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Poverty Research & Policy

The Poverty Research & Policy Podcast is produced by the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Institute for Research on Poverty (IRP) and features interviews with researchers about poverty, inequality, and policy in the United States.


Joseph Mullins on Valuing Parental Time and Children's Development in the Design of Cash Transfer Programs
When it comes to cash transfer programs like welfare for single parents and especially mothers, most of the evaluation and economic modeling efforts have focused on how those programs impact the amount of paid work single parents do. However, there's been less attention to the value of parental time and how that matters for children's development. For this podcast episode, we hear from economist Joseph Mullins of the University of Minnesota, who developed an economic model for U.S. cash transfer programs that attempts to place an accurate value on parents' time when assessing cash transfers programs. He says his model suggests a very different structure for our cash transfer programs if we want to best balance children's need for money resources and parental time for their healthy development.  Link to the paper:    
30:01 09/15/2022
Nick Hillman on the Federal Student Loan Forgiveness Act
The Biden administration's plan to alleviate federal student loan debt has the potential to reduce the debt of approximately 43 million Americans, and almost half of those borrowers will have their debt forgiven completely. The move has prompted praise from some, and strong criticism from others. In this episode, we’re joined by Professor Nick Hillman, who studies educational inequality, college affordability, and student loan debt and default. Hillman is a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also directs the Student Success through Applied Research Lab, which is a research-practice partnership with the university's Division of Enrollment Management and Office of Student Financial Aid. Hillman is also a faculty affiliate at IRP and at the La Follette School of Public Affairs.
27:25 08/31/2022
Youth Trauma and Resilience in Contexts of Poverty with Noni Gaylord-Harden, Jocelyn Smith Lee, and Alvin Thomas
IRP recently hosted Dr. Noni Gaylord-Harden, Dr. Jocelyn Smith Lee,  and Dr. Alvin Thomas for a webinar conversation on Youth Trauma and Resilience in Contexts of Poverty. They discussed how a growing body of research has begun to change understandings of how toxic environments can affect young people, particularly African American boys and young men and how research, policy, and practice can incorporate these lessons. More information about the webinar can be found at 
64:11 08/18/2022
Casey Stockstill on Economic and Racial Segregation in Preschools
For this episode, we hear from Dr. Casey Stockstill about research she did to better understand economic and racial segregation in preschools. Dr. Stockstill spent time observing in two highly rated preschools in the same city: One was a Head Start location where nearly all of the children were students of color and from lower income families and the other was a private preschool in a more affluent part of town where nearly all the students were white and from higher income families. Her observations offer insights about how inequality and segregation in early childhood education can play out in the classroom for students and their teachers. 
35:08 07/25/2022
Kathryn Edin on the 25th Anniversary of "Making Ends Meet"
2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the publication of Making Ends Meet: How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low Wage Work, by Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein. The book was based on interviews with low-income single moms that took place between the late 1980s and early 1990s. Edin and Lein detailed the women's household budgets, the strategies they used to support their families, and the unforgiving choice between welfare and low-wage work.  In this episode, we hear from Kathryn Edin about what she learned from talking to these mothers and about the changes in U.S. antipoverty policy in the 25 years since Making Ends Meet was published.  A transcript for the episode is available at  
39:19 06/15/2022
Zawadi Rucks-Ahidiana on Race and the Financial Toolkit
Where we get information about money and how to manage it can have long-lasting impacts on financial security and wealth accumulation. While there are some commonly shared sources of information that shape our attitudes and beliefs, there are also some significant differences across racial and ethnic groups. In this episode, Dr. Zawadi Rucks-Ahidiana joins us to discuss her recent paper titled, “Race and the Financial Toolkit: Bridging Cultural Theories to Understand Behavior and Decision Making in the Racial Wealth Gap.” Rucks-Ahidiana is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at University at Albany, State University of New York. Her research investigates how race informs gentrification, how the news media represents gentrification, and how culture contributes to the racial wealth gap. She is also a former IRP Emerging Poverty Scholar.
24:44 06/02/2022
Brieanna Watters and Robert Stewart on Native Americans and Monetary Sanctions
In this episode of the Poverty Research & Policy Podcast, we hear from Brieanna Watters and Robert Stewart about a paper they coauthored* on Native Americans and Monetary Sanctions involving the criminal legal system. They discuss how Native American experiences in relation to the legal system are often unique, how the rural nature of Indian Country matters when it comes to policies around fines and fees, and how their research in Minnesota finds higher levels of fines and fees for Native American defendants, particularly in areas near reservations.  Watters is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota, and Stewart is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland.  *The paper discussed in the episode was coauthored by Stewart, Watters, Veronica Horowitz, Ryan Larson, Brian Sargent, and Christopher Uggen. You can find it in a special issue of RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences at  
35:13 05/16/2022
José Pacas on the Puzzle of Measuring Rural Poverty in the Supplemental Poverty Measure
In this episode, we hear from José Pacas about data challenges involved in measuring rural poverty in the Supplemental Poverty Measure or SPM and how the subtleties of poverty measurement can have real world implications for the lived experiences of low-income people in rural places.  Dr. Pacas is currently serving on a National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine panel on Evaluation and Improvements to the Supplemental Poverty Measure. He is Chief of Data Science and Research at Kids First Chicago and was previously a researcher at IPUMS at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Pacas was a 2019-2020 fellow in the IRP Scholars in Residence Program. 
