Within the context of environmental justice, this essay will identify publicly available socio-economic data sets and suggest how they may be used for more effective empirical research (allowing for collaboration between scholars and practitioners). For analytical purposes, the important questions regarding any given instance of environmental injustice fall into four broad categories: problem definition, history of the problem, measurement of the problem, and availability of solutions to the problem. There is very little in the experience of most citizens, or most public officials, which would prepare them to embark upon this kind of scavenger hunt. Providing some clues, and even a rough map, to aid in the search for answers is the purpose of this article.
A 2004 symposium issue of the International Journal of Public Administration explored the maturation of the field of public administration. In this issue Richard Johnson criticized the discipline for taking a narrow approach to questions of diversity and social equity by concentrating on issues of race and gender. He suggested the discipline refocus its efforts to include class-related research (Johnson, 2004) Other authors have documented the extent to which public administration research has focused on race and gender while neglecting social class (and sexual orientation). Oldfield, Chandler, and Johnson (2004) conducted a four country review (Australia, Brazil, Canada, United States) of public administration literature and found nearly all the social equity articles focused on race and gender with little attention to social class. The explanations offered for the lack of research on social class range from class bias in higher education to the "professionalization" of public administration. These authors have argued that low-income families are the most underrepresented group at major universities. This is true among both students and faculty, few of whom have significant personal experience with issues of social class (Oldfield, Chandler, & Johnson, 2004, p. 165-166) The authors also argue that because "professionalization [of public administration] promotes and responds to the needs of the state, it can and often does set the permissible limits of scholarly debate." Consequently, there is an almost total neglect of (or relative silence about) the distribution of wealth in a "society of unequal social classes?" (Johnson, 2003, p. 512). While community activists often find this frustrating, understanding the source of the problem is essential to reframing appeals for greater attention to issues of social equity.
Another possible explanation for this blind spot of public administration research on the subject of social class is that the concept, whatever its explanatory power, does not constitute a "strategic" variable in our system of government. To put the matter indelicately, it is illegal to discriminate against someone because of race, but it isn't illegal to discriminate against someone who is poor. Public administrators understand (better than most) that race is a political and legal trump card. By comparison, social class is an interesting phenomenon, but not a potent category. Racial discrimination comes "prepackaged" with its own sense of urgency and a readily apparent range of solutions. Given these background facts, public administration researchers, particularly those who target a practitioner audience, might be forgiven if they respond more eagerly to what the law problematizes than to what it tacitly permits. But as Oldfield, Candler, & Johnson (2004) suggest, the American Society for Public Administration Code of Ethics exhorts researchers to take a proactive approach to issues of social class and inequity and urges them to work to improve and change laws and policies that are counterproductive or obsolete. Understanding this problematic relationship between the legal environment and …