A Commemorative History of the Institute for Research on Poverty, 1966-2006

“Poverty in the United States and concern about poverty have long been with us. . . . What was new in the 1960s was the widespread perception of poverty as a national disgrace coupled with renewed confidence in the ability to eliminate poverty through government intervention. That renascent confidence rested to no small extent on a belief in the power of research as a guide to effective policy-making.” (From the report of a National Academy of Sciences advisory committee in its 1971 assessment of the Institute for Research on Poverty.)

When President Lyndon B. Johnson envisioned a Great Society and declared war on poverty, government officials recognized the need for independent antipoverty research and ongoing, quantitative evaluations to guide social programs. Their belief was that effective research would have to be undertaken away from the nation’s capital and partisan politics and would be best done in an academic, nonprofit environment by a multidisciplinary group of top-level researchers.

Why Wisconsin?

These criteria made the University of Wisconsin—with its leading programs in social sciences and public policy and its long tradition of the Wisconsin Idea—a natural choice for the establishment of the first national poverty research center. In March 1966 the University created the Institute for Research on Poverty in a carefully articulated agreement with the federal government. The Institute would study the “nature, causes, and cures of poverty,” exercising full authority in allocating grant funds to researchers, selecting research topics, and publishing the results.

At the first meeting of IRP’s National Advisory Committee in early 1967, Robert A. Levine, assistant director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, gave three reasons for the choice of Wisconsin: “(1) Robert Lampman, the economist in the country with perhaps the longest credentials for studying poverty, was a member of the faculty, (2) the chancellor of the university (Robben Fleming) luckily happened to be understanding and skilled in this area, and (3) the University of Wisconsin had a long history of research institutes.”

The 1966 agreement specified that the Institute would encompass several social science disciplines, encourage both new and well-established poverty scholars, promote sharing of knowledge among researchers and policy analysts by holding conferences, and disseminate its findings through a publications program. Robert Lampman, IRP’s interim director and guiding spirit, stressed that the Institute would not become “a handmaiden of an administration in power.” In turn, the federal government would, again in Lampman’s words, “reap dividends from investment in academic social science research that is long-term and broad-based … and run the risk of changing the frame within which political decisions are made.”

The Institute’s early years involved asking basic questions about poverty—Who are the poor and how many are there? How should we measure economic well-being, poverty, and inequality? What causes poverty? Many of these early questions had never before been studied, much less quantified.

Reflecting on Forty Years

In 2006, as the Institute marks its fortieth anniversary, we take stock, looking back at our early days, determining where the Institute stands now, and charting our future. In a new millennium we face a world that is radically different in many ways, but still has poverty in the midst of affluence.

The Institute for Research on Poverty has grown over the years, surviving the elimination of the federal agency, the Office of Economic Opportunity, that created it; enduring through the terms of eight U.S. presidents and their shifting political priorities; and expanding to comprise an active team of researchers, about seventy-five formal affiliates, data collectors and processors, editors, and a large international cadre of friends and admirers. The Institute has made good use of the forty years. Institute researchers have addressed basic questions about poverty, measured its composition in ground-breaking quantitative studies, and kept pace with the changing nature of poverty and ever-shifting approaches to fighting it. The Institute continues to reach out to a broad audience, well beyond the walls of academe.

IRP’s Guiding Spirit

A reflection on the history of the Institute for Research on Poverty should begin at the beginning, with Robert Lampman (1920-1997). Professor Lampman—student of Edwin Witte and Selig Perlman, Ph.D in economics from the University of Wisconsin, named John Bascom Professor of Economics in 1967 and William F. Vilas Professor of Economics in 1972—lies at the heart of IRP’s founding.

In the early 1980s an oral history interviewer asked Lampman, “Why poverty?” to which he replied, “[T]he thing that first moved me very deeply about the poverty issue in the United States was my first visit to the South. Just before World War II, I went with the American Friends Service Committee to a cooperative work farm…. It was the first time I had ever seen the plight of black people, or of poor whites for that matter, in the South and that moved me very deeply.”

Nobel laureate James Tobin called Lampman the “intellectual father” of the War on Poverty. Behind Lampman’s formidable intellect lay a moral fortitude and pragmatism that made people want to listen to him. He interrupted his academic career to serve on the Council of Economic Advisors, came to know many Washington officials, and helped shape poverty policy and programs. Sargent Shriver and Joseph Kershaw of the Office of Economic Opportunity relied heavily on Lampman as the idea of establishing the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison took root.

After Robert Lampman’s death in 1997 the Lampman family established a memorial with the help of the University of Wisconsin Foundation. The Robert J. Lampman Memorial Lecture series, organized by IRP in cooperation with the UW–Madison Department of Economics, began in 1998. Lectures feature eminent U.S. poverty scholars who address topics to which Lampman devoted his intellectual career: poverty and the distribution of income and wealth. The series offers a special opportunity to maintain and nurture interest in poverty research among the academic community and members of the public.

