Inequality Scholars Spotlight: Sun Kyoung Lee

Sep 22, 2022

Understanding Urban Planning and Segregation in New York

“A country and a city of extremes” 

Did you know American cities are more segregated today than they were 100 years ago? Urban economist and new CID faculty member Sun Kyoung Lee, Ph.D., has spent the last several years studying archives and digitizing historical records to track and understand various aspects of inequality during America’s urbanization. 

Her primary research interests include the role of public policies in understanding inequality, urban and housing development, and building large-scale data infrastructures via record linkage. During her doctoral study, Sun won several grants from the National Science Foundation to investigate various aspects of inequality during America’s urbanization. 

For example, her research investigates how the provision of urban transportation infrastructure in New York City facilitated racial segregation. In a recent working paper, Sun created a new panel dataset to show that the construction of the New York subway system in the early 1900s and zoning laws resulted in segregated neighborhoods. The dataset is derived from historical U.S. federal population censuses from 1870 to 1940 and newly digitized real-estate sales transaction records. Over four years, Sun and her research team scanned,digitized, and linked more than two million real estate records spanning seven decades to create the dataset. 

The paper was awarded the Best Paper Award by a Junior Scholar by the American Real Estate and Urban Economics Association (AREUEA) in June 2022. 

The data highlight the links between policy and inequality at the neighborhood level. Divisions created by the subway system and zoning ordinances have endured for more than a century, with especially severe economic consequences for Black Americans.

“New York has an unthinkable amount of wealth in one place but at the same time, you see a really struggling population all within a five-minute walking distance,” Sun said. “The first thing that came to my mind was wondering if people are thinking about this inequality enough? What is a sustainable way to think about this?”

With her postdoctoral appointment at Yale Economic Growth Center behind her, Sun said she plans to explore these issues and other social problems further.

“A gut reaction to unfairness and social injustice”

“Justice and inequality have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, even as a little girl, I would ask, ‘Is this just?’” Sun recalled. “And my parents thought it was interesting that I had such a gut reaction to unfairness and injustice.”

That passion for seeking justice channeled into close observations of the world, even as a child.

Sun found what was happening in the world outside of where she grew up in South Korea to be hugely interesting. “I started reading the Financial TimesThe New York Times, The Economist, and many other international newspapers at a relatively young age,” she explained. “I was always interested in international politics, international relations, the economic ties between countries – things like that. It dawned on me while studying an economic textbook that whatever I was reading about would often be explained by what is really happening in the economy.”

“It was hard for me to understand the penetrating fundamentals like how the machinery world works, but I really felt that I understood certain principles. I was maybe 15 or 16 years old, and I realized I should understand economics to see how I view international relations and politics.” 

That interest in the international landscape led to further reading about Apartheid in South Africa. “Reading about what happened in South Africa was a very different story from everything I knew in my life in South Korea as a kid,” she explained. “I wanted to know how it happened. It was such a process. I began reading more about South Africa, Nelson Mendala, and then I began thinking about the role of institutions in understanding inequality.”

While in high school, Sun entered an essay competition hosted by the South African embassy commemorating the end of Apartheid. 

She won the contest at age 15, which earned her a trip to visit South Africa, 10 years after the end of Apartheid.

“It was unbelievable,” Sun recalls. “I was very, very eager to see this completely different world.”

Seeing the impact of Apartheid in South Africa

“I was lucky to have had a super thoughtful program officer who included a 3-day house stay to one of the poorest and most segregated regions of South Africa in my itinerary, a neighborhood called Soweto that is still struggling today,” Sun said.

“What I felt and experienced in Soweto – there was lots of poverty and a very stark line of inequality. In one of the supermarkets, I really saw how your skin color determined which stores you go to, which products you can buy. White people in South Africa bought British products, while the black people bought local products. When I asked supermarket cashiers ‘why we see racial lines in the supermarket aisle,’ they just shrugged, not knowing where to begin and/or not sure how much to share with me.”

“Although I saw a lot of poverty and crime, part of me felt that South Africa was really real. I had been hearing a lot of stories about what poverty can do to people. So, I started asking, ‘Suppose if this country becomes wealthier – what kind of problems can be solved?’” Sun asked. “Would there be lower crime? But which social problems can we solve immediately – or rather quickly – by handing over more cash and which persist in a more severe form? And how do we understand them?”

Sun said she knew it wasn’t a coincidence that she focused on the economic and social issues as she looked back on her experiences abroad. 

“For me that was very surprising to see this extreme inequality – didn’t Apartheid end? There was such a stark divide and no exception to the rule. Though at the time, it wasn’t clear to me, it really impacted how I wanted to understand the world.”

Understanding the world through economics

Sun’s travel experiences only deepened her interest in economics. 

“I studied economics straight through school,” she explained. “I thought originally I would study international relations or politics, but the economic framework sounded really interesting. What really fascinated me about economics was that the economics approach builds on people’s incentive-based decision-making rather than pure altruism or philanthropy.” Sun said she enrolled in literally every economics course that was offered at Yonsei University, where she obtained her bachelor of arts in economics. 

An internship in the U.S. Embassy really cemented Sun’s decision to pursue economics over international relations or another related discipline. “It was interesting to be part of the economic task force team and work to understand the terms of the active trade agreement between the U.S. and Korea, but I didn’t understand what the terms of the trade really meant. For example, if Korea exports a Korean car, and then imports a particular type of barley – what did that mean? My primary engagement was about the manufacturing car industry in Seoul and I learned more about labor relations than the economic impact and trade.” 

“I was writing out all of the detailed reports, but I struggled to understand the big picture. As much as I enjoyed the work, I didn’t have the toolkit to process it in any substantial way. I still felt like I didn’t understand many things, so I started preparing for grad school and decided to go onto my Ph.D.” 

Sun ultimately chose to attend Columbia University for her doctorate because of their research expertise in urban trade, international trade, and development. Her school visit to New York confirmed her interest in Columbia.

“I arrived in New York City in 2012 – in some ways it was at the height of increasing gentrification, displacement, and evictions. Every day felt like a new battle between people who are educated and college graduates and people who are losing their homes.”

“In some sense, when I saw what was happening in New York, I felt like I was reviving and reliving the feelings I went through in South Africa as a teenager. New York has stark inequality reminiscent of South Africa.“

Sun acknowledged that there are aspects of social problems all around the world, “but in New York it is so stark – just as stark as South Africa. In neighborhoods near Harlem, there are ultra-wealthy neighborhoods with guards, and then you see homeless people, people who are starving, people with drug issues. Who creates this line and what causes these divides?” 

Pursuing the answers to these questions led Sun down the path to urban economics. She received her Ph.D in economics from Columbia University in 2019. 

“I wanted to understand the fundamental structural force behind these inequalities.”

“New York is a city of extremes in the country of extremes, but it is also an opportunity because we have such great wealth, talent, and minds available to us in the United States. It’s the richest nation in the world, and many talented people born in other countries still come here because of the spectrum of opportunity it provides. It makes me excited to see what we can achieve to create change and increase equality.”

Sun arrived at CID in September 2022 after a postdoctoral period at the Economic Growth Center at Yale University as well as a  2-week-research stay at the Center for Regional Economic Development (CRED) at the University of Bern, Switzerland this summer. 

“I’m so excited to help CID push forward wealth and inequality research and to help expand the social sciences data infrastructure that truly reflects the fourth industrial revolution era we are living in. I chose to join CID as I felt confident that this is where I can pursue my passion for studying inequality and enhancing the data infrastructure for social sciences in an unparalleled way,” Sun said.

Learn more about Sun by visiting her website.


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