Urban Wire Evidence can help us heal divisions and build trust
Sarah Rosen Wartell
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The election’s outcomes stunned some, but also reinforced what we already knew: we live in a nation profoundly divided. Many Americans feel left out or left behind, but for very different reasons. And they have starkly different beliefs about what ails our society and the right path forward.

Founded in the 1960s, the Urban Institute has consistently explored America’s divisions, the conditions that deepen them, and the paths to narrowing and closing these chasms, which today loom so large. As investigators of public policy and social impact, we now redouble our efforts to address why so many Americans feel their government has failed them and our institutions— from Wall Street to the police—cannot be trusted.   

We know some cities have enjoyed a robust recovery while residents of small towns and rural areas fall further behind. Some regions are thriving beyond prerecession levels while others have seen little recovery. Within cities, affordable housing is more rhetoric than reality, and families are feeling pushed out of the communities they have known for generations. Some highly skilled workers have rising prospects while others have less stable income and declining home values. Longevity doesn’t mean better living for many, and improving wellness is not assured. The chance that your children will achieve the American Dream may be higher in Canada than in many US communities. Instability, volatility, uncertainty, and fear are found across lines of income, education, class, place, and race.

Which policies will reverse stagnant mobility and expand opportunity? How can families at every income level feel more secure that they can manage whatever life will bring them? What will bring jobs where they are needed and train workers to meet employer needs? What will ensure that new-economy employment allows parents to make a decent living to support their family? What allocation of tax burdens and spending will achieve real and perceived fairness and equity? How can we not waste the bipartisan commitment to criminal justice reform that will save both money and lives? What old remedies should we abandon in favor of a new more effective path? What roles can public-private partnerships and social enterprises assume to disrupt old systems and do more of what works? Better answers to these questions might help us to heal our divisions and build trust in our institutions.

No one has all the answers, but my colleagues and I believe that new and more-accessible data, evidence, and quality research can help point the way toward solutions to what drive these divisions.  Policymakers on both sides of the aisle have embraced evidence-based policymaking in recent years, with a shared understanding that rigorous evaluation and thoughtful analysis can help identify the policies that work and the ones that should be reconsidered. Both parties agree that an efficient, effective public sector serves everyone better.

Urban has won trust over almost five decades with independence, honesty, integrity, and quality data-driven policy analysis amid changing political landscapes.  Whatever our nation’s problems, the Urban Institute has risen to the challenge, providing evidence and insight to support better decisionmaking. It has been nearly 50 years since Urban was founded with the charge by President Lyndon B. Johnson "to help solve the problem[s] that weigh heavily on the hearts and minds of all of us.”  

Today, even as we are saddened by our divisions, our commitment to answer that charge is renewed.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.