34:59 04/29/2022
Whitney Gent on How Homelessness is Portrayed in Movies and Why it Matters
People experiencing homelessness are more often part of the background in movies than featured as the protagonists. But when they are the focus of a film, the ways that they and those who feel moved to help them are portrayed can have a big impact on how the public and policymakers think about homelessness and possible solutions. In this episode, we talk with Dr. Whitney Gent about what she and her coauthor found in their analysis of films featuring homeless characters from 1983 to 2018, and in particular the concepts of visibility and agency. Gent is an assistant professor in the School of Communication at the University of Nebraska Omaha. She earned her doctorate in rhetoric, politics, and culture from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and was a graduate research fellow with IRP during her doctoral studies.
34:04 03/21/2022
Lindsey Bullinger on Evaluating Risk of Child Maltreatment During the COVID-19 Pandemic
When the pandemic hit, many people who study child maltreatment, abuse, and neglect were worried that some children might be at greater risk due to more time at home and other factors that the pandemic could exacerbate. But at the same time, many children had less access to other adults who might be able to notice if something was wrong. For this episode, we talked with Dr. Lindsey Bullinger of Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy about how she and her colleagues went about trying to measure rates of child maltreatment early in the pandemic when many families needed to stay at home.
19:10 03/02/2022
Prentiss Dantzler on the Concept of Who Deserves to Have Access to Public Housing
In this episode, we hear from Professor Prentiss Dantzler about how perceptions of who lives in public housing – and who deserves that type of support – have developed over the past century, and how that has affected the urban poor and particularly people of color. His research includes reviewing the congressional testimony around the issue of providing housing for returning World War II GIs. Dantzler is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto and a former IRP Visiting Scholar.
19:31 02/07/2022
Quentin Riser on Family Income Instability and How it Might Affect Kids' School Readiness
In this episode, we hear from Dr. Quentin Riser about how family income instability in early childhood affects children's school readiness and later outcomes. He talks about how administrative data, such as in the Wisconsin Administrative Data Core, can offer a more complete picture of the financial ups and downs that young families face, and how that can matter for children later on in school.  
19:23 01/20/2022
Andrea Elliott and Darcey Merritt in Conversation about Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City
IRP recently had the privilege of hosting New York Times reporter and author Andrea Elliott and NYU Professor of Social Work Darcey Merritt for a conversation about Elliot’s book Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City. They talked about the family in the book, the child welfare system and race, how we think about meeting the needs of children, and how we can do better.   
60:55 01/13/2022
Anna Gassman-Pines on Early Impacts of the Pandemic for Parents in Service Occupations
When the pandemic hit the United States in March of 2020, Anna Gassman-Pines and her colleague Elizabeth Ananat were already conducting a text message survey among service workers who had children. As early-pandemic lockdowns and business closures began, Gassman-Pines and Ananat were able to pivot and began asking the people they were surveying about job and income loss, challenges that stemmed from school and childcare shifts, whether they were able to access government benefits, and about their own mental health. In this podcast episode Gassman-Pines offers an overview of their findings and discusses how what they learned fits within the larger context of low-wage work in the United States. Transcript:  Dave Chancellor: [00:00:04] Hello, and thanks for joining us for the Poverty Research and Policy podcast from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I'm Dave Chancellor and, for this episode, I got to speak with Anna Gassman-Pines about the experiences early in the COVID-19 pandemic of parents who worked in service occupations. Now, before the start of the pandemic, Gassman-Pines and her colleagues were already doing a text message survey with workers that looked especially at how the precariousness of their work schedules affected other areas of their lives. And so when the pandemic hit, they were able to pivot and ask about many of the issues that especially impacted lower earning parents like income loss, shifts to remote learning or changes in child care challenges, accessing benefits, and mental health struggles. And even though we're around a year and a half into the pandemic, these are things that many families are still very much working through today. So let's turn to the interview. Dr. Gassman-Pines, thanks for being here for the Poverty Research and Policy podcast. So you are the WLF BASS Connections Associate Professor of Public Policy and Psychology at Duke University, right? Can you tell me a little bit about the kind of research that you do? Anna Gassman-Pines [00:01:21] Absolutely, and thanks so much for having me. My research focuses on understanding contextual influences on the well-being of low income children in the United States, and in particular, I'm interested in really understanding how parents experiences outside the home in labor markets, in low wage jobs, accessing social services spill over to the home and ultimately affect families and children's well-being. Chancellor [00:01:51] Today we're talking about how lower income working parents were kind of doing in the early months of the COVID 19 pandemic and you have a study that you've done with Elizabeth Ananat that