The country finally began to turn a corner on the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, with vaccines becoming available, many businesses reopening, and families once again spending holidays together. Yet even as hope for a new normal returned, uncertainty reigned. Many people and the cities, towns, and tribal lands they call home continued to navigate the unequal health and economic effects of the pandemic.
In response, community activists, business leaders, philanthropists, and elected officials at every level sought strategies to build more resilient communities and eliminate long-standing systemic inequities.
For many of these changemakers, the Urban Institute is where they found answers.
A new presidential administration turned to Urban for our evaluation of the racial and equity impacts in decisionmaking as its domestic agenda focused on issues central to Urban’s mission and expertise. We were at the forefront of the development of equitable research methods and analytic tools sought by policy, corporate, and philanthropic players across the country. And we were a chosen partner for local leaders forging a reimagined future for their communities.
In 2021, Urban elevated our capacity as the reference standard for informed decisions that affect people’s lives and their communities. In this look back at the year, we share with you some stories of how our data and research made a difference.
Urban’s expertise and analytics informed how corporations and government at all levels can advance racial equity
Providing insights to respond to the presidential order on racial equity
Urban’s Racial Equity Analytics Lab (REAL) was a key source for White House and agency leaders seeking to advance President Biden’s Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities. Drawing on expertise from across Urban, our REAL team shared insights and resources in more than 35 meetings with staff from 19 federal agencies and piloted a new model of intensive technical assistance with two agencies. We developed a comprehensive guide to Urban’s tools and resources for equity assessment, five of which were featured in a major report to the president required under the executive order. And in November, we organized Expanding the Toolkit for Equity Assessment: State-of-the-Art Methods for Federal Agencies, a virtual conference attended by 72 officials from 27 agencies as well as outside experts. REAL is continuing to advise agency leaders while developing new resources that respond to their needs.
Illuminating inequities in communities
Urban’s Spatial Equity Data Tool allows anyone from neighborhood activists to state policymakers to quickly identify geographic and demographic inequities in their communities. Local bodies such as Bloomington, Indiana’s Pedestrian and Bike Safety Commission and Olympia, Washington’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee have used it to inform decisions and recommendations. Advocates have applied our tool to analyze the distribution of 911 service requests in Denver, new construction building permits in Chicago, broken McDonald’s ice cream machines in Houston, and economic and racial inequities in car crashes in Cincinnati. For changemakers committed to remedying long-standing injustices, Urban’s tool has great potential to help shape strategies for the equitable allocation of critical resources.
Helping the private sector fulfill its racial equity commitments
After the private and philanthropic sectors made at least $215 billion in commitments to racial equity in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Urban has helped a number of major corporate philanthropies fulfill their commitments in ways that achieve real impact. For example, to inform its One Million Black Women initiative, Goldman Sachs enlisted Urban to develop a learning community of scholars from historically Black colleges and universities. In collaboration with Urban, these scholars will grow the evidence base for public- and private-sector efforts to help Black women increase their wealth. Drawing on our research, data science, and technical assistance capacities, we are also collaborating with Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft, Salesforce, and U.S. Bank on projects that can help meet their equity goals.
Urban’s data and evidence strengthened equitable local, state, and private-sector decisionmaking
Narrowing the racial wealth gap
In 2021, District of Columbia leaders relied on Urban experts’ evidence-informed insights to understand the role baby bonds could play in shrinking the city’s racial wealth gap. City leaders followed the state of Connecticut to become the second place in the country to establish a baby bonds program, or publicly funded trust accounts for children from families with low incomes. Months before the legislation’s passage, Urban experts testified before DC’s Committee on Business and Economic Development on what factors drive wealth inequality and how baby bonds could serve as a solution. Their testimony was built upon years of data and evidence Urban has delivered on wealth inequality in the US, and in DC, specifically, and our exploration of the promise of baby bonds.
Prioritizing resources for struggling renters
As the economic effects of the pandemic continued to exacerbate the country’s affordable housing crisis, local leaders had to decide where to prioritize their resources and how to help renters at greatest risk of housing instability. Urban experts responded by designing an easy-to-use tool that identifies neighborhoods where renters most needed emergency financial support to stay in their homes. Our tool facilitated an equitable approach by accounting for the greater health and economic impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic faced by certain groups, including Black, Latinx, and Native American renters. We also developed an equity checklist to help state and local administrators prioritize racial equity when designing and implementing their rental assistance programs. By applying Urban’s tool and checklist, local leaders have been able to make strategic, more equitable decisions about the financial support they provide, thereby better reducing housing instability and homelessness.
Urban’s analyses elevated the national policy conversation around a country rebuilding from crisis
Informing pandemic-era policy discussions on eviction
America’s 44 million renters continue to face headwinds from steeply rising rent prices to depleted emergency rental assistance. In 2021, Urban’s Renters and Rental Market Crisis Working Group—which has convened policy leaders, industry groups, researchers, and advocates to develop solutions to stabilize renters and rental housing owners since early 2020—continued to be an important information source for Washington decisionmakers. For instance, the working group’s recommendations and our Housing Crisis Research Collaborative’s research on eviction diversion and prevention strategies informed a White House eviction prevention summit where 50 cities committed to developing local policies. And the Treasury Department included Urban’s evidence-based recommendations on how states and localities can more quickly provide rental assistance to people in its emergency rental assistance program guidance.
Urban’s data and analysis on how pandemic relief programs and other legislation would affect families experiencing poverty led to widespread media coverage, including a collaboration with the New York Times for a front-page story on the issue. Our projections also garnered interest from the White House and other policymakers.
Showing what cash assistance could mean for poverty
Pandemic relief programs, including stimulus payments, an extended child tax credit, and unemployment benefits provided by the American Rescue Plan and other legislation in 2020 and 2021 aimed to buoy Americans hobbled by a dual health and economic crisis. Urban’s experts used our unique Analysis of Transfers, Taxes, and Income Security microsimulation tool to demonstrate that expanded child tax credit payments along with other relief efforts and the standard safety net would slash child poverty by 81 percent, relative to the projected 2021 rate in the absence of any safety net. We also estimated that the pandemic-era government aid would cut nationwide poverty by close to half in 2021 from pre-pandemic levels, when using a comprehensive poverty definition. Urban’s analysis of the relief programs represented the only extensive assessment of antipoverty impacts of these safety net changes, some of the most significant modifications in the past several decades.