President Lyndon B. Johnson founded the Urban Institute in 1968 to provide “power through knowledge” to help solve the problems that weighed heavily on the nation’s hearts and minds. Our organization was born at a tumultuous moment in American history, defined by severe political polarization, racial violence and segregation, and stark economic inequity. Early attempts to tackle discrimination and poverty were often shots in the dark without a clear understanding of whether new policies were working—or for whom.
Johnson believed Urban’s work could offer direction. He envisioned Urban as an independent social and economic policy institution strengthening the War on Poverty and other programs. Johnson urged Urban researchers to engage with decisionmakers at every level. And he stressed the value of using insights from research to help leaders pursue relevant, timely solutions to the problems families and communities were navigating across the country.
Today, many of the challenges and divisions of the 1960s persist. So does Urban’s focus on developing data and evidence that offer a more nuanced understanding of today’s pressing issues—and illuminate promising ways to address them. Now, as Urban looks to the decades ahead, we see how powerful shifts in technology, climate, demographics, and the global economy threaten to exacerbate inequalities and block opportunities for people to thrive. Unease about these disruptions has fueled a new level of polarization in our country. It has also endangered progress on racial and economic injustices so long at the center of the American story.
We, however, can imagine a more optimistic future, where today’s disruptive forces of change are harnessed to expand opportunities so everyone in this country has a fair shot at achieving their version of the American dream.
At Urban, we believe that data and evidence are essential to shaping a more inclusive, equitable, and just society.