ended up giving us a lot of insights into the picture of people's day to day. But that's not how the two of you kind of originally set out to do this study, right? What was the actual plan here? Gassman-Pines [00:02:14] That's right. So at the beginning of this study, we were interested in two big questions. One is understanding how common schedule changes are for hourly working parents who are working in the service sector. So working in retail, food service or hotel jobs. How common is it for their work schedule to be changed from the schedule that was originally posted or shared with them? And what are the consequences of those schedule changes for the well-being of both those parents and their children? So that was the first big question. The second big question was to try to understand whether. Local regulations that hold service sector employers that they had to give their employees more advance notice and to compensate their employees for changes made to the work schedule after it was shared would either alter the likelihood of those last minute changes or make their consequences less negative for those families. So, in other words, would a local law that tries to make schedules more predictable, improve well-being for working parents and their families, either by making schedule changes less common or by making them less costly? Chancellor [00:03:32] You had a wave of this study in the field in the early months of 2020, so you kind of got like a real time look at what happened right around the middle of March. Gassman-Pines [00:03:44] That's right. So the way that our data collection works is we actually ask our participants to answer daily survey questions. The surveys each day are quite short, but they allow us to get real time information about whether parents work, what their work hours were, whether there were any unanticipated changes to their work schedule and reports about their own and their children's well-being each day. And we had just launched another wave of data collection starting in mid-February, where we were asking these parents to provide two weeks of 14 days or these daily survey reports. And as people were enrolling in that wave over time and those two weeks were starting, that was right when the COVID-19 pandemic kind of burst onto the scene. And what we could really see was almost in real time just how quickly parents lost access to work as restrictions were put into place and how immediately that affected their family well-being. Chancellor [00:04:52] I know for a lot of researchers when the pandemic hit and a lot of these quarantine restrictions kind of came into place, it kind of messed things up, I guess, in terms of study. But you were doing like a text message study, right? So this is in some ways, socially distant-friendly. Gassman-Pines [00:05:08] That's right. So this study was set up to use technology from the very beginning. We use text messages for sending and receiving all of our survey questions. And that is for a few reasons. One. Almost everyone has a basic mobile phone that is capable of simple text messaging at this point, so cell phones have really become ubiquitous. So there are way of reaching all different types of people. But by using text messages instead of a more standard phone survey, people can participate every day in a way that works for them and that allows them to continue to balance their own other work and family demands. So those surveys are sent out each night at seven p.m., but someone might not be able to answer until midnight, and that's totally fine. So we were set up to use this technology from the very beginning, even well before the pandemic and back in 2019. And we'd been communicating with our sample about the study, using phone and text all along. And so we were really in a strong position to continue that work through the pandemic without having to make any changes to the way that we were asking our participants to share information with us. Chancellor [00:06:24] So what sort of things were you asking these workers and these parents, especially as you shifted into, you know, pandemic mode? Gassman-Pines [00:06:35] So once the pandemic hit and we saw how quickly parents work lives were changing, we did pivot to field additional one time surveys to the sample over time. That allowed us to really get a lot more details from them about how they were experiencing the pandemic. So these included in addition to information about their job loss and changes to work. We also gathered information about. Loss of income, both income from earnings, but also income from other sources like government support. We continue to ask questions about parents’ mental health. We have a lot of detailed information about access to social services, both kind of traditional programs that have existed for a long time, as well as programs that were put into place in response to the pandemic. And a lot of other questions about the challenges with balancing work and care in this moment. So, for example, in the fall wave that we fielded in fall of 2020, we asked about remote or in-person child care or school, how where children were and how often schooling or care had been disrupted because of the pandemic. Chancellor [00:07:57] Walk us through some of the results here. What were people telling you about? I think, Early on with the job loss, I know a lot of people lost their jobs in that last half of March of 2020. What did that look like for the people that you were talking to you? Gassman-Pines [00:08:12] Keeping in mind that our sample was folks who are all working in the service sector, which, as we know, has been really hard hit by the pandemic and we saw that in our sample too. So about 40 percent of our sample was laid off during those early months of the pandemic. And for those who were with who were laid off, they experienced substantial losses of income. So we ask a pretty simple question which is asking folks to think back and compare their income now to