Evidence and Ideas for Change A look back: Pressing issues Urban tackled in 2018
Sarah Rosen Wartell
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As 2018 comes to a close, I am especially grateful for—and proud of—my colleagues at the Urban Institute. They find and lift up facts and evidence that reveal the true consequences of policy choices, and their timely and relevant insights get attention! They also help changemakers around the country—who are tackling big problems—design, test, and accelerate solutions.

In this first of two year-end dispatches, I share with you a small sample of the pressing issues Urban tackled in 2018 and how our evidence-based contributions made a difference to the policy debate and to public understanding. In a subsequent note, I will address some of the ways we helped those on the front lines of change make progress.

Increasing mobility from poverty. Urban managed the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty, an effort that convened 24 brilliant leaders from across sectors to explore how to dramatically increase mobility from poverty. The Partnership’s framework, which helped shape the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s new $158 million commitment to promote upward mobility, is influencing how changemakers think about poverty and mobility in communities across the country.

What motivates people to work? In DC and on the campaign trail this year, politicians argued about the right way to help people struggling to make ends meet achieve the dignity that comes from gainful employment. The president directed agencies to build “work requirements” into public benefit programs, and advocates decried the callous indifference to hardship for those not meeting these requirements. While many argued from ideology, Urban relied upon decades of experience examining what works to move people to employment. Our review of the evidence on work requirements was called “required reading” by leading advocates and congressional aides. And findings from an Urban report showing that Medicaid work requirements in Kentucky could deny coverage to more than 120,000 people who face significant barriers to employment were widely used by advocates, media outlets, and attorneys in litigation challenging the requirement proposals.

Reducing prison populations. Using a new forecasting model, Urban identified policy pathways for reducing prison populations in almost every state. Anyone can use our tool to design a policy proposal and see its impact on incarceration and racial equity. The American Civil Liberties Union and its affiliates drew on this analysis to issue “Smart Justice State Blueprints” for state advocates and other stakeholders, and it continues to consult with Urban on its Campaign for Smart Justice, which has already won policy reforms in several states.

Black homeownership. The black homeownership rate is the same today as it was in 1968, the year housing discrimination was first made illegal. New Urban findings on dramatic declines in black homeownership and the consequences for the growing racial wealth gap drove a crescendo of concern by the media, housing industry participants, civil rights advocates, and policymakers. Urban researchers are working with various partners to advance housing finance innovations that can help communities of color safely build wealth and close the gap.

Protecting struggling families. Amid a flurry of budget and policy proposals that would reduce the support our social safety net provides struggling families, Urban’s rapid-response research educated policymakers about what the evidence says about the impact of proffered changes. This work generated nearly 2,000 mentions in national and local media and was used by many advocates at the state and national level to battle budget cuts, shape program guidelines, and more.

In 2018, Urban Institute analyses were cited often in courtrooms, agency rulemakings, state legislatures, city halls, and the US Capitol—on both sides of the aisle—demonstrating that we’re a trusted source of evidence and insight about the consequences of policy change. 

Even in these contentious and divided times, reliable insight can sometimes alter policy outcomes and can always help hold policymakers accountable for their choices.