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Institute for Research on Poverty Marks 40 Years of Innovative Research

MADISON—The nation’s first poverty research center, the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, next month marks 40 years of studying why some Americans live in poverty and what can be done to end it.

“Fighting poverty is not simply a matter of increasing budgets or cutting programs,” says Maria Cancian, the Institute’s director. “We need to understand economic and family change in order to most effectively use public and other resources to eliminate poverty.”

The Institute will observe its 40th anniversary in conjunction with the 28th annual research conference of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM)—the national meeting of policy scholars and practitioners—November 2–4 at Madison’s Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center.

At the APPAM conference IRP panelists will reflect on 40 years of poverty research, exploring such topics as: What have we learned over 40 years of poverty research and related policy innovation? What are the most important gaps in poverty research and poverty policy and what strategies for addressing those gaps appear most fruitful?

When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty in 1964, little was known about the nature and extent of poverty in the United States and equally little about how to measure it. The desire to establish a research center that would take a nonpartisan, scholarly, quantitative approach to the problem led to the foundation of the Institute for Research on Poverty in 1966.

Why Wisconsin? In brief, the Wisconsin Idea—essentially, the sharing of the University of Wisconsin’s knowledge and expertise to enhance the lives of citizens. Adlai Stevenson said the Wisconsin Idea “meant a faith in the application of intelligence and reason to the problems of society. It meant a deep conviction that the role of government was not to stumble along like a drunkard in the dark, but to light its way by the best torches of knowledge and understanding it could find.”

IRP researchers have been lighting the way—statewide and nationwide—by such work as developing methods to gauge the level and trend of poverty over time and pioneering experimental evaluation of social welfare programs, such as the Negative Income Tax, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Medicaid, food stamps, and, more recently, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and child support. Beginning in the 1980s, IRP researchers undertook an intensive reevaluation of the U.S. child support system and, in cooperation with the State of Wisconsin, developed approaches that helped to create the more equitable and efficient programs that exist nationwide today.

Gary Sandefur, Dean of the UW–Madison College of Letters and Science, notes, “The Institute for Research on Poverty is building on a venerable Wisconsin tradition of turning our best minds and our best efforts to improving the well-being of our citizens. What better place than IRP, the birthplace of national poverty research, and what better university than the University of Wisconsin–Madison, home of the Wisconsin Idea, to confront the new face of poverty in the twenty-first century?”

“Ending welfare as we know it,” President Bill Clinton’s 1991 campaign promise, signaled a sea-change in government’s approach to problems of poverty and long-term welfare dependency, most notably a new emphasis on work for those receiving aid. Wisconsin was the first state to radically reform its welfare system, with Wisconsin Works (W-2), introduced in 1997.

The Institute’s research on child support in the wake of these welfare reforms helped spark major national reform. Traditionally, child support payments for those in welfare programs had gone directly to the government, to recoup costs. Institute researchers conducted a federally supported evaluation in which some Wisconsin Works participants were allowed to receive full child support payments, and others had their child support withheld.

“We found that dads were more likely to pay child support if their kids received it and that moms established paternity more quickly,” says Cancian, a public affairs and social work professor. “We also found that women who received the payments were less likely to live with men who were not the fathers of their kids, perhaps because they had more economic independence.”

The study, cited by President George W. Bush, provided support for a provision in the Deficit Reduction Act of 2006 that allows state governments to pass along up to $200 of child support each month to families receiving aid.

Through its conferences, seminars and legislative briefings, and an active publications program, IRP has consistently sought to expand understanding of research focusing on society’s most vulnerable members, including single-parent families, low-wage workers, and children in the child welfare system. IRP publications are available on its Web site at, which received more than 8 million visits in the past year.

IRP prepares the next generation of poverty researchers through graduate and undergraduate training programs, courses taught by IRP affiliates, and panel discussions. The Institute also offers a visiting-scholars program for social scientists from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, and it serves as the mentor and publisher of the Midwest Welfare Peer Assistance Network (WELPAN), the nation’s first organization of regional senior welfare officials. WELPAN members meet regularly with IRP researchers to discuss welfare-program implementation on the front lines.

IRP activities funded by core support from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have recently focused on 3 central themes in contemporary social policy discussions: marriage, family structure, and the role of public policy; pathways to self-sufficiency; and the reorganization of social policy. In 2006–2007 IRP will hold a national conference on “getting ahead in an era beyond welfare reform,” host campus forums on faith-based initiatives and social policy, and advance a new seminar series that challenges accepted paradigms in poverty research and explores new research models and methodologies.

Over the 40 years of the Institute’s existence, one thing has become clear: poverty is a complex, stubborn problem linked to economic factors, social factors, and government policy. “One of the things we’ve come to understand is that when you move from traditional support mechanisms to making more demands of poor individuals, it puts more demands on government,” says Cancian. “It’s harder to help someone be self-sufficient than to send them a check.”

Forty years after it began, and as the nation continues to evaluate poverty policy, the Institute’s work is more relevant than ever.

For more information on the Institute, visit