In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson founded the Urban Institute to “help solve the problem that weighs heavily on the hearts and minds of all of us—the problem of the American city and its people.” The Urban Institute was born at a time of severe polarization, as Americans clashed about whether and how to grapple with the country’s deep legacy of racism and segregation. Early attempts to lift families out of poverty and narrow inequities were often stabs in the dark without a clear understanding of whether new policies were working—or for whom. Among Urban’s first contributions was a microsimulation tool that forecasted the combined effects of federal antipoverty programs on family well-being. How did cash benefits, food stamps, tax credits, and other subsidies interact? And were they helping people get ahead? Since then, Urban researchers have built a portfolio of microsimulation models on taxes, health insurance, and retirement security. Each is built to predict how people, communities, and spending will be affected by proposed policy reforms—giving policymakers and the public crucial information to better shape and target solutions.
Making Facts Matter for 50 Years—and Counting
When President Richard Nixon declared a moratorium on subsidized housing construction, Urban experts were among the first to explore how housing vouchers could address housing needs and support economic advancement among low-income families. Our research provided critical support for the bipartisan consensus that emerged in favor of this market-driven policy. Over three decades, we tracked outcomes for voucher recipients and recommended design and implementation changes to strengthen the performance of the voucher program.
President Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 set in motion dramatic domestic policy changes. To analyze the effects of these changes on people and communities, Urban launched the decade-long Changing Domestic Priorities project. Findings touched on every sphere of policy and American life—including family income, economic growth, poverty, elder care, taxes, and fiscal choices—and placed the administration’s policies in historical perspective. This work revealed a mixed record in achieving such goals as shrinking government’s size and scope, reducing taxes, strengthening the military, streamlining regulation, and cutting entitlements.
As fragile democracies emerged in Eastern Europe, they faced practical questions about how to transition to a market economy, provide basic services, and generate tax revenues. Drawing upon Urban’s broad policy expertise and a decade of work in developing countries, our experts provided hands-on help to local officials to strengthen the capacity of local governments, expand citizen participation, and improve performance management—practices that are now replicated across the globe.
Welfare reform in 1996 ended more than 60 years of guaranteed cash assistance to struggling families and turned responsibility for much of the social safety net over to states. The historic shifts raised many questions: How would states perform the devolved role? How would families fare under “work-first” programs? And what would happen to families once they stopped receiving assistance? Urban’s intensive research project, Assessing the New Federalism, tracked more than 40,000 families across the country, profiled state agencies’ capacities and challenges, and created a database of evolving state welfare rules. This vital information filled the vacuum created when the federal government cut back on welfare monitoring and offered a comprehensive history of welfare reform’s effects on families. One early finding revealed the critical role of food stamps in the new safety net, leading to lasting changes in enrollment policies to ensure families receive the benefits to which they are entitled.
The start of the new century witnessed a new round of income tax cuts, and post-9/11 national unity disintegrated as new budget battles ensued. It became clear that decisionmakers, media, and the public needed unbiased information to cut through political rancor on fiscal and tax policy. Researchers from the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution established a joint Tax Policy Center, distinguished for its respected tools that evaluate and explain distributional and cost effects of competing tax reform proposals with rigorous and transparent analysis. The Tax Policy Center continues to frame the national conversation about tax and fiscal policy during election cycles and in policy debates, including the heated debate about the most recent tax cuts proposed and implemented by the Trump administration.
In the months after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, shock gave way to deep concern about how to bring this unique city back to social, cultural, and economic health. Many of New Orleans's problems—widespread poverty, a failing public education system, low wages, and a weak tax base—predated the storm. The rebuilding effort afforded a chance to tackle these challenges. Urban delivered evidence-based insights to help the city’s residents rebuild their social and economic infrastructure. In addition to offering strategies for providing urgently needed housing, jobs, health care, and schools, we helped decisionmakers rethink the role the safety net plays in the face of disasters and supported nonprofit and government efforts to tackle long-standing challenges laid bare by the storm.
After years of escalating housing prices and speculative financing, the subprime mortgage meltdown triggered a crisis that led to the Great Recession. Economist Ned Gramlich warned policymakers about predatory lending in the Urban Institute Press book Subprime Mortgages: America’s Latest Boom and Bust. Several of the book’s recommendations were later adopted by the Federal Reserve Board to tighten mortgage-lending standards. In 2013, Urban established the Housing Finance Policy Center, led by Wall Street analyst Laurie Goodman. The center has assembled an unparalleled data inventory and brings timely, impartial analyses to decisionmakers who have grappled with how best to rebuild the housing finance system, shape future capital market policies and regulations, and tackle long-standing inequities in access to homeownership.
After prior health reform efforts failed, the Obama administration took up the issue again, crafting a complex reform package modeled on the Massachusetts plan. Urban researchers had helped inform and evaluate Massachusetts’s universal coverage program, and they were called upon again to help design the Affordable Care Act (ACA). After it was passed, Urban researchers evaluated nearly every aspect of the ACA to assess whether it was working as intended and how it affected the economy, employers, and people. Their analysis was cited by Supreme Court justices in deciding the law’s constitutionality. More recently, when Congress debated how to “repeal and replace” the ACA, Urban’s analysis provided essential facts about the number of people who would lose their health insurance in every state.
From health care and taxes to the social safety net, Urban served as the trusted source for decisionmakers engaged in fast-moving policy debates in 2017. Our rapid-response analyses of proposals to repeal and replace the ACA significantly shaped the debate over the legislation’s future. At the same time, our experts delivered timely analyses of the many versions of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. And as Congress and state legislatures considered significant changes to long-standing social programs that help struggling families afford food, health care, housing, and child care, Urban’s sophisticated modeling tools and rapid-response surveys revealed how transforming the social safety net would affect the health and well-being of millions of families.
As Urban celebrates a 50-year legacy of impact, we are also challenging ourselves to continue using the power of evidence to support families’ economic security, promote racial and economic justice, and revitalize communities. Today, our society is transforming at a dizzying pace, with technological, demographic, and global economic shifts reshaping how we live and work. Some will benefit from these forces of change, while others risk being left behind. As Urban looks to the future, we are identifying solutions that can advance equity and upward mobility in the decades ahead—and determining what data and evidence would accelerate the most promising ideas. In partnership with philanthropists, activists, policymakers, CEOs, and other agents of change, we are pursuing a vision where all people, regardless of their identity or their zip code, have the chance to thrive in communities that are rich with opportunity.