what it was pre-pandemic. And we ask them to not report the exact dollar figure because that's pretty hard to figure out, but we ask them to put that number into general buckets. Is it basically the same as it was before the pandemic? Maybe it's higher or was it less than before the pandemic? And if it was less, was it more than half of what you had before the pandemic? And so what we see for those who lost jobs is the most common thing is that their income has fallen by more than 50 percent. This is a large income loss for folks who were not making a lot of money to begin with. And the consequence of that has been a big increase in material hardship. So what we're seeing in our sample is big increases in food insecurity from pre-pandemic and also trouble with basic things like being able to pay rent or mortgage. Chancellor [00:09:47] And I'm curious about some of these mental health questions that you ask, because this is for this been hard for everybody, right? But for people who were experiencing large material hardships, that's going to be really hard, right? Gassman-Pines [00:10:01] Yes, that's right, so we have asked throughout the pandemic questions about parents mental health, both general anxiety and depression we use for each of those. Validated to question screeners that basically could give any practitioner, a researcher, health professional, a sense that this person is at pretty high risk for either generalized anxiety or depression. And what we found is that throughout the pandemic, half of the parents in our sample are screening positive for likely anxiety, depression or both. Chancellor [00:10:38] You had mentioned before looking at some of the government programs that folks may have been either trying to take up. How were those helping or were folks able to access things that made a difference? Gassman-Pines [00:10:51] So there's really two important takeaways from our findings around access to government support. So big takeaway number one is the CARES Act, and the government supports that were provided in response to the pandemic did help in stabilizing family income. At the same time, though, they relied on. Antiquated systems that were, in many cases, understaffed and underfunded pre-pandemic, with the implications being that not everyone who was eligible for benefits was able to get them. So taking unemployment insurance, for example, so unemployment insurance is our main safety net program for people who lose jobs. Access to unemployment was massively increased in response to the pandemic so that many, many more workers, nearly all workers, were eligible to receive unemployment insurance, and it was also made more generous to acknowledge the tremendous financial need during this time. But in our sample, nearly everyone who was laid off tried to apply for unemployment insurance, but many were not actually able to get their benefits. Some couldn't get through the process because it was too cumbersome or difficult, or they didn't have the right technology. But most of them simply just hadn't received benefits, even though they were able to apply and were eligible. The benefits just hadn't arrived yet. And unfortunately, there are racial disparities in the likelihood of that happening. So in our sample, the black families were much more likely to have gotten through the application process, but not yet received their unemployment insurance at the time of our survey. Then the white families in our sample, Chancellor [00:12:56] You study families with children and how sort of this precarity sometimes affects families and how do we kind of situate this in the longer term? I mean, is this just a symptom of kind of like a broader issue that a lot of lower income families have in our country? Gassman-Pines [00:13:15] That's a great question, and I do think that what we're seeing families struggling with now is really only a heightened version of what families were already struggling with before the pandemic. So, for example, in our sample in the fall of 2019, of all the days that we surveyed families, they told us that they had some kind of anticipated change to their work schedule, like having a shift canceled at the last minute, having a shift added on at the last minute, having their hours changed in some way that was happening on about 11 percent of all the days. So when you think about 11 percent of days, what that tells you is that one once out of every 10 days work is not going as planned, which means rearranging child care and other responsibilities. And you can imagine the kind of stress and strain that this was putting on parents under the best of circumstances in a strong economy before this pandemic. And so what the pandemic has really done is heightened all those stresses and strains and made much more visible to two more people. How precarious this balance is of trying to manage unstable work schedules and care responsibilities for young children. Chancellor [00:14:44] What are some of the other implications of this study? What are you looking at? Gassman-Pines [00:14:49] I think the big implication is that more supports for working families are needed. It could include thinking more about. How to smooth and streamline access to these programs and support supporting state and local governments in administering benefits and reducing hurdles for families. And additionally, we should be thinking about ways to strengthen our systems for addressing families mental health needs. Chancellor [00:15:25] Thanks again to Professor Anna Gassman-Pines for talking about her work with us. You can give her follow on Twitter at @AGPines. The Institute for Research on Poverty is the National Research Center on Poverty and Economic Mobility, funded by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. The positions expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of the Institute for Research on Poverty or ASPE. You can learn more about IRP and the other resources we offer at Thanks for listening.
