Population Research: Sorting Out the Numbers

Stewart Tolnay

Scott South is exploring the movement of people out of disadvantaged neighborhoods. Nancy Denton is studying the special set of challenges faced by poor, single-parent families once they succeed in moving to better neighborhoods. John Logan and Richard Alba are studying the changing residential patterns of racial and ethnic groups in cities. And Stewart Tolnay is investigating the family patterns of migrants from southern states who made their way to northern cities during the first half of the 20th Century.

While their projects are independent, what their research has in common is the mobility and movement of populations. And they are all being carried out under the umbrella of the University's Center for Social and Demographic Analysis. Founded in 1981 as an initiative of the College of Arts and Sciences, the Center's original mission was to stimulate virtually any kind of research in the social sciences. With Graduate Research Initiative funding in the mid 1980s, the Center expanded its infrastructure and is today building a national reputation in a new niche as an interdisciplinary research center which supports projects about general population issues. In all, at least 28 faculty members from the departments of sociology, psychology, anthropology, economics, geography and planning, as well as the School of Public Health and School of Social Welfare, are affiliated with the Center. Since 1988, they have attracted more than $3 million in grants, most notably from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

"When the Center for Social and Demographic Analysis was created, it had a broader social science focus and was more closely connected to the Sociology Department," explained sociologist Stewart Tolnay, the Center's director and professor of sociology. "More recently it's become more interdisciplinary and it's developed a sharper focus on population and demographic research."

There's a reason for these two developments, Tolnay explains "One is that if we're going to be competitive (for research dollars), we need to be interdisciplinary, and second, we need to have a focus."

These have been Tolnay's goals since becoming director in 1990. The results are beginning to pay off. Another advantage, he said, is that the Center for Social and Demographic Analysis creates a community of scholars who exchange ideas and support and collaborate with one another. "The group becomes much more than the sum of their individual projects," he explained.

One example of that is the study of ethnic and minority residential patterns, reported in last week's Update, being carried out by Logan, a nationally known expert on suburbanization issues, and Alba, widely recognized for his studies in ethnicity.

Another sociologist, Scott South, recently received a $140,475 grant from the NSF for a two-year study of the factors that most influence the likelihood of families and individuals escapiing distressed neighborhoods.

"What I want to know is what are the individual factors, such as economic attainment, levels of education and welfare dependence, which tend to mire people in lower class neighborhoods," South explained. One of South's early conclusions: "There's good evidence that focusing on individual attainment — levels of education, employment stability — will help both whites and blacks to leave, but our policies will have to go beyond those individual efforts to improve human capital to address broader issues, such as the availability of low-income housing and the prevalence of racial discrimination in housing," he said.

Another sociologist, Nancy Denton, is looking at factors that determine whether poor, single-parent families in public housing can successfully adjust when offered the chance to move to better housing in better neighborhoods.

"What we're interested in is whether the satisfaction that a family can derive from improved housing and neighborhood is offset by hostile reactions from new neighbors, feelings of isolation from friends and family, and children's adjustments to new friends," Denton said in a written summary of her $50,000 study funded by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. She is conducting her study with sociologist Emily Rosenbaum of Fordham University.

Tolnay himself is analyzing the family patterns of southern migrants before 1960 in an attempt to shed light on the reasons behind the "disintegrating" urban family.

"Some social commentators have attributed the high incidence of unstable marriages and single-parent households, more common among inner city residents, to the transplantation of a southern 'sharecropping culture' to northern cities — a process made possible by the massive South to North migration in America before 1960," Tolnay said. "But there's very little empirical evidence to support this." Tolnay is examining U.S. censuses from 1920, 1940 and 1960 to compare the family patterns of migrants versus long-time residents of the North.

Jeanne Gullahorn, vice president for research and dean of graduate studies, said the Center for Social and Demographic Analysis has emerged as a nationally recognized population research center in a relatively brief span of time.

"They have developed a very strong group of population specialists from a wide range of disciplines, and they have accomplished it in a remarkably short amount of time," said Gullahorn, who has been one of the center's strongest supporters. She credited Alba, who founded the Center and served as its first director, and Tolnay, who has successfully focused its mission, for their energy, scholarly activity and leadership.

Alba recalled the early days of the Center. "I started out in a small room with two graduate students," he said. "Gradually the Center took on its own identity, which was based on the developing demography program in the sociology department and stimulated by the need for demographic intelligence on the part of the state's policy makers. One of the early projects which helped put the Center on the map was Alba's now well-known study of migration patterns in New York State:

The best may be yet to come. Tolnay said he plans to reapply next year for a prestigious population center "Core Grant" from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHHD), which is part of the NIH. The $3 million, five-year grants are awarded competitively to population research centers at 11 major research universities nationwide. While the University failed to win a grant in 1994, Tolnay said the comments of the NICHHD staff were encouraging.

"They looked at things like the number of grants our researchers were able to attract, the institutional commitment to us, and the fact that our scholars are from diverse fields, yet work cohesively," said Tolnay. "We are going for the grant again, and we believe we'll be competitive."

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