Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality Research Paper

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The Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality (MCSUI) is composed of a set of related surveys, funded by the Russell Sage Foundation and Ford Foundation and available from the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research, that focus on how the relationship between race, employment, and housing generate and perpetuate urban poverty and racial inequality. Four household surveys, using standardized sampling frameworks and similar questions, were conducted between April 1992 and August 1994 in four metropolitan areas: Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, and Los Angeles. Complementing these surveys were thirty-minute phone interviews of about nine hundred business establishments in each of the four metropolitan areas. Almost 1,200 of the employer surveys were conducted with employers identified in the household survey as the current or last employer of the respondent. In addition, in-depth, face-to-face follow-up interviews were conducted in each city with about forty-five employers identified by household respondents holding jobs requiring no more than a high school education.

The MCSUI is the work of a large interdisciplinary team of researchers. It started with conversations among researchers at the University of California Los Angeles and the University of Michigan who had written on various aspects of urban inequality. The original plan was to conduct a two-city comparative survey expanding on the 1976 Detroit Area Study, which addressed racial attitudes and residential segregation. The objective of the MCSUI project was to create a database that could be used to explore how racial attitudes and stereotypes, labor market dynamics, and residential segregation interact to create urban inequality. The project expanded to four metropolitan areas, the household surveys adopted a much broader focus, and employer surveys were added. (Alice O’Connor [2001] provides a detailed history of the development of the MCSUI.)

The MCSUI has many unique features. First, the surveys are very extensive, both in terms of the number of households interviewed and the breadth of the interviews. Completed household interviews number 1,529 in Atlanta, 4,025 in Los Angeles, 1,543 in Detroit, and 1,820 in Boston. These in-person interviews averaged about ninety minutes, with approximately six hundred questions being asked. The number of completed employer interviews is 3,510. Second, the household sample includes approximately an equal number of each racial-ethnic group and an oversampling of low-income households, which provides for more detailed analysis than allowed for by most surveys. Third, linking the household and employer surveys is a unique and perhaps unprecedented feature, allowing analysis of both the supply and the demand side of the labor market. Fourth, the surveys contain much more detailed information than most social and labor market surveys. The household survey gathered information well beyond a standard set of demographic characteristics to include the respondents’ views about neighborhood and community issues; attitudes about integration, racial stereotypes, and discrimination; and the nature of social networks.

Questions on labor market dynamics incorporate a standard set of variables, as well as more nuanced variables such as length of time on job, size of employer, instances of harassment and discrimination, use of networks, requirements regarding wage levels and commute times, access to knowledge about job opportunities, and job search activities. Employers were queried about characteristics of their firm, including composition of the firm’s labor force, vacant positions, the person most recently hired, educational qualifications, and the firm’s recruiting methods, as well as demographic information for the respondent, job applicants, customers, and labor force.

Fifth, while the MCSUI provides for much finer detail than can be found using typical national-level data, it still allows for comparative analysis across metropolitan areas. Household survey questions were asked in at least two of the four survey cities, and most questions were asked in all four cities. Comparisons are aided by the contrast between the four metropolitan areas, which represent different regions of the country, different economic conditions, different population growth rates, and different racial/ethnic makeup.

Six books that rely on the MCSUI were published by the Russell Sage Foundation. The first book explored issues that were informed by the employer surveys. Each of the metropolitan areas was the focus of a book, while a sixth book used the surveys to explore issues in a multimetropolitan framework. The MCSUI has also been the basis for a number of dissertations and dozens of journal articles.

Given the richness of the MCSUI, the research that has used the data spans a wide range of topics across many disciplines. The following provides a flavor of what has been learned. Several papers explore how the mismatch between residential location and employment opportunities results in negative labor market outcomes for lowskilled minorities. The role of information about jobs, access to job opportunities, job discrimination in the suburbs, fear of being poorly treated in suburban locations, and job search strategies have been found to be associated with worse employment outcomes for central-city minorities. Using questions concerning the specific skills required for jobs, it was determined that jobs requiring lower levels of skill are more likely to be found in the suburbs. A comparison of the results from MCSUI with the 1976 Detroit Area Study found a substantial increase in willingness of whites to live in integrated neighborhoods.

Racial stereotypes are widespread and influence the way minorities view one another, and the factors that determine perceptions of discrimination differ by race. Researchers have found that racial discrimination, stereotypes, and economic disparities all contribute to maintaining residential segregation. The employer survey shows that employers use an applicant’s neighborhood as a signal that affects the employer’s hiring decision, and that new jobs require not only “hard” skills (i.e., those associated with computers, math, and writing) but also “soft” skills (those involving behavioral and personal interactions). Researchers have found that job search methods are bundled differently by race and ethnicity and that reliance on different social networks leads nonwhites to lower-status, lower-wage, racially segregated jobs.

The MCSUI can be used to explore many of the existing single-factor explanations of urban inequality, but the richness of the MCSUI data allows for investigations of more complex explanations and of alternative hypotheses and for research that delves beneath what other data, such as census data, can tell us. The MCSUI has advanced urban poverty research and has the capacity to further our understanding of how urban poverty and racial inequality are generated and perpetuated.


  1. Bluestone, Barry, and Mary Huff Stevenson, 2000. The Boston Renaissance: Race, Space, and Economic Change in an American Metropolis. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  2. Bobo, Lawrence , Melvin L. Oliver, James H. Johnson Jr., and Abel Valenzuela Jr., eds. 2000. Prismatic Metropolis: Inequality in Los Angeles. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  3. Danziger, Sheldon , Reynolds Farley, and Harry J. Holzer. 2000. Detroit Divided. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  4. Holzer, Harry 1999. What Employers Want: Job Prospects for Less-Educated Workers. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  5. O’Connor, 2001. Understanding Inequality in the Late Twentieth-Century Metropolis: New Perspectives on the Enduring Racial Divide. In Urban Inequality: Evidence from Four Cities, ed. Alice O’Connor, Chris Tilly, and Lawrence D. Bobo, 1–33. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  6. O’Connor, Alice, Chris Tilly, and Lawrence Bobo, eds. 2001. Urban Inequality: Evidence from Four Cities. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  7. Sjoquist, David , ed. 2000. The Atlanta Paradox. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

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