Urban Wire The battles ahead in the war on poverty: a Q&A with Urban Institute President Sarah Rosen Wartell
Zachary J. McDade
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Urban Institute was founded in the early years of President Johnson’s War on Poverty and was charged, in part, with evaluating the Great Society programs. The institute’s mission has since grown, but economic opportunity and the protection of vulnerable populations, including the poor, remain core concerns. Sarah Rosen Wartell, president of the Urban Institute, talks about the challenges ahead and Urban’s role in the next 50 years of the fight.

How are we faring in the war on poverty? And how has Urban Institute contributed to the fight?

I agree with what Peter Edelman said in his book So Rich, So Poor that we’ve made progress in combating poverty—that without social welfare programs, many more people would be poor and that poor people would suffer greater hardship—but we still have tremendous challenges ahead.  Some programs have been more effective than others and we must always strive to focus investment in the most successful strategies.

Urban has contributed by developing knowledge to help shape policies and find solutions—and that’s true for poverty as it is for the many other issues we study. Our role is understanding and diagnosing problems, but also developing policy options, assessing different proposals, designing demonstrations, and evaluating the outcomes. We have a broad array of tools in our tool-belt to accomplish that, including four powerful microsimulation models and two more in the works.

For example, when welfare reform was implemented in the 1990s, Urban Institute scholars documented that one of the consequences was fewer families signing up for food stamps—even though they were eligible and in need—because, in the past, people would typically register for both cash assistance and food stamps at the same time. Urban’s work led to policies that made it easier for eligible families to enroll in the food stamp program. We observed a problem, began to understand the underlying causes, and helped assess policies to solve that problem.

The analytic capacities that we bring to policy allow us to answer a broad range of questions. But given our founding purpose, which was studying the crisis in the cities and the war on poverty, mitigating hardships for vulnerable populations has always been one of the core pillars of our work.

What are the challenges ahead?

The changing demographics of our society, for one. Our population continues to grow, principally because of growth in minority populations that have historically been disproportionately poor, so unless we deal with the legacies of past disparities, we could find ourselves growing poorer as a nation. Gregory Acs, director of Urban’s Income and Benefits Policy Center, and his team recently revisited the Moynihan report, which was written at the beginning of the War on Poverty and argued that the decline of the black nuclear family was at the root of racial disparities in poverty and opportunity (though debate continues over whether it’s the primary cause). Over the past 50 years, and I’m quoting Greg here, “the statistics that so alarmed Moynihan”—a decline in marriage, children born outside of marriage, the share of kids who live with single mothers—“have only grown worse, not only for blacks, but for whites and Hispanics as well.”

The changing demographics around race is one issue, the changing demographics around age is another. Other advanced economies are aging. We are unique in that we’re both aging and growing at the younger end of our population. We’ve done a good job of lowering poverty rates for the elderly, although pockets remain, but we really must turn more of our attention to child poverty and its long-term costs and implications. That is one reason I am so excited that Urban is collaborating with Belle Sawhill and her colleagues at Brookings’s Center on Children and Families to use our modeling expertise to develop further the Social Genome Model. A number of Urban scholars are working to understand which strategies work to break the cycle of poverty and make it possible for children to remain resilient and overcome stress from poverty and other challenges.

A third major poverty challenge is deep and persistent poverty. Much of our national conversation is about the working poor and how to bring more people into the middle-class—essential issues. We must ensure that our safety net functions as a trampoline, allowing those beset by hardship to recover and bounce back. But, in recent years, we’ve tended to ignore the challenges of the deeply poor perhaps because the problems seem so intractable. That kind of poverty has a very different set of causes and requires a different set of solutions. At the Urban Institute, we’ve been doing a lot of work thinking about strategies to deal with deep and persistent poverty.

What is Urban’s role in the future? How do you see the institute evolving to meet these challenges?

As we go forward, to be able to answer questions about these and other challenges, we’ll be working to strengthen our capacities and add new tools to our toolkit.

We’re finding that a single policy intervention often isn’t enough to change someone’s circumstances. Workforce development training without child care support, for example, isn’t enough to support the work efforts of a poor single mother. Some of the most effective strategies for fighting poverty are place-based, multiple-intervention efforts like HOST or Work Support Strategies. But it’s challenging for researchers to effectively measure the impact of all these multiple efforts acting at once. Random control trials—the gold standard for evaluating many other types of interventions—aren’t the right approach. So one of our roles will be trying to better understand what it takes to effectively implement and evaluate place-based strategies and integrated-service initiatives.

We also need to do a better job getting the word out about what works and what doesn’t. We hope to use more infographics and visualization, among other tools, to tell stories and make findings from research with policy implications accessible to non-technical audiences.  I see that as an important role for Urban in the future.

Finally, one of my ambitions is to take advantage of “big data” to try and find answers that traditional information collection methodologies don’t offer—or at least not fast enough. Our challenge is to figure out how to apply rigorous social science research techniques to these new sources of data. Many of the poor have access to cell phones and more of their income is in the form of electronic transfers, so we’re in a position to better understand the spending decisions that low-income people make. It’s not just about evaluating programs, it’s also about understanding patterns of behavior and how policy, practice, or education can help mitigate the damaging effects of poverty.


Photo by Jae C. Hong/AP  ;  Photo by Cecil Stoughton/LBJ Library

Research Areas Race and equity
Tags Poverty Welfare and safety net programs Hunger and food assistance Racial and ethnic disparities Economic well-being Racial barriers to accessing the safety net
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center