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Institute for Policy Research Celebrates 40th Anniversary

February 23, 2009 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Images from the 1960s, of a nation divided over war, race and inequality, continue to haunt us today -- the marches, sit-ins and bloodied protestors, the neighborhoods sent up in flames.

The heartbreak and fury of 1968 especially linger – with replays about the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy and of the Army jeeps and police facing down thousands of war protestors at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Not coincidentally, 1968 also was the year that Northwestern University opened the doors of its Center for Urban Affairs -- now the Institute for Policy Research (IPR). For the first time researchers from a number of disciplines came together under one roof at Northwestern to understand the real-world sources and consequences of urban poverty and problems.

IPR began its mission the year the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, in what commonly is known as the Kerner Report, concluded: "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal."

Much has changed since then -- in politics, policymaking, public opinion and research. Still, inequality remains, especially today with news stories about the financial crisis relentlessly broadcasting the details of that widening chasm.

IPR's 40th anniversary conference, "Dynamics of Inequality in America from 1968 to Today" (April 16 and 17) will bring together prominent researchers from throughout the nation to address that hotly debated topic in relation to income, race, education, gender and politics.

"The conference will provide a stimulating forum for leading academics to share evidence-based expertise about social inequality in America today, about the progress made and the continuing challenges," said IPR Director Fay Lomax Cook, professor of human development and social policy.

Harvard sociologist Christopher (Sandy) Jencks will open the conference with his keynote address, "Economic Inequality: How Much Is Too Much?," a question that especially begs to be answered during these harsh financial times. Brookings economist Rebecca Blank will give the closing talk, "Why Does Inequality Matter, and What Should We Do About It?"

The talks by these two prominent social scientists and IPR alumni will act as bookmarks for a conference that will address a variety of socioeconomic ills from an interdisciplinary perspective -- an IPR hallmark. Panels will focus on gender and race gaps, and discussions will reveal the latest research about trends in crime, cities, education and health.

When IPR was launched with a generous Ford Foundation grant, it drew upon the interdisciplinary know-how of a small, highly motivated group of faculty to understand what was going on in the nation's cities. When the Ford money ran out, Raymond Mack, then the University provost and a highly regarded specialist on race and inequality, ensured the center's longevity by securing a permanent financial commitment from the University. Mack was also IPR's first director.

Today, IPR provides policymakers with evidence grounded in the rigorous research methods of the growing number of disciplines that the institute represents. But conducting policy-relevant research should not be confused with making policy, IPR Director Cook stressed.

"Policymaking is the job of the politicians and pundits, who often get caught up in ideology that may or may not mesh with the facts," she said. "'Where is the hard evidence that backs the policymaking?' is the question that drives IPR."

That question is central to IPR's newest center, the Center for Improving Methods for Quantitative Policy Research (Q-Center). It includes pre-eminent social science methodologists and is devoted to training researchers in methods that make the difference in producing the most reliable research. Researchers learn the latest practices, with the expectation that their research ultimately will point to viable solutions in myriad areas, from economics to education. IPR fellows Larry Hedges, Board of Trustees Professor of Statistics and Social Policy, and Thomas D. Cook, Joan and Sarepta Harrison Chair in Ethics and Justice, lead the center.

IPR economist Charles F. Manski, for example, used his methodological expertise to expose serious flaws in the nation's evaluation of the War on Drugs. In its 2001 report to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a National Research Council Committee chaired by Manski warned that evaluation of drug enforcement activities was severely hampered by a lack of reliable data on drug prices and consumption. Without such data, Manski and his colleagues concluded, the nation would continue to be poorly informed.

From the beginning, IPR was ahead of the curve in creating an interdisciplinary environment in which faculty could take advantage of reduced teaching loads to devote more time to their research and learn from people in other disciplines, according to Jeff Manza, former acting IPR director and now professor of sociology at New York University.

"When I first started on my felon disenfranchisement project, my focus was primarily on the right to vote and political implications of disenfranchisement," Manza said. "But interactions with my IPR colleagues pushed me to broaden my research focus to how the loss of the right to vote impacts individuals and communities."

The widely quoted Jencks, who co-edited the classic volume "The Urban Underclass: Challenging Myths About the Urban Poor" during his tenure at IPR, noted the institute's ability to draw outstanding interdisciplinary scholars over the years. "IPR provides resources that allow faculty to investigate issues that aren't limited to what the government is funding or the foundations are interested in at the moment," he said.

In the 1980s, IPR researchers responded to the so-called "Reagan Revolution" and the administration's plan to dramatically scale back social programs. When IPR Director Cook couldn't find evidence about what the public thought about the programs, she got to work. She directed surveys of attitudes of both the general public and members of the U.S. House of Representatives about seven of the largest programs in the American welfare state, both social insurance programs like Social Security and public assistance programs like Medicaid. The research found a strong reservoir of public support for social welfare programs on the part of both policymakers and the general public.

During the Reagan years, IPR faculty also intensified examinations of such issues as homelessness and low-income housing, crime and victimization, failing public schools and measurements of economic hardship.

