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  Sooner or Later, You Have to
Get Out of the Car

Johns Hopkins sociologist Stefanie DeLuca wanted to see the faces behind all the data. So she went into the streets of Baltimore.

By Maria Blackburn
Photos by Jennifer Bishop

The kid was one tough interview. Stefanie DeLuca asked 15-year-old Troy* about his life story, his friends, his family, but he wouldn't respond with more than a mumbled "yes" or "no" or "I don't know." DeLuca had come to Troy's house in a poor black neighborhood off East Biddle Street as part of a series of follow-up interviews of low-income Baltimore families who had participated in a federally funded housing experiment called Moving to Opportunity (MTO). The street outside was crawling with drug dealers. Troy's tidy basement bedroom was crawling with spiders. But DeLuca, a Johns Hopkins sociologist, had 20 pages of questions to ask and wasn't about to give up on a shy participant who wouldn't even look at her.

How am I going to engage this kid? she wondered. Her eyes scanned Troy's room, lingering on photos of him and his friends and on the dozen or so pairs of sneakers lined up neatly on the windowsill. She asked about his friends. Nothing. She asked about the sneakers. Still nothing. Then she caught a glint of gold in Troy's mouth. That was it.

"I see you have some gold teeth. That's cool. I've always wondered about gold teeth," she told him. "How do they fit into your mouth?"

Troy didn't waste any words. He turned to DeLuca, spit his caps into his hand, and handed them over. She sat there calmly, admiring the gleaming pieces of gold in her palm as if doing so were the most normal thing in the world.

"The interview went much better after that," DeLuca recalls, laughing. "I wasn't Barbara Walters or anything, but I found out a lot more about his life."

Getting people to talk is usually easy for DeLuca. She is young and smart, and naturally chatty and vivacious. Her blue eyes sparkle with curiosity, and she asks lots and lots of questions. She knows how to listen, too. Growing up in a working-class neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, DeLuca, now 30, figured out early that if you wanted to know something, you talked to people. In graduate school, she studied human development and social policy. She grew skilled at understanding issues of long-term social inequality and the sociology of education by analyzing statistics and writing research papers. But she never forgot about the importance of listening to people's stories.

Some sociologists base their research solely on statistical analysis of the U.S. Census and other large-scale surveys. DeLuca calls such number crunching the "bread and butter" of her work. In her first four years as an academic, she built an impressive reputation based on such research, publishing many journal articles and reports on topics ranging from the effects of delaying college enrollment to how moving to safer, less segregated and more affluent neighborhoods improves family and child well-being.

Although DeLuca knew the numbers were powerful, she also thought they were sterile. "Numbers can tell you that certain factors matter; they can give you a ballpark idea," she says. "But if you really want to know why one kid in particular dropped out of school, you have to sit down with that kid and talk to him and get the total story."

Some of DeLuca's colleagues warned the young sociologist that going into the field and collecting qualitative data would be too time-consuming. They told her to focus on her other duties as a tenure-track assistant professor: teaching, research, publishing, serving on committees, advising graduate students.

She didn't listen. Instead she responded to the ache in her gut, to the feeling that she couldn't study neighborhoods without talking to the people who lived in them. It wasn't going to be easy. DeLuca is white and the families were black. She is middle class and they were poor. And some of the areas in Baltimore City where they lived were so dangerous that DeLuca didn't share details with her family — especially her father, a retired Chicago cop — because she didn't want them to worry.

DeLuca didn't have to do the fieldwork. She wanted to do it. She went into city neighborhoods because she wanted to see how people lived — and to reflect that in her research. "I don't believe I am capable of sitting in my office and figuring things out on my own about places I've never been and people I've never met," she says. "I have a lot to learn from people themselves. They have a lot of answers I don't have."

For the last 30 years, discussions of housing policy have become more focused on the way neighborhood conditions affect the jobs, income, and education of poor families. As cities like Baltimore and Chicago have demolished high-rise public housing projects, policy makers have struggled to figure out what kind of affordable housing will improve the chances of low-income children and adults. Should cities create enterprise and empowerment zones? Should they build mixed-income housing or grant housing vouchers that allow families to live in neighborhoods of their choice? This is where researchers like DeLuca come in.