15:50 12/20/2021
Amy Castro On Early Results From Guaranteed Income Programs
For this episode of the Poverty Research and Policy Podcast, we hear from Professor Amy Castro about the concept of Basic Income, and what she and her team are learning from data coming in from pilot projects around the country.  Professor Castro is Founding Director of the Center for Guaranteed Income Research and an Assistant Professor of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. --- Transcript:  Judith Siers-Poisson: Hello, and thanks for joining us for the poverty research and policy podcast from the Institute for research on poverty at the university of Wisconsin-Madison. I'm Judith Siers-Poisson. For this episode we are going to be talking with Professor Amy Castro about the concept of Basic Income, and what she and her team are learning from data coming in from pilot projects around the country.  Professor Castro is Founding Director of the Center for Guaranteed Income Research and an Assistant Professor of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Castro, Thanks for joining us today. Amy Castro: Thanks for having me. Siers-Poisson: What do we mean when we talk about a guaranteed income? What is it and what is it not? Castro: Yeah, it's a great question because there's a lot of terms that are floating out there in the public imagination that also in the literature. So, there's three basic terms that pertain to this body of work. First is UBI or Universal Basic Income, and that's the one that people are probably the most familiar with given Andrew Yang's presidential run. UBI is exactly what it sounds like. It's universal. It's an unconditional amount of cash that goes to every single person in a city, a state, a town, a county, whatever that jurisdiction may be. We actually have not had a UBI experiment here in the United States because obviously universality know would apply to everybody. We have not had that yet. Second is basic income. Basic income is again an unconditional amount of cash that is given to a group of people, and it's enough to cover your basic needs. The third category, which is primarily what I study, is guaranteed income. It's not enough money to cover your basic needs but is a fixed amount of cash that's recurring, so you can rely on that money coming each month each week, whatever that cadence may be. And I think that's key about all three of these categories. A characteristic that carries across all is the unconditional nature of it, meaning you receive that cash because you're human, you don't receive that cash because you fit a means test criteria or because you are doing something like participating in a workforce force training program or a financial literacy program. You receive that cash because you are because you exist. And that's really the ethos behind guaranteed income or basic income. Siers-Poisson: And it seems like that point is what distinguishes it from, say, what people used to lump under the umbrella of welfare in the past. Castro: Exactly. And I think that that's why, you know, on the one hand, people are so excited about this idea. And then on the other hand, why there is so much backlash, right, is that we truly are talking about giving away money, no strings attached. And traditionally here in the United States, when we talk about the provision of cash or goods to people who are struggling to make ends meet, we layer it with all sorts of restrictions as to how that money can be spent and who can have access to it. And what's attached to those restrictions are social constructions ideas that are not rooted in reality, they’re rooted in ideology most of the time around race, class, gender, marital status. And they're used as ways to shame and blame people who access these programs. And it really serves as a social deterrent for people to access them. In contrast, basic income or guaranteed income functions completely differently. If you're enrolled in one of these programs or pilots, you receive it because you're human. And the idea is that people know best what they need and what their households need. And secondly, if we think about need, right? So like financial scarcity or financial need, needs fluctuate from month to month and cash is the only benefit that's flexible. So if needs are flexible, we want to have something that's dynamic to match it. And cash is really the only thing that does that in comparison to something like food stamps or SNAP, which can only be used for restricted items such as food that fits a pre-set list that's set by a bureaucrat. Siers-Poisson: So you just explained that this goes to people because they're people, not because they qualify in some way, but then who was targeted for these guaranteed income programs? Castro: Yeah, it's a great question. So, you know, it's a fancy way of saying it would be what is the recruitment criteria, right? Because we're running experiments scientifically. So we are designing and studying these programs to see what happens when you provide people the money. So one of the big questions that we get any time we're running a new pilot—and right now we're running or at various stages of running twenty-eight pilots across the US at my center—is who gets the money right? And so that's a complicated process that for us happens across three different sets of stakeholders. First, we have our community-based stakeholders, which is what the community wants to set as far as eligibility criteria. Second, you know, elected officials who may or may not be working with us and that are really spearheading the program and helping to kind of get it off the ground. And then third, those of us within the research space trying to determine how do we best leverage this project to answer research questions so that we are informing policy with data. So that recruitment criteria really varies for us from state to state and from location to location. I would say the majority of the projects we're working on right now are focused on people who are struggling to make ends meet. Oftentimes, they have children in the household, and oftentimes there are people who have had some type of a pandemic-related incident with their work: their hours being cut, something to that effect. But that's a general statement of each pilot is slightly different. Siers-Poisson: I want to get into the nuts and bolts of how this works, but first, I want to touch on something that you just said and that's getting feedback from the communities that you are in. And I think that especially the communities that we're talking about are communities that have maybe historically been treated with less respect in the ways that they are given support or help, if they