Urban Wire Making a difference for 50 years
Sarah Rosen Wartell
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“You have launched something America has needed and wanted for a long time. It is a new Urban Institute. It will promise to give us the power through knowledge to help solve the problem that weighs heavily on the hearts and minds of all of us—the problem of the American city and its people.”

When President Lyndon B. Johnson commissioned the Urban Institute in 1968, he charged us to “renew our cities and transform lives” and cast a gaze to the future. In honor of our 50th anniversary, we will soon announce an exciting, forward-looking initiative that asks and answers the critical questions that will face our nation for not just the next few years…but for the next 50 years.

The concept is ambitious; but then, so was LBJ’s vision. I am confident of Urban’s ability to tackle these problems because of our accomplishments over the 50 years leading up to this moment. And looking to our past achievements helps us imagine how we can make a difference in the future.

It is not hyperbole to say that millions more Americans have fair access to housing today because of Urban’s research. Urban pioneered paired-testing research, which assesses discrimination against people looking to rent or buy homes. Our exposure of biases resulted in policy changes that curbed unfair practices against people of color; more recently, we tackled barriers for people with disabilities and LGT people. We were among the first to explore how housing vouchers could create opportunity for American families, and we tracked their lives over decades so housing programs would be improved. The work continues today.

For decades, Urban has shaped the debates, legislation, and implementation of health coverage in the US, and today, 20 million more people have access to insurance. Researchers began quantifying the cost of the lack of insurance back in the 1970s. Since then, our research shaped health care reform in Massachusetts and the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Urban’s rapid-response analyses of proposals to replace and modify the ACA continue to drive the current debate over the legislation’s future.

When incarceration rates began to skyrocket in the 1990s, Urban’s scholars were among the first to think far ahead to a future when people would leave prison and return home. Our groundbreaking work has helped ensure that more people could successfully and safely return to their communities after leaving the criminal justice system. Recently, we have developed innovative forecasters to help lawmakers reduce the number of people in state and federal prisons. Our experts support law enforcement officers, too, as they implement new technologies and build relationships in their communities.

For more than 15 years, the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center (TPC) has translated tax policy so distributional impacts are as much a part of the debate as macroeconomic growth estimates. Today, more people understand how tax policy will hit home, and policymakers are more accountable for fairness and equity in the tax code. From Bush-era tax cuts, to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, and in every major election and budget battle in between, TPC’s respected tools have changed the way people understand the tax code and its impacts.

Through it all, Urban has never strayed from our roots in the policies and programs designed to lift families out of poverty. From our founding during the War on Poverty to “the end of welfare as we know it” in the 1990s, our researchers tracked the outcomes for families across the country when the programs upon which they relied were created, expanded, then dramatically reduced. By figuring out what works—and what doesn’t—Urban research has helped change how policies are made and programs implemented. Today, for example, more people who are eligible for food stamps have access to them. Urban researchers have made recommendations that strengthened work supports and the earned income tax credit so more families can get ahead. We are continuing to explore the barriers to employment and opportunity, recognizing the power and dignity that jobs can provide as a pathway to opportunity.

The inherent peril in listing your organization’s accomplishments is that it is impossible to capture a 50-year legacy across hundreds of issues, built by thousands of colleagues. As I write, I’m fretting that I haven’t yet mentioned early child care, jobs, education, retirement security, our work across the nonprofit sector and in emerging democracies around the world… The list goes on, and if our editors would let me, I could add dozens more examples and thousands of words to this record of accomplishment. And it’s not just what we study, but how we analyze it and share it, by asking the right questions and interpreting the answers. If research sits on a shelf (or more precisely nowadays, on a website), it won’t have impact. But by visualizing data, engaging community voices, and working directly with changemakers, we are transforming decisions, communities, and lives. Truly, there is no place quite like Urban­—no place as committed to developing rigorous evidence as to putting it into action.

“You know better than most that there are no overnight remedies to the problems that formed and hardened decades ago. But we are moving—and you will help dispel the darkness that remains. Someday the light will shine. Of that I am sure. The work of this Institute can help speed the coming of that day.”

Research Areas Social safety net