Fifty years ago yesterday, in his 1965 State of the Union speech, Lyndon Johnson laid out his vision of a Great Society that "rests on abundance and liberty for all... [and] demands an end to poverty and racial injustice."
Over the next several years, this vision was embodied in a series of ambitious federal laws and programs aimed at breaking down the barriers blocking full and fair access to opportunity and prosperity. The Great Society legislation ranged widely across the social and economic policy landscape. It included landmark civil rights legislation, the creation of Medicaid and Medicare, new strategies for tackling urban blight and neighborhood distress, job training initiatives and expansion of minimum wage coverage, and support of early childhood education.
These initiatives reflected the best evidence available at the time, but LBJ and his advisors were acutely aware of how limited that evidence was. The sweeping reforms they enacted were largely untested. Some might work well; some might require mid-course correction; others would probably fail.
To monitor, assess, and strengthen the Great Society programs, the nation needed engaged but independent scholars who would assemble data; analyze the causes and consequences of poverty and inequality; evaluate program effectiveness; and propose new, evidence-based solutions. In 1968, LBJ founded the Urban Institute to take on that mission. The new institute’s mandate was to “bridge the gulf between the lonely scholar in search of truth and the decision-maker in search of progress.”
And we're still at it today. Though our scope has grown since 1968, our core values have not changed. Our mission today is to open minds, shape decisions, and offer solutions through economic and social policy research, and we pursue that mission with a clear set of values:
We believe in the power of evidence to improve lives and strengthen communities. Public policies work best when they are rooted in facts, and our research sparks solutions in programs and practice. Our analyses and recommendations help expand opportunities for all people, reduce hardship among the most vulnerable, and strengthen the effectiveness of the public sector.
A lot has changed over the past five decades in our society, the global economy, and the composition of our nation's population. Some of the most egregious barriers blocking access to opportunity—especially for people of color—have been dismantled. But poverty persists, the gap between rich and poor is widening, many middle-class Americans see dwindling prospects for their children, and our education, employment, criminal justice, and healthcare systems still pose daunting challenges for people of color.
The next generation of strategies for tackling these challenges—for moving us closer to LBJ's vision of a great society—should build on all we've learned over the past half century. Our base of evidence about what works and what doesn't is much deeper than it was in the 1960s; our understanding of economic and social dynamics, neighborhood change, and human health and development has advanced dramatically; data are much more readily available; and we've built powerful tools for forecasting future trends and predicting the likely effects of alternative policies.
At Urban, we're committed to applying this expanded toolkit of data and methods to assess the strengths and shortcomings of the Great Society initiatives still in place today. More important, we’re using these tools to elevate the debate about future policy with solid evidence and evidence-based recommendations.