The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
July 8, 2016

Four insights on reducing poverty and increasing opportunity

This June and July, Urban Institute scholars will offer evidence-based ideas for reducing poverty and increasing opportunity.

Over the past month, Urban Institute scholars have offered concrete solutions and strategies for reducing poverty and increasing opportunity. Their contributions addressed critical challenges facing many Americans today, from developing valuable workplace skills to finding stable and affordable housing to ensuring kids get a good start in life. Well-designed policies can and do help people build better lives.

Our scholars’ contributions also illustrated four broad insights about effective policy.

1. Policies should reflect the reality and diversity of people’s lives.

Policies work best when they assist people with different life circumstances and reflect their varied needs. Tax credits, for example, benefit low-income workers who have children at home but do little for people who don’t. Expanding the earned income tax credit to childless workers would encourage work and reduce poverty. Child care and early education programs would be more effective for both kids and parents if program design recognized the often-irregular hours of low-income workers. Families facing financial emergencies would benefit more from food assistance and similar programs if they could receive same-day service.

2. Policymakers should emphasize evidence, evaluation, and outcomes.

To reduce poverty and increase mobility, we must invest in programs that work. Good intentions aren’t enough; we need to know what works and what doesn’t and incorporate lessons to improve outcomes. Government should rely on evidence when designing antipoverty policies and programs, and continuously assess their ability to yield results.

Governments should also do more to identify and use administrative data to evaluate program performance. And they should expand use of tiered-funding structures to ensure funding goes to programs with the highest level of impact. One such funding structure, pay for success, has proven to be particularly promising in delivering results and warrants further expansion and testing.

3. Place matters.

Where you live has an outsize effect on your chances in life and those of your kids, from your ability to secure stable housing to access to quality education.

One way to improve the lives of residents in distressed neighborhoods is to invest in comprehensive revitalization strategies that strengthen and sustain community institutions. Another is to help residents access better services that may be available in other communities (e.g., school choice may enable families to send their children to higher-quality schools). And a third is to help people move to areas with better schools and community resources.

4. Governments should build strong relationships with other levels of governments, nonprofit service providers, philanthropies, and other partners.

Governments need partners: local nonprofits that provide services to families in need, national philanthropies that foster new ideas and innovation, and other levels of government that help design and implement programs. At the most basic level, government should be a good partner, paying service providers on time and covering their costs.

Governments can also do more to hold their partners accountable for outcomes—that is, real improvements in life circumstances—rather than raw outputs. Policymakers can use innovative funding mechanisms like pay for success that bring in private capital and expertise and harness them to pursue better outcomes. And the federal government can give states greater flexibility in programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which can reduce poverty and boost opportunity.   

Poverty and limited mobility are pressing concerns for leaders across the political spectrum, and the number of proposals and initiatives to tackle these complex issues is on the rise.

House Speaker Paul Ryan released a “Better Way” plan in June that focuses on preparing Americans for work, tailoring government benefits to better meet people’s needs, and increasing government accountability through more rigorous evaluation.

President Obama’s final budget emphasized “opportunity for all,” including efforts to improve education and training and increase the focus on employment in welfare programs.

And smaller proposals and projects, such as housing choice vouchers, are offering new models and innovative approaches to help Americans improve their lives.

Those efforts will work best if policymakers move away from “one-size-fits-all” policies and instead address the diversity of people and their needs, create and monitor programs based on evidence of their performance, design policies that reflect the importance of place, and strengthen partnerships with others working toward the same goals.

A WOW JAM, in partnership with the LA Mission, took place on Skid Row. The event, to help the homeless, included dancing, makeovers, family portraits, haircuts and face painting. Janine Betts, right, gets a hug from a friend at the beginning of the event. Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.