Robert Goerge is a Lecturer, Senior Fellow, and Senior Advisor for Masters Program in Computational Analysis and Public Policy

For the first time since the Harris Policy Labs program was established six years ago, a social policy-focused Policy Lab will be offered all three quarters, enabling students to maximize policy impact on a range of issues intended to improve the public and nonprofit sectors’ ability to serve disadvantaged individuals, families, and communities. 

These three consecutive Social Policy Labs, to be led by Chapin Hall’s Senior Research Fellow Robert Goerge and Senior Researcher Leah Gjertson (both Harris Lecturers), will allow students who have keen interests in social policy, inequality, and low-income populations to work on client-driven projects aimed at increasing institutional capacity to deliver needed services and supports to the unemployed, to low-resource families, and to other underserved populations.

Leah Gjertson is a Senior Researcher at Chapin Hall

The projects that students will undertake build on Professor Goerge’s decades of expertise and Chapin Hall’s program of policy research. Chapin Hall has developed strong relationships with government and community agencies to help advance policy using evidence-based rigorous analysis. Students in the Autumn, Winter, and Spring Social Policy Labs will interact with government agency and community partners to help them accelerate the use of evidence in practice, build more effective policies, services and systems, and better serve their constituents.

In Autumn Quarter, Policy Labs students will work on projects for three of the nation’s largest states, as well as a health and social needs project in Harvey, Illinois, a highly impoverished Chicago suburb. As new students rotate into the Social Policy Labs in Winter and Spring Quarters, they will likely pick up the work where the prior teams left off.

Beginning in Autumn Quarter, the projects are as follows:

Examining unemployment trends in the child care sector

Two state government agencies in a large midwestern state oversee, respectively, the state’s unemployment insurance program and child care workforce, and together, these agencies seek to better understand what causes employees to flow into and out of employment in the child care sector. This analysis will enable the state to better address the needs of the unemployed and employers, and the needs of community leaders working to continue the post-COVID economic expansion. Building on work done by Policy Labs students last year, Autumn students will work  with detailed administrative data on employment, earnings, and wages, thus deepening their data management, data analytic, and data visualization skills while helping these agencies achieve their goals. Students will also gain experience assessing and addressing the quality of data.

Analyzing social service program trends and the benefits cliff

States across the country administer an array of assistance programs funded by federal and state dollars, and state agencies must target aid effectively while coordinating benefits, improving program administration, and increasing the independence and capabilities of program participants. With that in mind, another team of Policy Labs students will work with a state agency from a different large midwestern state to investigate determinants of program participation and retention rates, as well as develop software coding infrastructure to enhance the agency’s capacity to utilize data to drive decision-making. Students will work with large, complex multi-year longitudinal datasets, gaining experience as they mine them for insight to guide policymakers, ultimately improving the agencies’ ability to serve some of the most vulnerable individuals and families.

In yet another project, which is for one of the largest state government agencies in the country, students will examine how the interaction of numerous new and existing economic programs can create a “benefits cliff” that affects the incentives for individuals and families to participate in some social services programs. Students will analyze how families’ eligibility changes as their economic circumstances change.

Assessing community health and social needs

The University of Chicago Medicine’s Ingalls Memorial Hospital provides quality health care services but also serves as an “anchor institution” in its home community of Harvey, Illinois, a Chicago suburb with high rates of poverty, unemployment, crime and other challenges.  Building on work of earlier Policy Labs student teams, students will refine and help administer a community survey to inform a future anchor strategy led by Ingalls Development Foundation to provide a place-based approach to improving community health and well-being across multiple social, health, and economic domains.

These varied projects and clients have multiple shared elements: a focus on using data and evidence to guide policy decisions; developing computational and analytical tools to assist public and nonprofit sector clients; and applying these skills to improve our collective abilities to support and serve the most vulnerable members of our communities. 

Professor Goerge will lead the Autumn and Spring Quarters. He has been a Policy Labs Faculty Advisor every year since 2016 and has taught at Harris since 1999. He is also a Harris Senior Fellow and a Founder and Senior Advisor to the Harris MSCAPP program. Professor Gjertson will lead the Winter Quarter Policy Lab. She is also a Policy Labs veteran, having served in the role of Professional Advisor to Professor Goerge’s Policy Labs for four of the last six years.

Harris Policy Labs have three goals: offer students an opportunity to apply their policy skills to complex policy challenges faced every day by actual policymakers and their staff; help students hone other professional skills needed to succeed as policy professionals, such as working on team projects and presenting policy recommendations to executive-level leaders; and enable students to make a social impact by helping clients of Policy Labs to advance public policy.

“With three successive quarters of the Social Policy Lab in 2021-2022, there is real promise for Policy Labs students to enhance their own policy skills while advancing the client organizations’ goals of providing meaningful support to strengthen individual and family independence and build capacity to help those in need,” said Paula Worthington, Harris Senior Lecturer and Academic Director of Harris Policy Labs.