"Policies are made with assumptions about things," she says. "When they are in place, and [when] there are obstacles people in these programs have hit, you don't actually know about them until you ask." By talking to people who use housing vouchers, for example, researchers might find out that the hardest part is learning which suburbs accept those vouchers. Or they might discover that low-income parents aren't feeding their children healthy meals because their neighborhoods lack the sidewalks they need to get to a full-service grocery store. "We stand to find remedies that benefit a lot of people rather than just giving one family a voucher," DeLuca says.

"The idea is to try to bring rigorous research to bear on the design and funding of these kinds of social programs," says Greg Duncan, one of DeLuca's mentors and a professor at Northwestern University's Institute for Policy Research who studies the nature and consequences of poverty and welfare dynamics in the United States. "The policy questions are: Are those programs worthwhile? And how can these programs best serve low-income families? What better goals are there than those?"

According to DeLuca, policy makers used to consider poverty an individual issue. "They believed that when people lived in poor neighborhoods, it was because they lacked the intellectual skills to get out," she says. But since the early 1980s, a growing body of research has suggested that people in poor neighborhoods live in a dislocated society, one that's lacking good schools and access to decent jobs. Change their neighborhoods and their lives just might change for the better.

"Neighborhoods matter," DeLuca says. "The reason they matter is because we have not managed to take care of inner-city poverty and concentrated segregation. As a result, a lot of people end up trapped in neighborhoods and forced to live in conditions most of us would rather just drive around."

The MTO program was a social experiment from the 1990s sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Thousands of low-income families in five cities (Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York) were given vouchers to move out of public housing in high-poverty neighborhoods and into lower-poverty neighborhoods. Some families received tenant-based housing vouchers with location restrictions and housing counseling, while others were given a housing voucher with no location restriction. Still others — the control group — didn't get any assistance or vouchers at all.

MTO was modeled after the Gautreaux residential mobility program in Chicago, which DeLuca began studying while at Northwestern and still works on today. Named for Dorothy Gautreaux, a community organizer who in 1966 filed a federal lawsuit against the Chicago Housing Authority, the program offered Chicago public housing residents vouchers to move to private apartments. Between 1976 and 1998 more than 7,000 families participated, and more than half moved to the suburbs. The black women in this program who moved to middle-class white suburbs secured better jobs for themselves and better schooling for their children than the mothers who were placed within Chicago's city limits. This suggested that the life chances of low-income people could depend as much on where they lived as who they were, and HUD spent some $70 million on MTO to further examine housing mobility.

"Neighborhoods matter," DeLuca says. "The reason they matter is because we have not managed to take care of inner-city poverty and concentrated segregation." But MTO was different from Gautreaux. It was an experiment, not a court-mandated relocation. MTO families didn't move as far away from their original neighborhoods as Gautreaux families had, and it was poverty rate, not race, that was used as a criterion for targeted relocation of MTO families. Perhaps the largest differences between the two programs were the results: MTO participants failed to make the same gains in employment and education as Gautreaux participants had.

The MTO program wasn't without its merits. MTO moms reported better mental health and decreases in obesity since participating in the program, relative to the families who did not receive vouchers to move to low-poverty areas. And the teenage girls who participated in MTO had less delinquent behavior than those who did not.

DeLuca and her colleagues saw the MTO results as a jumble of puzzles. How come moms' employment opportunities didn't improve when they changed neighborhoods, but their mental health did? Why didn't the kids do better in school after moving? Why did girls behave better in new neighborhoods, but boys did not? To find answers, she signed up to help with the first follow-up interviews of MTO families in Baltimore, in 2003–2004.

"The 'how' is sometimes not easily ascertained from the quantitative research," says DeLuca. "We were trying to see how it is that environments work in people's lives, and that's a complicated thing to do. You can do it with quantitative research, but to see the machinery of how environment actually operates, to see how it makes a difference, you have to be inside what's happening."

Or, as she likes to say, "Sooner or later, you have to get out of the car."

DeLuca may be a great talker, but she had little experience conducting field research when she joined the MTO follow-up study in summer 2003. So she absorbed as much as she could from her more-experienced colleagues. She watched how they explained to participants that their interviews were confidential and that the informed-consent document they had to sign would prevent anything they said from being used against them in court. She pored over the 30-page research protocol — a script of questions that covered everything from housing history to sexual activity to what they cooked for dinner — and memorized as much as she could so that the interview would feel more like a conversation.

