Evidence and Ideas for Change 2020: A year like no other
Sarah Rosen Wartell
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What a year it has been! Public health and economic crises laid bare the underlying inequities and cultural gulfs in our country, and we were delivered painful reminders of how racism remains deeply woven in the fabric of our society.

Yet, in the midst of all the tragedies, norm breaking, and challenges that 2020 brought, some civic institutions really delivered, and we saw ingenuity and resilience on display across America. Election officials reinvented their systems in just months and defended them despite great pressure. The US Postal Service delivered an unprecedented number of ballots. New vaccines were delivered in record time. And our frontline workers were true heroes, serving in often reimagined roles.      

I have been inspired, most of all, by changemakers acting with purpose and passion to meet the unprecedented needs of their communities and by all the champions of equity bravely demanding change on the streets and within their own organizations.   

My colleagues here at the Urban Institute have shown that same purpose, passion, and valor—responding with urgency at a time like no other. I am enormously proud to be their colleague.

During 2020, they delivered groundbreaking research, data tools, and analysis to help changemakers better support our essential workerschildren falling behind in online school, and unemployed people struggling to feed their families. Their work informed decisions on how to support renters accruing large arrearages and facing eviction and neighborhoods of color contending with far too many shuttered businesses. And their findings shaped the debate in the US Supreme Court about the 20 million Americans at risk of losing health insurance if the Affordable Care Act is struck down.

Among the other ways Urban’s work made a difference in 2020:

  • In March, we issued Where Low-Income Jobs Are Being Lost to COVID-19, a regularly updated tool that has helped many local officials, service providers, and philanthropists target relief and recovery efforts. Also, because of a coronavirus tracking survey that Urban fielded in the early days of the pandemic, we were among the first to draw attention to shocking disparities in job losses and particularly severe job losses in Latinx communities.
  • In April, Urban organized a Renters and Rental Market Crisis Working Group, which has become a go-to source of information for federal policymakers and a broad range of affordable housing stakeholders. The working group helped us produce authoritative and widely cited estimates of the assistance needed to support renters affected by job losses. This analysis played a significant role in debate over CARES Act policies that have helped keep renters in their homes.
  • Our analyses were cited repeatedly in amicus briefs that led a federal judge in October to strike down new Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program work requirements as “arbitrary and capricious.” The Washington Post and other media cited Urban findings that “the combined impact of [this rule and two others] would cut 3.7 million people from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in an average month. Benefits would be reduced for millions more, and 982,000 students would lose automatic access to free or reduced-price school meals.”
  • Urban’s experts identified that, by using administrative records, the government could send COVID-19 stimulus payments to people with low incomes without requiring them to file an application for the checks—and convinced Congress to compel the White House to do so, delivering desperately needed cash to millions who might have otherwise been missed.
  • In our hometown, we supported the THRIVE East of the River direct cash and food assistance initiative by offering real-time data and guidance to help nonprofit agencies tailor their approaches. THRIVE DC has provided more than 150,000 meals in the past year, along with many other critical resources and supports.

Although COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated the structural and racial inequities our country is grappling with today, they did not begin in March, nor will they end when this pandemic has run its course. As Urban continues to deepen our understanding of the pandemic’s impact, we are also building platforms upon which leaders at every level can find new solutions designed to catalyze long-term systems change. They include the following:

  • WorkRise, a national research-to-action initiative that Urban launched this year to bring together leaders from diverse sectors to address structural racism and other systemic barriers to opportunity faced by workers with low incomes. We aim to identify policy and business practices that can rebuild our labor market so available jobs provide better economic mobility and genuine security for workers—especially Black and other people of color, women, and young people.
  • We are building resource hubs that offer consulting, training, and mentorship to researchers across Urban to improve our fluency in and capacity for racial equity analysis. Among them is Urban’s Structural Racism Resource Centerwhich, along with other efforts, is expanding our capacity to disaggregate data quickly, produce analyses that expose patterns of structural racism, and identify how equity-focused leaders can help drive change.
  • We advanced a Community Engaged Methods Groupto assist staff and projects that partner with people and communities experiencing racial inequity and injustice. The group supports Urban researchers in applying methods that respect and engage communities so we can better incorporate their priorities and perspectives into the design, execution, and interpretation of our research. In doing so, we endeavor to produce more culturally relevant research that helps to improve programs, services, and policies and builds community power. 

Finally, in 2020, we mastered the art of virtual convening. From multipanel, multiday gatherings such as our recent Promise Neighborhoods National Conference to short, intimate conversations like our Evidence to Action Series, we hosted more events than ever before, reacing larger, more diverse audiences. And through private working groups, such as Urban’s Mortgage Markets Collaborative, we convened researchers, advocates, industry experts, policymakers, and philanthropic organizations to build an evidence base around timely issues and spur innovations and new ideas for policy and business practice.


It has been a difficult year for so many personally and professionally. Yet we know we are the lucky ones, not only because we could transition quickly to be a virtual organization and enjoy relative stability, but also because our work serves a greater purpose and provides a chance to shape pathways to progress on the great challenges of our day. 

I hope that you, too, are feeling a renewed sense of optimism and purpose as we turn the calendar to a new year. And I hope we will continue to work together to ensure that facts and evidence help shape change that yields equity, opportunity, and inclusive growth.