Author Archives: Barbara Ray

What are the social issues that we’ll be talking about in five years?

I took a highly unscientific survey of social scientists I know, asking them what they’re working on. I asked them because they tend to hone in on topics far before the media picks up on them.

Here’s what they said:

    • Inequality: One team is tracking 40 years of private school enrollments to see what role family income inequality plays in education disparities.


    • Jobs: Others are thinking about how to make community college more productive for low-income students, and oriented toward a credential that employers actually value. “Tens of billions of Pell dollars are wasted without results to show for it. We need a Race to the Top for states that make their community colleges more accountable, based on education and employment outcomes. We also need to make Pell grants easier to spend on short-term certificate programs that are tied to job demands, and on programs like apprenticeships.”


    • Others are looking at the intertwining worlds of the prison industrial complex and concentrated poverty. Relocating to a new neighborhood or city after release provides a fresh start for many parolled prisoners, but lack of income, housing discrimination, and even parole policies make it extremely difficult for ex-prisoners to move away from their old neighborhood.


    • Others are looking at a new twist on gentrification—the suburbanization of poverty, and now the suburbanization of ex-offenders. Because of the high costs of residing in urban areas, tight rental markets, and housing discrimination, ex-prisoners are increasingly residing in the suburbs. A decade ago, about 50% of prisoners leaving the Illinois Department of Corrections returned to a Chicago neighborhood. Now, about 38% do, with more living in lower-income suburbs. Given that social services for returning prisoners (e.g., mental health, job training, drug treatment) tend to be located in cities, it may become harder for ex-prisoners to turn their lives around.


    • And a twist on the immigration debate. Will punitive immigration policies and practices make it less likely that immigrants will rely on the police? Seems so. They are less likely to report crimes to the police, which makes it harder for the police to do their jobs.


    • Even more novel, an approach to health and longevity that moves away from the “disease model” and treatment to altering our biologies to let us lead longer and healthier lives. Simply put, “the choice would come down to the two extremes: (1) the current health-care approach, with most individuals enjoying a relatively long life span but reduced health span and increased, ballooning health-care costs; or (2) the biology-of-aging-based health-span extension, which, if successfully translated to humans, would provide increased health span at a fraction of today’s health-care cost, with a vigorous and engaged older adult population and even a potentially productive older workforce.” Whoa.


    • And once we’re living those longer, more productive lives, others are looking at what we might do with all that time. How might we tap the productivity of those over age 60 to benefit society?


    • And how might we tap the same among those under age 30? Another group is looking at children’s and adolescents’ understanding of and sense of responsibility for the “environmental commons” – an expansive term that refers to the natural resources on which life depends and the public spaces where people act, discuss, and decide how to defend the commons they share with fellow community members.  They’re asking, can an eco-justice model develop kids’ motivation and capacities for collective action? They’ve been collecting data on kids in Michigan (predominantly from low-income and ethnic minority communities) working to preserve their environmental commons (e.g., river stream mitigation, retrofitting of houses for energy savings, etc.).


    • Speaking of health care costs, some are looking deeply at the social determinants of health. Hospitals are looking beyond their in-house mission to cure disease to preventing it (and thus lowering costs). But beyond the calls to lose weight and quit smoking, they’re looking at how our communities contribute to our well-being and health, whether that’s access to parks, clean air,  housing that is both affordable and safe, or access to good jobs.


All fascinating ideas, and so critical as we enter this new era of rising inequality amid a country that is rapidly diversifying and changing. Expect to be reading about these innovations… in about five years.

Last Week at HiredPen: Early Education, Pay for Success, and Wile.E.Coyote

Pages-from-Not-Golden-Yet-New-America_Jackson-policy-paper-2015Read: Not Golden Yet: Building a Stronger Workforce for Young Children in California (by our own Sarah Jackson writing for New America). Bottom line: progress, but early ed teachers are still abysmally underpaid and too often underprepared to take on this enormous and critical job of preparing kids to be ready to learn. Typical: An op-ed in the Sacramento Bee cherry-picks the research on early education investments with the tired argument that progress fades by third grade. Thankfully Early Edge’s Deborah Kong and David Kirp at the Times counter with the so-apparent-it’s-amazing-we-still-have-to-say-it caveat that quality in the classroom matters.


A Tale of Two Mixed-Income Communities: East Lake in Atlanta finds the right formula, but Chicago struggles with Cabrini-Green

I spent the day visiting an inspiring community in Atlanta last week. East Lake is living proof that a comprehensive approach to poverty—one that considers more than housing, more than just income, more than just a job, and more than just a good school, but all of those elements combined—can make a lasting impact on children’s lives.

My host was Carol R. Naughton, president of Purpose Built Communities in Atlanta, and we were standing on the playground in an Atlanta neighborhood once so awful that it was called Little Vietnam for its war zone qualities. As the former mayor Shirley Franklin told me, “Even I didn’t want to drive through there.”


Last week at HiredPen

Read: The War on Poverty: Was It Lost? Sandy Jencks reviews our friend Sheldon Danziger’s new book… with a cliff hanger to boot.  A smart discussion, though a conundrum for the Left perhaps? Or proof that the programs do work, and are needed. Also makes a great case for a relative poverty measure—relative to what middle America earns.

