urban poor that have not been fully answered by quantitative work: How do single mothers possibly survive on welfare? Why don’t more go to work? Why do they end up as single mothers in the first place? Where are the fathers and why do they disengage from their children’s lives? How have the lives of the single mothers changed as a result of welfare reform? The hallmark of her research is her direct, in-depth observations of the lives of low-income women, men, and children. Edin has authored 8 books and some 60 journal articles. $2 a Day: The Art of Living on Virtually Nothing in America, co-authored with Luke Shaefer, was met with wide critical acclaim. It was included in The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2015, cited as “essential reporting about the rise in destitute families.”

David B. Grusky
David B. Grusky is Barbara Kimball Browning Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, Professor of Sociology, Senior Fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, Faculty Fellow at the Stanford Center for Population Health Sciences, Director of the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, and coeditor of Pathways Magazine. His research addresses the changing structure of late-industrial inequality and addresses such topics as the future of extreme inequality in the United States, recent trends in social mobility, the sources of gender inequality, the role of social classes and social closure in reducing opportunity, new ways to improve the country’s infrastructure for monitoring labor market outcomes, and new approaches to reducing poverty and increasing mobility.