2012–2014 Emerging Scholars Grants: Focal Theme & Questions of Interest

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Research on Building Human Capital and Economic Potential

The 2012–2014 Emerging Scholars competition seeks proposals for research that will enhance our understanding of how policies and programs can build economic self-sufficiency by increasing employment, wages, labor market skills, and earnings, which is one of three integrated research themes shaping IRP's research agenda as a National Poverty Research Center. Solicitation for the 2012–2014 Emerging Scholars Grant Program was announced in December 2012 with a February 1, 2013 deadline. View the 2012–2014 Request for Proposals (PDF). IRP affiliates Timothy Smeeding, Arts & Sciences Distinguished Professor of Public Affairs at the La Follette School of Public Affairs, University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Carolyn Heinrich, Sid Richardson Professor of Public Affairs, Affiliated Professor of Economics, and Director of the Center for Health and Social Policy, University of Texas at Austin, are directing the program.

Building human capital and economic potential is one of IRP's focal research themes. Employment is the primary pathway out of poverty for most non-elderly adults in the United States. But economic trends, both cyclical and structural, have reduced employment and wages in low- and middle-wage labor markets, which has in turn increased the proportion of poor households that are headed by working-age adults. Stagnating wages and increasing unemployment are also contributing to rising income inequality.

These changes in the labor market have coincided with a transformation of welfare benefits from income guarantees to a package of services and benefits designed to support the employment efforts of low-skill workers. Yet the volatility and instability of low-wage work, particularly during times of economic downturn, challenge such an approach.

Efforts to meet the twin goals of encouraging self-sufficiency and improving the well-being of vulnerable families confront a range of challenges. Despite agreement that work must be a central element of any strategy, important questions remain concerning the potential for low-income families to become self-sufficient and the role that policy can play in improving outcomes for adults and encouraging appropriate savings and asset building.

In response to these trends and challenges, we invite research proposals that consider evidence on cost-effective ways to build skills and earnings potential among low-wage/low-skill workers, addressing the following types of questions in one of the following three areas:

1. The role of human capital in reducing disconnections from the labor market

  • How can disconnections from schooling and the labor force be prevented among youth/young adults? How can youth be engaged before they drop out?
  • How can human capital acquisition bolster labor market entry/re-entry for these groups? What types of human capital acquisition would be most effective?
  • What policies/programs are needed to better aid subgroups at high risk of disconnection and prolonged unemployment, e.g., the formerly incarcerated, disabled, immigrants, and minorities who lag in educational attainment?
  • How can promising interventions be effectively replicated and/or scaled up?

2. The role of formal education and training in increasing employment and wage/earnings growth

  • What school-based interventions are needed to increase high school graduation rates?
  • What types of interventions will increase college and/or career readiness, particularly for subgroups at high risk of disconnection, including dropouts and those with only a GED?
  • What strategies will reduce racial and socioeconomic gaps in completion rates for 2- and 4-year colleges?
  • What are the most promising public and/or private training initiatives that target growing jobs and bring together training providers, employers, workers, and community-based organizations in design and implementation (e.g., sector-focused programs, integrated basic and technical skills programs) to increase employment and wage/earnings growth?

3. The implications of changing demand for labor, job creation, and job quality

  • What new or tested approaches will work best to maintain or create jobs and promote upward job and wage mobility (e.g., temporary short-time work arrangements, wage subsidies, non-wage cost reductions, expansions in self-employment, profit-sharing)?
  • How are the processes of job search and job matching changing, and how can new approaches be harnessed to increase success for the hard-to-employ?
  • How is the quality of jobs changing, and what role should public and private sector entities/policies have in promoting/supporting job quality (stability, flexibility, benefits)?
  • What reforms to unemployment insurance (UI) can be undertaken to eliminate disincentives for work and stem the tide of workers shifting from UI to disability programs?
  • What macroeconomic efforts, such as state job growth policies, should be pursued to support the effectiveness of human capital investments?
  • What public/private (or "across silo") partnerships and strategies are needed to bring employers into partnerships and successfully expand the most promising interventions for the hard-to-employ?

IRP evaluated proposals in collaboration with affiliated scholars and ASPE staff, and awarded funding to five projects with a maximum award of $20,000 each. The awards run from May 1, 2013, through August 2014. Throughout the award period, grantees will benefit from consultation with IRP senior affiliates, with each other, and—during a workshop at which grantees will present their draft paper—with other senior poverty scholars. Award notification was made on March 28, 2013.

2012–2013 Research Theme & Questions of Interest