IPR researchers James Rosenbaum, professor of education and social policy, and Leonard S. Rubinowitz, professor of law, began their research in the 1980s on a housing experiment known as the Gautreaux program. The program gave poor, inner-city black families the option to relocate from public housing to subsidized housing in Chicago's white middle-class suburbs. The first generation of research showed surprisingly positive educational and life outcomes for the children who moved to the suburbs, with more mixed consequences for the mothers. Buoyed by the Gautreaux documentation and seeking more complete answers to the public housing puzzle, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development implemented a follow-up program, Moving to Opportunity, in five U.S. cities.

Over the years, housing continued to be an IPR focus. In the absence of a national housing policy, IPR social psychologist Thomas Cook is launching a major new study of the effects of housing on families and children. Supported by the MacArthur Foundation, the research project includes an interdisciplinary team of some of the nation's top researchers in housing, poverty and child development, including IPR's Mary Pattillo, professor and chair of sociology and professor of African-American Studies.

The fragility of the black middle class is a major focus of Pattillo's research. In her latest book, "Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City," she examines the complicated relationship between black professionals who gentrified a Chicago neighborhood and their less well-off black neighbors. Class interests rub up against strong feelings of racial solidarity as the black professionals act as power brokers with other elites in negotiating the neighborhood's development.

Wesley G. Skogan, a leading criminologist, has directed most of IPR's major crime studies during the last three decades, including his highly cited evaluations of Chicago's experimental community policing initiative. His research also debunked many myths about dramatically lower crime rates in Chicago in the 2000s. While many linked lower crime rates since 1991 to changing demographics, police force size, drugs and gang violence, Skogan's research pinpointed incarceration, community policing and new law enforcement strategies as major reasons behind the decline.

IPR researchers have long been recognized as national leaders in poverty research and the consequences of welfare reform, especially for children. From the mid-1990s to the early part of this decade, IPR housed the Joint Center for Poverty Research with the University of Chicago, thanks to a $6.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The center quickly became a national clearinghouse for poverty-related research and a training ground for graduate students.

Several IPR researchers launched major studies to investigate the effects of the 1996 welfare reform law. Basically, welfare reform was the transition from a national program -- the 60-year-old Aid to Families with Dependent Children -- that provided poor families with cash grants to a state-administered program, in which parents of poor children were expected to work.

"Instead of having Mom in the house taking care of the children, Mom now was out working," IPR Director Cook said. "Some conservatives claimed this would set a better example for the kids. A lot of liberals worried that the kids would have even less parental influence in their lives."

Despite much skepticism about welfare reform, IPR faculty were eager to find out what was actually working in neighborhoods and families. "As it turned out, a significant majority of welfare families did find stable employment, and the consequences of welfare reform were more positive than many IPR researchers anticipated," IPR Director Cook said.

A widely reported study that took place in three major U.S. cities concluded that in the short run and during good economic times, children in low-income families were not harmed, on average, when their mothers left welfare and moved into the workforce. IPR's Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, a nationally recognized expert on the interface between research and policy for children and families, was a leader of the study.

IPR's Dan Lewis, professor of human development and social policy, recently headed a large-scale university consortium that studied welfare reform efforts in Illinois. His research agenda provides an approach to studying social policy that accommodates a profound transformation in social policy over the last 40 years.

IPR faculty also addressed other important questions of the welfare debate, such as whether supports like the Earned Income Tax Credit, childcare and healthcare can lift the working poor out of poverty. They also focused on how inequality, social insurance and redistribution interact; how welfare reform affects social networks; and how the intergenerational transmission of poverty affects achievement.

Education is another major IPR focus. Economist David Figlio heads IPR's newly expanded education research program. Related IPR research topics today include preschool quality, teacher effectiveness, performance incentives for principals, conflicting roles affecting universities' missions and budgets, and the black-white achievement gap.

"There is too little information about which education interventions are most effective in terms of student achievement and even costs," Figlio noted. "We hope to create an even larger pool of rigorous, policy-relevant research to address the pressing problems faced by teachers, students and parents."

The list of research that leading IPR scholars have been working on in recent years goes on. Research topics, to name a few, include the black middle class and the politics of class and race in Chicago; welfare bureaucrats and tensions around race, class and community; the relationship between early health status and social stratification; the ways that race and gender impact the way people think, behave and feel; the accuracy of jury verdicts; women and leadership; and the overlap of racial, gender and educational inequality.

And IPR's innovative Cells to Society Center: The Center on Social Disparities and Health (C2S) reaches across both Northwestern's campuses and a number of social, life and biomedical disciplines to offer a 21st-century look at how biological, social and cultural dynamics intersect and affect health throughout the lifespan. "Too often in the past, we talked about health problems in the abstract," said Chase-Lansdale, a professor of education and social policy who leads the center.

C2S research is on the cutting edge of showing how poverty and the stress caused by inequality can get under the skin and lead to health problems, added IPR director Cook. "Research strongly suggests that what happens to children at very early ages, even before birth, can affect adult outcomes."

Today, as in 1968, the country is undergoing great economic and political turmoil. Enmeshed in a financial crisis with staggering consequences, our new president promises unprecedented change to address the widening gulf between haves and have-nots. He promises to keep programs that work and shutter those that don't. As usual, the job of IPR researchers will be to provide the hard evidence for policymaking.
Topics: Research