are at all. When you also layer on things like systemic racism and the history of understandable distrust of systems, how do you go in and build those relationships that are necessary to have any hope of being successful? Castro: That’s such a great question. You know, first I’ll own, before I say how, and sort of jump to say how we resolve that problem, or we try to resolve that problem, because I'm by no means saying that we fix it. The first thing I just want to own is that, you know, as a scientist and as somebody who has social work training, this is the hardest part of my job. You know, it's really easy as a scientist to stay in a position of control. And that's how we're trained, is that you hold your research design so tightly. You are the expert, you know, best it needs to happen. You determine the hypotheses, you determine the design and it is in your hands. And it is very comforting, right? You can lean back into your methods training, lean back into your degree, lean back into your institution or your brand, and label yourself as the expert and that feels very safe. But the more you involve the community in your design, the more you are letting go of really being in control. So when we think about the posture of science and the posture of how we engage with community stakeholders, it's crucial that we sort of hold our integrity as a scientist in one hand while on the other hand, being willing to relinquish control to some degree to involve community voice in the process. And when we look back through social science, we see, you know, decades of places where we've been unwilling to do this and we start measuring things, designing programs and policies, without the community input. And then we wonder why it doesn't work. This happened with TANF, or Welfare to Work as we designed this program, assuming it would work without bothering to think, “Hey, what happens if you expect the mom to work and take three busses to get to the other side of a city?” That literally makes absolutely no sense, right? So I will say that at the outset, it's the most rewarding part of what I do. It's also the most terrifying because it means I’m not in a position of control. As far as how we resolve it, there's no way to do it that’s going to make everyone happy. I’ll own that from the start. But a couple key steps. First is making certain that we are involving ourselves from the very beginning of a project with community-based stakeholders and organizations who know their community well. So this means doing that legwork of meeting with CBOs, nonprofits, and also the constituents themselves and the people who receive benefits from those programs to understand best how a program ought to be designed. So in some cases, we involve people in giving us feedback on how we design that recruitment criteria, or another way of putting it who gets the money, and getting that feedback. And then crucially, another way that we involve community stakeholders is in release of findings. So in Stockton, for instance, all of that data that's been released on spending that people can see, that is seen by a group of focus groups of community stakeholders that are not elected officials, that are not people in power. They're regular humans who get to see that data first and work with us to think about how we display this data to the public. Siers-Poisson: So let's get down to those nuts and bolts of how these programs work. First of all, how is the amount decided on? You did say that guaranteed income is not supposed to provide for all expenses, but even given that, it seems like the cost of living in different parts of the country or even parts of a state would need to be taken into consideration. So how do you find that that amount that is going to give you some kind of results that mean something? Castro: That's a great question, and it's one of our most vexing open research questions. So first, Stockton was set at $500 a month. The rationale behind that $500 a month is that the question of whether or not you can absorb a $400 unexpected shock or financial emergency is a standard question or threshold within economic mobility research and something that's standard in a lot of our large datasets. So it sort of made sense to start there. A lot of other cities who have built on the Stockton model have kind of just lifted that amount of money because that's what Stockton did. We have very limited control as to deciding the disbursement amount. And of course, those things are also restricted by the amount of funds that are available to a given pilot. However, some of our larger places and bigger cities with higher cost of living like, for instance, the L.A. area, we're talking about $1,000 a month. So it's really an open question for research and for policy as to how should we adjust unconditional cash based on cost of living. It's not something we have a good answer to yet, and I'm hoping that we will within the next three or four years because, yeah, cost of living is different from one state to the next, from one city to the next. And that's absolutely something that needs to be taken into consideration when we're talking about moving from pilot to policy. Siers-Poisson:  So Stockton, which is the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, or SEED, I believe, as you said, that was the first pilot of this specific type of guaranteed income program. How did it come about? Why Stockton? Castro: So it's incredibly interesting. So first, Mayor Michael Tubbs really spearheaded the launch of that project in partnership with Economic Security Project. So Economic Security Project or ESP, which is headed up by Chris Hughes, former cofounder of Facebook, and Natalie Foster, they had been sort of looking for a city that was interested in potentially testing this idea. Now everyone is kind of running to try find a basic income pilot but go back to 2017, 2018, people are like “you are crazy. You're going to give people money? No strings attached? That's absolutely nuts.” And here's Mayor Tubbs, who you know is, I believe the youngest, if not one of the youngest, who's 26 years old, elected as mayor in Stockton. You know, Stockton had nowhere to go but up. They had experienced the worst that capitalism has to offer. They were once the foreclosure capital of the United States, while also absorbing the cost of housing from the bay area. So it made it sort of an ideal spot to test this idea because one, you had a mayor who was interested and willing to try anything right, willing to take the risk. But second, it really is a bellwether location. And when we think about sort of the way that risky lending has really dismantled the middle class and resulted