The Poverty Lab, a part of Harris, partners with policymakers, community-based organizations and others to work toward greater economic opportunity for communities harmed by disinvestment and segregation.
Marianne Bertrand

Young people growing up in many of Chicago’s neighborhoods face real barriers due to decades of disinvestment and discrimination that limit their social and economic mobility. The University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy’s Poverty Lab works with partners in the public and nonprofit sectors to identify and develop strategies to overcome these barriers. The Lab’s work cuts across traditional policy domains, including education, workforce development, housing, and cash assistance programs.

A leading economist whose research focuses on labor economics, development economics and finance, Marianne Bertrand is the faculty director of Poverty Lab, and the Chris P. Dialynas Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and co-director of Chicago Booth’s Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation

Bertrand recently sat down with the Harris Public Policy, which is the academic home to Poverty Lab and the four other Urban Labs at UChicago, to discuss the Poverty Lab’s work and priorities:

The work being done at the Urban Labs provides such great examples of how UChicago can make a tangible social impact across our communities. Can you tell us a little bit about the work being done in the Poverty Lab specifically?

All of the work we are doing at the Poverty Lab is centered on trying to improve social mobility. As a result, we are very interested in a set of policy levers on the education and labor market front that may be effective. Education is critical—in fact, there is another Urban Lab, Education Lab, totally dedicated to this issue, focusing mainly on K-12 education. Our work at the Poverty Lab is focused on the important transition from school to work and helping students continue their education beyond high school. 

What does that look like?

It’s very clear right now that simply getting a high school degree doesn’t get you far in life. One of our key questions, therefore, is how to get more first-generation kids to attend two- and four-year colleges and then persist through those institutions. We are working with various organizations and community colleges in Chicago to focus on boosting graduation rates and getting young adults ready for the workforce.

Can you give us an example of this type of collaboration?

Right now we are working on a project with an organization called One Million Degrees, a nonprofit that provides wraparound support to low-income community college students in the Chicago area. They provide students with everything from tutors to professional development coaches, as well as financial stipends and networking. We’ve been working with them for about four years now, helping them to assess how their program is performing by setting up a randomized control trial that includes almost 5,000 students. Our efforts will evaluate whether this model shows impacts on degree attainment, employment, and earnings. 

Do you have any outcomes from this study as of yet?

We have been doing evaluations over three years and the first-year results for two cohorts are promising in terms of attendance rates and course completions. Although we don’t have graduation results yet, the students that are in the program are on track to graduate at a much higher rate than those who are not.

Are there other areas critical to social mobility that the Poverty Lab is working on?

Yes. We have been doing some work on homelessness rates in Chicago Public Schools (CPS), documenting the extent to which homelessness exists for CPS students and talking with CPS about various approaches to try and address this problem. We’ve also been doing some work in Los Angeles that has been focused on trying to predict homelessness before it happens.

Can you elaborate on this a little?

If you think about homelessness as a very costly problem and one that’s very difficult to get people out of once they’ve entered it, there is a belief that if we were better at targeting people who were on the verge of homelessness and providing them with resources at that time before they become homeless, it could be a more effective way to address the problem. Our work in LA is taking place in an environment where a lot of administrative data sets have been linked together—like accessing public services or number of emergency room visits—to try to predict homelessness. The next phase for us is to think about the kinds of services and interventions based on our audits that could be deployed to these people before they are homeless to help them avoid that outcome.

Is there any other work you would like to highlight?

Our work to improve outcomes for Chicago youth, ages 16-24, who have been disconnected from society, is really important. Here we are mainly focused on building a landscape of services that exist for disconnected young people, meaning those who are neither attending school nor working. A part of this is thinking about the role that vocational education and apprenticeship programs can have in keeping young people, who might otherwise get disconnected, engaged in school. We are starting to talk to CPS about their vocational and apprenticeship programs that could be leveraged for this target group.

Taking all of your work into account, what are the outcomes you are excited to see at the Poverty Lab?

The model of the Lab is really special—it’s really unlike the research I do in other parts of my professional life. It goes beyond just publishing an evaluation or article. Here we do everything in close partnership with nonprofits or government agencies to create programs that are actionable and scalable. We try to take the research as far as we can, thinking about how to scale and communicate the work effectively so policy makers and others can try and incorporate it into their own work. Recently our One Million Degrees partner was able to help CPS tackle some of its challenges with “summer melt” students—those who graduated from high school but decide not to pursue a post-secondary education. This type of hands-on and practical collaboration to move-the-needle on real-time problems is what really makes the Lab’s work unique and important.

Are there opportunities that exist for Harris students to get involved with the Lab?

Absolutely. We hire a lot of Harris graduates to work in the Lab after they’ve finished school and during the summer there are a lot of opportunities for students who want to engage in various aspects of our work—from crunching data to engaging with the partners to field work, like conducting qualitative surveys to support the quantitative work we do. We really have a broad and diverse range of opportunities available to students.