Poverty-Research Grants Explore Ways to Build Workers' Employment Potential in a Slow Economy

April 12, 2013

Carolyn Heinrich, cheinrich@austin.utexas.edu, (512) 471-3779
Timothy Smeeding, smeeding@lafollette.wisc.edu, (608) 890-1317

MADISON – A national competition launched by the Institute for Research on Poverty (IRP) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison has resulted in the award of poverty-research grants to a group of promising early-career researchers. The grants were designed to tackle twin goals of supporting research on improving the self-sufficiency of low-skill, low-wage working adults in a challenging labor market, and providing mentoring to the next generation of poverty scholars.

The five extramural grants were awarded by IRP in its role as a National Poverty Research Center, funded by the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, the principal advisor to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on policy development.

Awardees are:

  • Flavio A. Cunha (University of Pennsylvania) for his project on "What Job Characteristics Do Mothers of Very Young Children Value the Most?";
  • Shaun Dougherty (University of Connecticut) for research on "The Role of Career and Technical Education in Promoting Human Capital Accumulation and Bridging Labor-Market Needs: Evidence from Massachusetts";
  • Arindrajit Dube (University of Massachusetts–Amherst) for his investigation of "Minimum Wages and the Distribution of Family Incomes";
  • Patrick Sharkey and Joshua M. Aronson (New York University) for their examination of "Using Mobile Technology to Improve Academic Performance and Persistence among Community College Students: An Experimental Evaluation of a Behavioral Intervention"; and
  • Kevin Stange and Daniel Kreisman (University of Michigan) for their study of "The Effect of School-to-Work Programs on School to Labor Market Transitions."

Visit IRP's website for project abstracts.

Grantees will be mentored by economists Timothy Smeeding, IRP director and Arts & Sciences Distinguished Professor of Public Affairs at the La Follette School of Public Affairs; and Carolyn Heinrich, Sid Richardson Professor of Public Affairs and director of the Center for Health and Social Policy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

The grants program is one element of a major three-year research initiative on Building Human Capital and Economic Potential undertaken at IRP and directed by Smeeding and Heinrich. The project also includes a national conference hosted by IRP in 2013–14 that will include papers from some of the nation's best thinkers on this topic; a conference volume; and policy and practice briefs that link research findings to the real world.

This initiative examines the causes and consequences of poverty and inequality and trends and challenges in the economy that have made it more difficult for low-skill, low-wage workers to achieve self-sufficiency, including stagnating wages and increasing unemployment and the transformation of welfare benefits from income guarantees to a package of services and benefits designed to support the employment efforts of low-skill workers.

Given that employment is the primary pathway out of poverty for most non-elderly adults in the United States, these trends have in turn increased the proportion of poor households that are headed by working-age adults.

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 between most researchers and policymakers that work must be a central element of any strategy, important questions remain concerning the potential for low-income families to become self-sufficient in a labor market offering poor opportunities for many workers. In addition, researchers and policymakers would like to know more about the role that policy can play in improving outcomes for adults and encouraging appropriate savings and asset building.

The IRP project seeks to enhance understanding in these areas and contribute to mentoring of talented emerging poverty scholars.