in tremendous losses in wealth, particularly for, you know, Black and Brown households, Stockton was an ideal place to test policy proof of concept because it really kind of fit that Venn diagram of all these, these different forces that are really contributed to the loss of wealth, the United States. Siers-Poisson: So you had, I think it's fair to say, a visionary young mayor who was interested in trying this. So where did the money come from? Castro: The money came from two kind of different categories. So first, you have the disbursement money, so the money that actually goes to the people. That funding came primarily from the Economic Security Project, along with a number of other philanthropists who donated, smaller family foundations, and also some individual donors. And then the science—this is crucial because this is a model that we, we maintain across all the things that we're working on—the funding for the science came from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. And so we really like to keep a strong firewall between those two sides. So there's not coercion. So, RWJF, you know, really to their credit, specifically, the evidence for action arm of RWJ, really took a chance on our project and funded the research side. So the evaluation dollars were coming from sort of that traditional form of funding. Siers-Poisson: And so how many people were enrolled, and do you think of them as people or as households? Castro: Oh, great question. Yeah. So we tend to talk about sort of the findings at a household level simply because that's how people live, right? They live in networks, they live in households, but the money is not going to specific household, it's going to a specific individual in the household. So we had 125 people in the treatment group, which is another way of saying the people who got the $500. And then we also had a control group who were taking all the same surveys, participating in the same interviews as the treatment group, but not getting the cash so we could compare one group to the other. Siers-Poisson: When did it start and how far along are you now? Castro: So the research ran for two years. Our last payment was in February of this year. So we had one full year of pre-pandemic data or disbursements and then one year of payments during the pandemic or after. We've only released the first-year findings. The second-year findings, that is the total findings, will be released to the public in late spring of 2022. Siers-Poisson: What were the key findings from that first year in Stockton? Castro: So we really saw changes in three key areas. First was income volatility. One of our driving research questions is can guaranteed income disrupt income volatility, which is your money going up and down each month, which really locks people out of financial instruments and being able to plan for the future. We saw less income volatility in those who were in the treatment group in comparison to control after one year. We saw that that sort of stabilization in family finances allowed families to plan for the future. So in the treatment group, after one year, we saw that monthly income volatility really dropped. And one of the ways that we look at that is asking this question: “Can you pay for unexpected $400 emergency expense with cash?” At the beginning of the experiment, in the treatment group, only 25% said that they could do that, along with the control. And after one year, those receiving the cash, 52% of them said they could absorb a $400 unexpected shock, while only 28% of those in control said that. Now this finding is really important because on the face of it sort of obvious, right? If you give people more money, they're going to have more money. But what's key to understand about this is two things. First, that liquidity in the household allowed people to both plan while also absorb the unexpected things that happen to all of us: the flat tire, the missed shift at work, the unexpected copay, which then tends to spill over in a household and cause strain elsewhere in the budget. Second, that liquidity was really pooled across fragile family networks, such that stabilizing those resources in one household actually had a spillover effect into other families where they normally would borrow money and food for those households, which is really key and interesting. And then the second area that we saw big shifts was in our second research question, which was ‘How do changes in income volatility impact health and well-being?” And what we found was that people receiving the cash were less anxious and depressed, both over time and compared to the control group. They reported improved emotional health and well-being, energy over fatigue, again, both over time compared to the control group. Now key, Judith, it's still staggering for me to even think that this is one of research findings is that at the beginning of the experiment, almost everyone in treatment control met the clinical criteria for either anxiety or depression, as measured by some pretty standard measures that we all use at the doctor's office. Most of us have taken these. And so what we saw was that after one year, we saw that treatment group move from meeting that clinical criteria for mild mental health disorder into the category of likely to be well, and that did not happen in the control group. And all we did was provide people with unconditional cash, which is fairly extraordinary. Then finally, our last question was “How is guaranteed income generate agency over one's future? Are we seeing people have greater control and self-determination?” And the biggest finding that we had here was around employment. So, you know, we've talked a lot about assumptions around poverty, and those are certainly very politically driven. And one of the criticisms we often get is “well if you give people cash, they’re going to stop working and they'll just quit their jobs en masse,” which is kind of silly if you think about it, because you can't live off of $500 a month anywhere, let alone California. And what we saw in the treatment group was that at baseline, 28% of people in the treatment group were fully employed and after one year, 40% were fully employed, and we did not see that same shift in the control group. Literally the opposite of what politically we're told will happen if you give people cash. And again, when we leaned into our mixed methods design and followed up with qualitative data to understand, OK, how did this happen and why? It was really interesting. Two things that happened first was that the cash removed material barriers to seeking employment that people could not address prior. So in many instances, people who moved