Brutal poverty—perhaps one of the most moving pieces of research in years, “Meet Our Prisoners,” [More]

Last week at HiredPen…

We’re trying something new. Each week (or so) we’ll be writing a recap—ala Ann Friedman— of what we’ve been up to, which given our wide range of clients, we hope will become a regular way of catching up with what’s going on in the social policy field.

Read: A great Pediatrics article on why doctors should think about neighborhoods. Purpose Built success stories in Atlanta and New Orleans (reminds me that yes, we can build affordable, attractive neighborhoods). Urban planning then and now. Then: Slums and City Planning, by Robert Moses, circa 1945 (best word to bring back: “mossbacks). Now: ULI’s toolkit for developers for how to build for health.


What If We Just Gave Young Poor Mothers Money? A New RCT Will Find Out

12821437893_15766ef9d7_zPoverty is a hard nut to crack. We’ve been at it (half-heartedly) for more than two-hundred years now, our solutions swinging between “fix them” (“them” in this case being poor people) to “fix the root causes.” Advocates who claim that poverty hurts children are countered by others who say “it’s not poverty, it’s single-parent families or character” or any number of other explanations. And of course, the hoary argument of who is “deserving” of support has a long and storied history, evident still today in the lopsided support for the “working poor” at the expense of those who aren’t.

All of these arguments are not just hot air or academic diversions. After all, if you believe the problem is a single mother’s character, “the fix” will be very different than if you think the problem of single-parent families stems from a lack of marriageable men because good paying jobs have disappeared. Look no further than the difference between Republicans and Democrats in their policy proposals.

To date, it’s been a he-said/she-said argument, and the pendulum has swung regularly between the two camps. The he said/she said persists for a simple reason. It’s very hard to prove either argument. You can’t get very far into these debates with correlational evidence only, which is what we have.

But we may be on the brink of a “smoking gun” of evidence that could put this argument to rest. [More]

A Turning Point for Poverty Policy?

Happy winter

As 2015 swings into full gear, with resolutions to keep and pounds to lose (delicious riddance, ye annual box of Frango mints), we want to take a moment to thank all our clients and colleagues for making 2014 a turning point for HiredPen. It was a big year for us. We expanded our staff, hiring two full-time writers, Kathleen and Natalie. We opened an office in Berkeley to join our office in Chicago. And we added several new, exciting projects, including Build Healthy Places, a project at the intersection of public health and community development; the Mindsets Scholars Network; and work with New America and the Packard Foundation on early education policy in California.

It’s a special privilege to get to write about ideas every day, and it’s even more amazing to get to write about ideas that change people’s lives.


So what do these ideas portend for 2015? I’ve been covering US poverty policy for 15 years, and it strikes me that 2014 might have been a turning point for new thinking about this age-old problem in America.

Three trends that took root in 2014 give me hope: [More]

In Policymaking, the Best Narrative Wins


We all like a good story. Even the wonkiest academic with a copy of Thomas Pikerty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century on her nightstand will agree: There’s nothing quite like being drawn into a good tale, with its hook, its tension, its real people and real quandaries, and its resolution. There’s a reason journalists start every story with a human being. We can relate.

And yet, read a research report on social welfare issues—the very issues with human beings at their core—and you can almost guarantee it will start with something like this:

In 2012, nearly 16 million U.S. children, or over one in five, lived in households that were food-insecure, defined as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited access to food.

Or this:

It is well-known theoretical result that a risk-averse consumer prefers full insurance offered on actuarially fair terms under expected utility maximization without state dependence.

No wonder why research rarely makes it across the bridge from academia to policymaking. [More]

Blogs Add Context to Research

I think it was John Rother, the former policy chief and public face of AARP, who told me the secret of a good policy brief. A good brief, he said, must first and foremost answer those two classic taunts we heard on the playground: “oh yeah?” and “so what?”

This fascinating analysis of news reporting between 1955 and 2003 made me think of John’s wisdom. Apparently, news reporting has taken up the call. As the Joan Shorenstein Center’s “Journalist Resource” reports, scholars Katherine Fink and Michael Schudso at Columbia University find that journalists more often today explain the “so what?” and “why?” along with the who, what, when, and where of old-school journalism. [More]

When Less is More: Advice on Getting Research into the Hands of Policymakers

Behind the loud and often garrulous rhetoric of politicians and pundits lies a quiet pipeline of information that flows from the research world to the people making policy decisions in state and federal offices. The staffs of senators’ offices, the long-time bureaucrats at the Department of Justice or the Department of Health and Human Services, or the communications staff of major committees on the Hill all need information they can trust in order to formulate the policies that shape and support our society.

So how do policymakers find that information, and what is the most effective way to reach them? For insights, we talk with John Hutchins, communications director at MDRC, a research organization that for the past 37 years has developed and evaluated education and social programs, from workforce development to education reform to family and child well-being. [More]

Barbara Ray was an instrumental collaborator on our book "Mother's Work and Children's Lives." She not only synthesized and brought to life a wide body of analysis on the politics of welfare reform, but she also expertly integrated our qualitative and quantitative evidence to provide a vivid description of low-income working mothers in the post-welfare reform era.”

Ariel KalilProfessor, Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago

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