Negative Income Tax Experiment

The Institute began its work by launching the biggest single experiment conducted in the social sciences up to that time, the New Jersey Experiment on the Negative Income Tax, an antipoverty policy championed by Lampman. A 1976 critique of the experiment by Peter Rossi and Katharine Lyall concluded: “First, the NIT Experiment is a remarkable achievement in design, data collection, and analysis. Second, it is difficult to imagine a set of social scientists doing much better in those respects given the state of prior knowledge concerning the substantive area and the state of the art concerning field experiments. Third, ranked in relation to other larger scale researches of contemporary period, the NIT must be considered, if not first, at least among the best two or three.”

Robert Moffitt, Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Economics at Johns Hopkins University and IRP affiliate, reflected on how Negative Income Tax proposals had fared in the U.S. welfare system in his June 2004 Robert J. Lampman Memorial Lecture. Moffitt concluded: “The proposals and discussions of a negative income tax have greatly deepened our understanding of the incentive effects of alternative benefit formulas and welfare policies, and we now evaluate the work incentives of virtually all programs within the framework developed for the analysis of the NIT. If the prominence in welfare reform policy of monetary incentives today is a legacy of the early NIT advocates, that legacy is unquestionably immense, and its influence will surely continue in the future.”

Rural Income Maintenance Experiment

Soon after starting the NIT study, IRP launched the Rural Income Maintenance Experiment, another basic income guarantee, with a random assignment experiment that studied behavioral responses to varying minimum income guarantees. These experiments are regarded as outstanding examples of interdisciplinary research in close cooperation with government planners and the data collected formed the foundation for the nation’s first body of longitudinal data on poverty. The urban and rural databases were merged and made available through IRP’s Data Center. In 1974 the Institute ran a week-long conference to train researchers how to use the data, which attracted poverty scholars from across the nation.

Data, Insights, and Knowledge

In his 1987 book Poverty Policy and Poverty Research, Robert Haveman (IRP director from 1971 to 1975) mentions the importance of these early data and those from subsequent studies, noting: “While concern for adequacy has been replaced by the desire to minimize the government’s commitment, the basic questions being addressed are not dissimilar from those studied by the reform projects of the 1970s: How can we best encourage individual work effort and initiative? How can we most effectively integrate training and work programs with cash assistance? How can we encourage absent parents to maintain concern and financial support for the children with whom they no longer live? Interestingly, these questions and the approaches taken to answer them inevitably rely on the data, insights, and knowledge generated during the 1965-80 period. It is as if this knowledge now both defines the questions and sets bounds around the answers which can be offered while still remaining responsible and credible.”

The body of research accumulated by IRP staff and affiliates also helped lead to the widespread understanding that poverty is about more than income and cash transfers. It is also about work training, education, child care, child support, health care, alcohol and other drug abuse, domestic violence, mental health, family structure, work, and wages.

New Approaches to Broaden Methods

The Institute has developed and maintains today strong connections to persons and organizations involved in every aspect of the fight against poverty, from fellow research institutions to policymakers to welfare administrators. Poverty is a complex, dynamic problem and the Institute has kept pace, maintaining core research areas and branching out to try new approaches to broaden methods. Recent examples include

  • A working conference on qualitative approaches to the study of poverty and welfare reform in March 2005, which brought together scholars from around the country doing state-of-the-art qualitative research, researchers in policy evaluation firms, and IRP’s own substantial group of qualitative researchers. Participants discussed research methods, what works and what does not, the ways that the evolving process of welfare reform may require changes in methods, and how current theories of poverty shape the ways we design our projects and conceptualize our findings.
  • The introduction of a new seminar series, New Perspectives in Social Policy, which invites thinkers with other perspectives to engage in discussion. The first seminar, in May 2006, featured Charles Murray, W. H. Brady Scholar in Culture and Freedom at the American Enterprise Institute, who laid out his plan to “replace the welfare state,” to which Robert Haveman, John Bascom Professor of Economics and Public Affairs Emeritus, responded. The October 2006 New Perspectives seminar featured Martha Albertson Fineman, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law, Emory Law School, and director of the Feminism Legal Theory Project, who discussed her theory of dependency to which Joe Soss, professor of political science and public affairs and IRP affiliate, responded.

Reaching Out, Sharing Findings

From the beginning, the Institute has reached out to share research findings with others. The Institute’s active publications program comprises Discussion Papers, which provide a technical description of research in progress and currently number 1,318; Special Reports, which researchers prepare for government agencies, committees, or commissions, numbering 77; a newsletter, Focus, designed to acquaint a large audience with Institute work by means of in-depth nontechnical descriptions of Institute research for a general audience, published two or three times a year for the past thirty years; and abstracts of reprints and books published by IRP staff and affiliates. Three seminal books on poverty widely used today comprise papers presented at IRP-sponsored conferences: Fighting Poverty (Danziger, Weinberg 1986), Confronting Poverty (Danziger, Sandefur, Weinberg 1994), and Understanding Poverty (Danziger, Haveman 2001).

In the last decade, the IRP Web site has grown to play a central role in dissemination, with as many as eight million visits per year. Web statistics software reveal that the Web site’s Frequently Asked Questions section receives the most traffic, which suggests that there is a broad audience of laypersons interested in poverty.

