Evidence and Ideas for Change A remarkable 2019
Sarah Rosen Wartell
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For the Urban Institute, 2019 was a transformative year, when, in celebration of our 50th anniversary, we embarked on our Next50, an exploratory process that produced fresh bodies of research, fostered new partnerships, and clarified how we must work in the future. It represented just a sliver of what we accomplished this year. We also launched the Center for Education Data and Policy and the Housing Matters initiative. We kicked off exciting projects, such as the Prison Research and Innovation Initiative, and expanded well-established bodies of work, such as that on apprenticeships. We also reframed our long-standing focus on race and discrimination to deliver more data and analysis on structural and systemic issues that drive racial inequities in this country. We have daily evidence that Urban’s work is making a difference in policy and practice in communities, capitals, and boardrooms across the country. In my final newsletter for 2019, I want to share with you just a handful of contributions this institution I’m so grateful and proud to lead made during this remarkable year. Informing national debates with research

  • Urban’s analysis of eight health care reforms continues to be a go-to guide for understanding the complicated trade-offs of the 2020 Democratic hopefuls’ different health care reform plans—Medicare for All, universal coverage, a public option—and their potential effects on health insurance coverage and spending.
  • Our timely analysis helped shape debate on the administration’s proposed changes to the “public charge” rule, which would make it more difficult for immigrants to become lawful permanent residents. We demonstrated that families are avoiding public activities out of fear, thereby limiting their access to safety net programs. Our work, issued in English and Spanish, helped inform many public comments on the proposed rule and was cited by media nationally and worldwide, from Time and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, to Univision (featuring Urban research analyst Dulce Gonzalez), RTÉ in Ireland, and Folha de S.Paulo in Brazil.

Promoting shared prosperity

  • Through our Shared Prosperity Partnership (SP2), we helped the Arlington Community Foundation respond to the imminent arrival of Amazon’s HQ2. We organized and supported a convening of stakeholders that developed strategies for limiting the displacement of residents with lower incomes and ensuring that all residents could contribute to economic growth. This effort played a key role in Amazon’s $3 million grant to the foundation to create and preserve affordable housing and provide support services. And in Fresno, California—where data show that growth was less inclusive than in any other metropolitan area in the state—an SP2 roundtable held in partnership with the Central Valley Community Foundation helped lay the groundwork for Frenso DRIVE. Earlier this month, Governor Newsom cited the 10-year investment plan as a useful economic development template for other regions in California during his keynote at the California Forward Summit.   

Leveraging research technology and data science

  • Urban launched our Education Data Explorer, a first-of-its-kind resource that draws on cutting-edge technology to bring all publicly available data on schools, districts, and colleges under the same roof. We’ve also standardized the information so it’s easy to access data, measure change over time, and make connections across datasets.

Shaping state and local policy

  • Mayor Lori Lightfoot highlighted a new Urban analysis of capital flows into Chicago neighborhoods in her announcement of a new equitable economic development strategy that brings investment to more communities.
  • Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan announced a new state policy to raise thresholds on personal assets to help residents remain eligible for cash, food, and emergency relief assistance programs. The state Health and Human Services director used 2016 Urban research to help convince legislators and constituents that the change would improve family households’ financial security and decrease administrative program costs.
  • The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments unanimously adopted region-wide targets for housing production, location, and affordability in Greater DC. The council’s decision was heavily shaped by Urban’s analysis of the region’s future housing needs, which we provided with the support of the Greater Washington Partnership.

Illuminating solutions to racial inequity

  • Urban’s groundbreaking work on dramatic declines in black homeownership helped make the issue an urgent concern in advocacy and policy circles. Along with delivering powerful new findings, we showed how a set of housing finance innovations can build wealth in communities of color and helped launch a collaborative effort to spark policy change nationally and in key cities.
  • As part of our Measure4Change initiative, in December we convened diverse experts from nonprofits, government, and philanthropy to explore how to better define, measure, and strengthen efforts to achieve racial equity and inclusion (REI) within organizations. The event attracted an overflow audience and showed there is intense demand for more data-driven REI strategies and tools. Measure4Change is collaborating with experts in Urban’s Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy to provide practical solutions and technical assistance on this critical topic moving forward.

Informing policymaking

  • Urban research on landlords’ refusal to house tenants who pay rent through housing choice vouchers propelled US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson to launch nationwide listening forums and a HUD-wide landlord task force to hear from and encourage more landlords to participate in the Housing Choice Voucher Program. Our research also helped prompt new source of income discrimination laws in Los Angeles County and Baltimore County.
  • Insights from a national survey Urban conducted on state prosecutors’ capacity to collect and use data to make decisions informed a first-of-its-kind legislation in Connecticut that requires the routine collection, analysis, and reporting of prosecutorial data. And at the federal level, Urban experts were asked to provide information from our report to help inform Rep. Alma Adams’s (D-NC) development of new federal legislation that would require state prosecutors to collect and share data on their decisionmaking.

Providing accessible insights to influencers

  • Urban’s analysis of families’ challenges accessing child care—particularly parents working nontraditional hours—spotlighted investment in center-based care versus informal home-based settings. Our work has also contributed to a groundswell of concern among funders and policymakers about access overall and the importance of home-based care. These issues are now a focus of the Office of Child Care, which is visiting communities around the country to better understand the challenges families are navigating.
  • Our interactive digital features bring rigorous evidence to life and empower users to see the impact of their own policy preferences. Two of our standouts from this year feature design and illustrations by design specialist Allison Feldman—our 2020 Census feature showing who is at risk of being miscounted and our tracker on free and reduced-price lunch as a measurement of student poverty, both of which continue to be a resource for decisionmakers nationwide.

I’m excited about what 2020 will bring for us, and I hope you can be a part of it. Urban’s new home offers terrific opportunities for collaboration and convening—with a great view, to boot. Come visit!