Her first interview was at a house on a quiet street in Northeast Baltimore. DeLuca stood at the door and rang the bell. There were butterflies in her stomach. "The first thing I noticed was that there was very little in the house," DeLuca says. The living room where the woman's 14-year-old daughter was sitting had only an old couch and a television. The walls were dingy but clean.

DeLuca sat down with the mom, Lisa, at the kitchen table. "Tell me about your life," DeLuca asked Lisa, whom she remembers as sweet, polite, and forthcoming. As the woman began talking, DeLuca's nervousness disappeared. Lisa was one of the MTO participants who had gotten a housing voucher and moved away from public housing in a bad neighborhood. "She told me she remembers when she got the voucher telling her she could move — it came the day before Christmas," DeLuca says.

"This is the best Christmas present I ever had," Lisa told her as they sat in her little house.

DeLuca still thinks about Lisa and her daughter several years later. "It's just one of the very concrete examples of how much relief people have with getting out of their old neighborhoods," she says.

The homes she visited varied. Some were tidy bungalows on streets with perfectly groomed lawns. Others were in neighborhoods so dangerous that residents would press a plastic bag into her hand as she was leaving so that it would look as though she had just bought drugs and therefore had a reason to be there. She never got used to the poverty, to the garbage piled on city sidewalks, to the feeling of desolation. "You'd think you'd be desensitized to what the neighborhoods look like because of TV, but there's no way to be desensitized. No way."

DeLuca was always nervous when a mother or a teen first invited her in. "You don't know what to expect when you're going into a person's home. It feels so weird. And then you sit down and talk to them and afterward you ask yourself, 'Why wasn't that weirder?'" One similarity she noticed again and again: Whether she was in Owings Mills or East Baltimore, there was always a kitchen table set with placemats. They may have been cloth or plastic or paper, printed with McDonald's hamburgers or dainty flowers, but they were always there. "These were people who were trying to make a home like everybody else," she says.

She found that as her technique improved, the interviews became more of an exchange. At the end of one conversation, a woman gave DeLuca the name of a reliable used-car salesman. Other people she interviewed gave her mugs filled with candy, or advice on the safest way out of the neighborhood. "That sharing of personal advice at the end of the interview indicated a level of comfort between me and the person I was interviewing," she says. "It made me feel like something real had happened, like I had successfully communicated with someone."

DeLuca's own background is an interesting study in neighborhood influence. She and her younger sister grew up in an Irish, Polish, and Italian neighborhood filled with small houses and manicured lawns. Everybody knew everyone else. Her father was an undercover narcotics officer in the city. Her mother never finished high school.

DeLuca was a good student, but no one in her family had gone to a university, much less graduate school. Her teachers encouraged her intellectual growth and she set her sights on college. It wasn't until she was taking "Social Stratification and Class" during her junior year at the University of Chicago that she realized that she had somehow beaten the odds by getting into an elite private university. "Oh my God," she remembers thinking. "Here I am sitting in class next to the kids of doctors and lawyers. I'm not supposed to be here." She majored in sociology and psychology and graduated with honors. From there it was on to Northwestern, where she earned a PhD in human development and social policy. "My father still carries my acceptance letter to grad school in his wallet," she says.

DeLuca's professors were impressed by her energy, curiosity, and intellectual fearlessness. "Very few people coming from a background like Stefanie's end up teaching in universities like Johns Hopkins," says Duncan, who was on DeLuca's dissertation committee at Northwestern. "I think her background connects her with real-world social problems and motivates her to solve them. She has never forgotten that part of her background and I hope that she never does."

Says DeLuca, "Sometimes I feel like when you're at a great place like Hopkins and you have these big degrees, people look to you and think you know a lot of things — and that starts to disconnect you a bit. All that stuff is part of my life, but that doesn't ground me because those aren't definitions I grew up with. What grounds me is speaking to people. That tells me that I know something."