The Web site has received praise from and has been used as a model by other universities for its structure and ease of use. A publications database—searchable with state-of-the-art software—allows users to view citations and full records of publications, dating back to 1966, as well as to download and print bibliographies. In the first four months of operation beginning in February 2005, the redesigned site was accessed 2.2 million times; each day about 900 individuals visited the site.

Twice each week Institute staff compile and e-mail to subscribers Poverty Dispatch, which provides hyperlinks to Web-based news items dealing with poverty, welfare reform, and related topics. Each Dispatch is posted on the IRP Web site.

Another dissemination initiative connects Institute researchers with senior level social program administrators in the Midwest. The Midwest Welfare Peer Assistance Network (WELPAN) comprises officials from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin and, since 1996, has been meeting regularly to share ideas and compare notes on what it takes to make welfare reform work. The meetings are coordinated by IRP with funding from the Joyce Foundation.

The Web site’s “Poverty Links” provides an extensive body of links to Web sites of other academic institutions, organizations, or government entities that contain a strong component of research or data relevant to poverty. The site also makes data resources available, providing guides to accessing public use data from, for example, the recently completed Wisconsin Child Support Demonstration Evaluation project.

Training the Next Generation

The Institute’s Graduate Research Fellows program, run by IRP Associate Director of Research and Training Carolyn Heinrich, is conducted for University of Wisconsin Ph.D. students in the social sciences who expect to complete a dissertation on a poverty-related topic. Fellows participate in substantive policy and research discussions that are connected with the IRP seminar themes; receive methodological training, which is also frequently linked with seminar presentations; participate in professional-training sessions that focus on preparing students for responsibilities associated with their research careers (e.g., the Institutional Review Board process for human subjects of research review, journal article submission and review process, proposal development); and receive support for disseminating their research.

In fall 2006 IRP welcomed forty Graduate Research Fellows. Through a combination of University resources and IRP resources from the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), active IRP Graduate Fellows are also eligible for financial support of their research training.

Among its efforts to attract a new generation of scholars and practitioners, the Institute offered in April 2006 a panel discussion by leading policymakers, advisors, and activists who discussed their career and school choices and answered questions from the audience. The event was organized as part of the ASPE-funded Area Poverty Research Center activities designed to encourage interest in poverty research and policy.

Child Support Demonstration Evaluation

The year 2006 marks the completion of a major study of the child support pass-through, the Child Support Demonstration Evaluation (CSDE). Under Wisconsin Works (W-2), the state’s welfare reform program that began in September 1997, families entitled to child support generally retained the entire amount paid on their behalf. Wisconsin’s experiment with “passing through” all child support to resident-parent families was unique among the states and offered an opportunity to evaluate the potential advantages and disadvantages of this new approach to child support and to increase our knowledge concerning the way the child support system is working for low-income families.

Since its origin, Wisconsin’s child support experiment has operated as a waiver demonstration program, which has been conducted by IRP under a competitive-bid contract from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. The Administration for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provided most of the funding. A second phase of the evaluation took place from 2003 to 2006 and included additional experimental and nonexperimental analyses of Wisconsin and national child support and welfare policy initiatives, as well as a new focus on the implications of complex family structures. Principal investigators for the CSDE are Maria Cancian (IRP director since 2004 and professor of public affairs and social work) and Daniel R. Meyer (IRP affiliate and director of the School of Social Work).

Changing Families, Changing Needs

Along with the emerging focus on child support has been a growing emphasis on the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the largest cash or near-cash antipoverty program in the United States. John Karl Scholz, a former director of IRP, has authored and coauthored several innovative studies of the program, documenting substantial, positive effects on the employment of families who have used or will use welfare.

The changing nature of the American family has made new demands on social programs and policy. IRP researchers have a distinguished history of research on family change and its implications for poverty. A recent focus has been the burgeoning of parents who have children with more than one partner (sometimes expressed as “multiple-partner fertility”). In September 2006, the Institute held a working conference on multiple-partner fertility, which attracted key researchers from across the country.

Strong Traditions

In 1966, Robert Lampman summed up the Institute for Research on Poverty’s vision when he said to a Business Week reporter, “I am not interested in defining the poverty problem so that it can’t be answered.” In 1987, another former director, Robert Haveman, noted that “The research gains attributable to the War on Poverty are large and impressive. They should be extended and pressed; they are worthy. But they do not answer all of the questions. Future poverty research should build on these past advances, but do so recognizing both the ultimate limits of social research and its competition with ideology and politics in the making of poverty policy.”

Moving Forward

Recognizing this challenge, IRP has engaged an increasingly diverse set of scholars in poverty research and developed new research methods. Through research projects, publications, seminars and conferences, and an expanded training program, IRP is both building on traditional areas of strength and reaching beyond well-established paradigms to make room for new ideas and deeper understanding. In 2006, the Institute for Research on Poverty continues to bring the best tools of social science to respond to the exigencies of poverty research and poverty policy.