Introducing Alexandra Murphy, joining our faculty with a courtesy appointment

August 27, 2015

The Ford School is delighted to announce that a number of faculty members will join our community this fall. To introduce them to the Ford School community, we’re running weekly Q&As throughout the summer that touch on their policy and personal interests alike.

Here’s Alex Murphy, assistant professor of sociology, faculty affiliate of the Population Studies Center at the Institute for Social Research, and now a courtesy professor at the Ford School on the changing geography of poverty, the frustrating endurance of segregated neighborhoods and concentrated poverty, why she invites street-level public servants to speak to her students, her high-brow taste in books (and low-brow taste in movies), and one of her biggest challenges.

Q: What inspired you to study poverty? And what aspect do you focus on?

Murphy: Most of my work to date has been about the changing geography of poverty, specifically, the rise of poverty in American suburbs. Usually we think of poverty as being in rural or urban areas, but today the largest share of poor people in the U.S. lives in the suburbs. This is historically new. While in grad school, I spent a lot of time immersing myself in the large body of literature on urban poverty. I always imagined that I would contribute to this tradition by doing ethnographic work in a city. But then I came across a report written in the early 2000s about how poverty was growing in the suburbs. This immediately sparked my interest as I began to wonder how all of the things I was learning about urban poverty and urban poor neighborhoods would translate to the suburbs where, ostensibly, the built environment, density, organizational capacity, and forms of governance are very different. If poverty was becoming a suburban phenomenon, how would our theories and understanding of urban poverty help us understand the everyday lives and experiences of low-income people in the suburbs? These questions motivated my research. 

Q: So what did you find? Is suburban poverty different than urban poverty?

Murphy: This is a tricky question to answer and one that people often ask. One reason it is tricky is that the distinction between urban and suburban can be, in some cases, overly simplistic. Some suburbs look like cities—they’re densely populated, walkable, have mixed-use space, and have viable public transportation systems. Other suburbs are like prototypical bedroom communities. They’re less dense, with little public space and distinct commercial and residential zoning, and you have to have a car to get to jobs, grocery stores, and food pantries. These different features of a community matter a lot to poor people, but they aren’t exclusive to the suburbs. For example, some of these same ‘bedroom community’ characteristics might also describe a city like Detroit. In fact, it might be argued that today’s Detroit has more in common with contemporary suburbs than it does with cities like Chicago and New York, where we often study poverty. This has important implications for policy. Instead of thinking about developing poverty policies for cities or suburbs broadly, it’s useful to think about specific aspects of place that matter to the poor, and to craft policy interventions for places that share those features, regardless of whether they’re urban, suburban, or rural.

One thing that is different, though, is that poverty in the suburbs tends to be largely invisible. Nobody talks about the invisibility of poverty in cities; the problem is widely recognized and has been for some time. But in the suburbs, poor people and the poverty problem can be difficult to observe, even to the local antipoverty agencies that serve this population. Such invisibility poses very real policy challenges; it’s difficult to figure out what programs and policies this population might need if they never arrive at your organization’s doorstep.

Q: What inspires you? Angers you? Or keeps you motivated to pursue your work?

Murphy: I am frustrated by the fact that with respect to spatial and racial inequalities so little has changed since the 1968 publication of the Kerner Commission Report. I re-read the report this year and was struck by how relevant its findings and policy recommendations remain. Yet, given the current conversations around these issues and the interest of policymakers in thinking about how to create greater opportunity, I am hopeful.

Q: What courses do you plan to teach in the coming year--either at the Ford School, or elsewhere in the university?

Murphy: I’m teaching four classes this year: a freshman seminar on poverty in America, a graduate class on qualitative writing and analysis, an undergraduate class on urban inequality, and with Sandy Danziger a graduate class called, “From Ethnography to Social Welfare Policy.”

Q: Tell us about one or two?

Murphy: I’m really excited about the poverty class. It’s a new class; I’ve never taught it before. We’re going to start with Luke Shaefer and Kathy Edin’s $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America. Then we’ll dive into theories of poverty, focus on the everyday experiences that poor people face, and try to get both a macro and micro view of the issues. Students in the class will participate in a poverty simulation and potentially have an opportunity to do ride-alongs with the Detroit police department (I’m in the midst of coordinating this as we speak). In addition, I have several street-level public servants, including legal defenders and caseworkers, coming to speak to the class.

I also love teaching my class on urban inequality. The course focuses on how the U.S. has become a place that’s very racially and economically segregated. We study the historical policies that contributed to this pattern, current policies that reproduce it, and the impact residential segregation has on everything from poverty to privilege. One of the things students do in this class is “live” in one community in the Detroit region for the semester. Students are assigned an income and family status and have to do things like find housing they can afford, find a job that would pay them their wage within the average commuting distance, figure out how to get from their home to their job via public transit, etc. Students compare and contrast their experiences based on income, family characteristics, and community type. Students love this exercise! It gives them a real sense of why spatial inequality matters and how it manifests itself on the ground. For example, one student with a Section 8 voucher could not find any available housing in Bloomfield Hills and was forced to search for housing elsewhere. Other students were shocked to learn that they could get to work faster by walking 5-7 miles than they could on public transit in the region.

Q: It sounds like you integrate conversations with community leaders into many of your courses - why?

Murphy: I like to bring in people who are working on these issues to get students out of their books and into the real world. Students love this opportunity to learn from people on the frontlines who know, better than anyone, the challenges and rewards of this work. This also gives the students an opportunity to think about potential job paths to pursue their passions after graduation. With all of these speakers, I like to end our discussions by asking guests to talk about what we can do about the issues. Sociology tends to be a social-problem-oriented discipline. While this is great for diagnosing problems, students want to know what they can do about them. When experts talk about the large and small contributions we can make in our everyday lives it helps students think about how their actions shape, and can differently shape, the social processes we’re studying.  

Q: Tell us something about yourself. What are some of the books on your nightstand?

Murphy: Right now I have Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, Between the World and Me and Bryan Stevenson’s new book, Just Mercy on my nightstand.

Q: That’s heady stuff. Nothing for pleasure?

Murphy: Those are a pleasure! My reading tends to be heavy. But I will tell you that to balance that out I love stand-up comedy and have very low-brow taste in movies and TV. This summer I saw Train Wreck and Pitch Perfect among others too embarrassing to mention. I love cheesy dance movies like Step Up or Stomp the Yard. I am also really into the TV show Empire. I can’t wait for the second season to start!  For some reason I get a particular joy out of being entertained by screen and stage stories that have nothing to do with what I research and just allow me to escape into ridiculousness.

Q: Okay, one more personal question. What’s been your biggest challenge?

Murphy: Well, this is not my biggest challenge, but one I face every day: walking my 150-pound English Mastiff, Olivia. The difficulty used to be getting her to stop pulling me, but now, as she has gotten older, the challenge has become pulling her along for the walk. When they see us out for a walk, people often ask, “who is walking who?” Sometimes I’m not quite sure.