Most sociologists do either number-crunching quantitative research or interview-oriented ethnographic qualitative research, says Karl Alexander, professor and chair of Hopkins' sociology department. Although the approaches complement one another, it's unusual to find a sociologist like DeLuca who blends both.

"A lot of people in academia have taken the studious route all their lives; they enjoy the isolation of the ivory tower," says Duncan. "Others are more action- and real work–policy oriented but lack the interest or discipline in bringing academic rigor to their real-world concern. Stefanie just seems to combine the best of both worlds."

"It's the relationship between having a societal impact and having an impact in the academic field," agrees James E. Rosenbaum, DeLuca's mentor at Northwestern and a professor of sociology, education, and public policy. "Stefanie is using the insights of sociological theory and the research to better understand the real world practical problems of low-income individuals and to suggest ways social policy would make a real difference."

In all, DeLuca talked with 30 MTO mothers and teens for up to five hours each. The taped interviews — there were a total of 183 done in Baltimore in 2003–2004 — were transcribed, and every line of text was coded into categories and added to a huge database. A number of social scientists are analyzing the data. DeLuca in particular is working on two studies, both of which she expects to complete this year.

Her first study concerns how parents choose schools for their children when they move into a new neighborhood. "If neighborhoods are supposed to matter because the schools are better, but the kids don't actually do better in school after the move, then that's something we need to know because our assumptions are wrong," says DeLuca, who holds a joint appointment in the Center for Social Organization of Schools. In fact, what DeLuca and her colleagues found in their interviews is that families don't necessarily change schools when they change neighborhoods. "It seems like a lot of parents think that moving kids from their original school to a new school when they move is disruptive, despite the benefits that could come from a new and better school," she says.

During her time in the field, DeLuca came to realize that the chaos in people's lives was itself worth a look. When completed, the study could suggest changes in housing policy that would offer parents more assistance in understanding schooling options when they move out of low-income housing. "Better education outcomes aren't just going to happen like magic when they relocate," she says. "If we learn what parents are thinking regarding school placement, then we'll know what kinds of things should be part of housing-voucher and mobility programs."

In her second study, DeLuca, who also helped to observe 83 low-income MTO children at school, is examining how classroom characteristics such as student engagement differ among a sampling of 40 Baltimore City schools. Over the next year, she will combine data such as test scores and teacher interviews with the fieldwork to understand how class management influences educational outcomes. "Some of the classrooms were really chaotic — with desk surfing by students, and teachers on cell phones — but there were others that had coherent lesson plans and high levels of engagement between students and teachers," DeLuca says. This interested her, especially because the MTO interim report found no change in the educational outcomes between the children whose families relocated and those who did not. "A lot of analysis of this kind of work uses aggregate numbers; they don't look at the ground level at what's going on," she says. "There's variation in what these kids experience every day, and you're not going to get that when you look at aggregate statistics." She is using such variations not just to get a better sense of what makes a difference in schools, but also to shed light on the statistics she already has. "I'm trying to look a little more deeply at the MTO interim study when they say that on average there aren't differences. What's underneath that?"

DeLuca's door-to-door work in Baltimore is over for now, but the ache in her gut hasn't gone away. The experience has only strengthened her resolve to focus not just on numbers, but on the people behind them as a means to effect change. "Even if a word of these interviews never gets into anything else I write," she says, "that's OK, because I will know that I have gone into these neighborhoods and talked to people."

When she started doing fieldwork, DeLuca hoped she would find answers — simple explanations that might help her understand why some formerly low-income people succeeded in their new neighborhoods while others did not. But real life is messy, and the simple answers didn't always present themselves. During the time she spent in the field, DeLuca came to realize that the chaos she sometimes found in people's life stories was itself worth a look. "A lot of time researchers want control over the data and over the analysis of that. There's a comfort in that control," she says. "But as I've gone on in my research I've realized that the turbulence and the chaos in people's lives is something I'm trying to study, and that some social science methods are unable to capture life stories that don't work in a linear fashion. I just have to keep coming back in and going back out, looking for patterns that exist in people's lives."

Research careers are long and DeLuca is young. Sometimes she feels impatient that she doesn't know more. Then she takes a step back. "One study doesn't give you all the answers," she says. "This is a lifetime of work."

* The names of MTO parents and teens identified in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.

Maria Blackburn is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine.

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