The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 1, 2018

Accessing opportunity neighborhoods: Learning through tiered-evidence grantmaking

To ensure families can access opportunity-rich areas, we need to know what works. And to know what works, we need research that reveals the differences between interventions that make an impact and those that don’t move the needle.

Tiered-evidence grantmaking can identify effective interventions by allocating funding based on the strength of evidence tied to an approach or model. This growing grantmaking approach builds the knowledge base about promising approaches, encourages innovation, and promotes scaling what works in new places.

Tiered-evidence grantmaking has already been used at agencies around the federal government, including the US Departments of Education and Health and Human Services. In a newly released paper, we propose applying tiered-evidence grantmaking toward a critical goal—helping families access and stay in opportunity neighborhoods.

Definitions of “opportunity neighborhoods” vary, but research shows that living in neighborhoods that are safe, healthy, and connected to high-quality services, schools, and jobs can improve outcomes and economic mobility for children.

We’ve outlined three reasons tiered-evidence grantmaking can help policymakers learn how to best expand families’ access to opportunity.

1. Building more evidence

Evidence on interventions that increase access to opportunity is limited.

An analysis of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) Moving to Opportunity demonstration made a strong case for the importance of growing up in opportunity neighborhoods, but we still haven’t grasped the right mix of policies and program features that consistently help families access such neighborhoods.

We’ve proposed a new demonstration to fund promising interventions and evaluate them. Through a tiered model, interventions that show signs of effectiveness can apply for additional funding for more rigorous evaluation and replication to new sites.

By supporting scaling and replication, tiered-evidence grantmaking can address the replication crisis, where strong evaluation results cannot be reproduced in other contexts or locations.

2. Encouraging innovation

Tiers will support new approaches and validate ones that have been tested. Tiered-evidence grantmaking also encourages applicants to experiment with new approaches by providing modest awards to explore new ideas or improve existing programs.

This development tier’s low barrier of entry would help new, innovative programs build their evidence base. HUD could consider other program features to further lower barriers to innovation, such as a two-stage application process that pairs promising ideas with experienced researchers to vet the proposals and develop an evaluation plan.

3. Supporting local flexibility

This demonstration would allow applicants—such as public housing agencies, local governments, nonprofit organizations, and affordable housing developers—to apply for support of the models that make sense for their community.

Many strategies can help families access and stay in low-poverty neighborhoods. These include providing vouchers or subsidies to find housing in the private market, increasing the supply of units in high-opportunity neighborhoods, and using comprehensive place-based strategies to transform high-poverty neighborhoods into places of opportunity.

Our proposed demonstration does not limit eligibility to a subset of these interventions and offers pathways for models with both robust and nascent bodies of evidence. This flexibility supports the demonstration’s goal of providing a better understanding of the mechanisms that most effectively increase access to opportunity and support economic mobility.

Tiered-evidence grantmaking can boost economic mobility for families and children by promoting evidence-based policies while providing incentives for and testing new, innovative ideas.

A view of downtown financial district in San Francisco, Ca. Photo by Somchaij/Shutterstock.

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