from knitting together multiple part-time jobs to one full-time job literally couldn't take a shift off of work to even apply for another job, and the cash allowed them to do that. So it removed some material barriers: cost of transportation, being able to skip work. So if you think about it, it takes time to apply for full-time jobs and you're not guaranteed that you're going to get it. And there's also that protracted period of going through H.R., resigning one position and starting another. If you're living paycheck to paycheck, you literally don't have time to do that because financial scarcity generates time scarcity. And so really, removing those material barriers allowed people to apply for positions that they knew they were eligible for and just couldn't didn't have the time to do. Second was an increased capacity for risk taking. So what we saw was several months into that first year of treatment, as people's anxiety dropped, as their scarcity dropped, they had more bandwidth to breathe and really plan for the future. So being able to set certain goals for themselves and take risks knowing that they had the cash to fall back on. So those are both a material thing, you know, as well as a cognitive capacity thing and really sort of being able to reimagine what they wanted for their future. Siers-Poisson: You were able to see how people were using the money by tracking the purchases. And actually, we should say people received the funds on a monthly basis and a debit card, right? Castro: Correct. So in Stockton, the $500 was disbursed each month on a prepaid debit card. So that debit card was reloaded each month right in the middle of the month, and we chose that date. I think it’s a crucial thing that gets lost oftentimes in kind of the excitement around guaranteed income is the timing of the money. So most social safety net programs, specifically SNAP benefits or food stamps, they run out by the second or third week of the month. And so what you see is food security at the front of the end of the month and by the end of the month, families are really scraping to get by and having to borrow from friends and family simply to feed their kids. So we intentionally chose the middle of the month, you know, we're really looking to disrupt income volatility, your finances going up and down consistently within the home. So that was kind of chosen to smooth that piece over. Siers-Poisson: So what have you learned from the format of this, that on a debit card, you can see exactly where money was being spent and how much? What are you seeing? Castro: First, I'll say, what's happening with the spending data or how people are using the money, is not one of our primary research questions. We don't really care. I have to be totally honest with you. I mean, how people spend the money is not a research focus of ours. We're far more interested in how spending the money impacts people's lives and impacts their health and well-being. However, again, we echo back to what I said prior. The community is certainly interested in how the money is spent. And when we talked with those focus groups, specifically a group of housing activists who live in Section 8  housing, they were insistent. I mean, absolutely insistent that we were release spending data. And when we asked them why, rather than saying it was because they thought it should be monitored, it was because they had such faith in how people who looked like them would spend it. They said, “No, we want the world to see exactly what it's like to struggle to make ends meet. And we know exactly how low-income moms and dads are going to spend this money,” which is why we took that step. So, you know, the thing around on the spending data first, you know, most of the money went to food. So approximately 40% of the money that's tracked each month on that debit card went directly toward food purchases. And then the next category after that, I believe, was big box stores. And we're talking about things like utilities. Now key, a large portion of the money was transferred off of the card each month into cash or into other bank accounts. And this is the beauty of a mixed-methods design is you can follow up with families to determine why they did that. So when we followed up with people to sort of figure out like, “Hey, what's this about transferring the money into cash,” it was really interesting. Several things first, like I said before, Stockton experienced the worst the capitalism has to offer. They were targeted consistently for risky lending schemes. They still are. Scams are really prevalent in the community, so they had no reason to trust us whatsoever. So the community is sitting there like “I'm constantly targeted with risky things. Why would I trust you?” So people would quickly move the money off the card into an account that they know and that they trust where it felt safer. And then also, you know, a lot of folks are still conducting their everyday lives in cash. So spreading cash around family networks, paying babysitters, things to that effect. Siers-Poisson: I wanted to go back to that focus group being adamant about releasing those results because I'm guessing that they, and other people who are living similar lives to theirs, are very aware of those critics. The people who say, you know, they can't be trusted, they're going to spend it on alcohol and drugs. Do you think that was part of it too? Not just that they were confident that their cohort was going to spend it responsibly, but they wanted to be able to show people like, “Look, this is who we are, not who you think we are.” Castro: Yeah, that's a beautiful way of putting it. I mean, without question, is that they really wanted people to see, you know, so less than 1% of the money on the card that's tracked each month, meaning sort of those merchant codes, these are the same codes that we all have on a normal debit card, you know, went to alcohol and cigarettes. Now, is it possible that people pulled the money out in cash and actually spent some money? Yeah, I'm sure they did. You know, like I bought wine last night, like, don't we all do this? This is a whole kind of point of giving money—that they can be human. But yeah, like they were adamant that they wanted people to see what it was like and they were really clear. And saying, “there are these stereotypes that people have about families who are struggling to make ends meet, and this is a chance for us to show the world really that what it's like to be me.” And I have to say, that group was not just that group, but there are several that we worked with. The challenge of relinquishing control and giving them a true voice in the process has been one of the best decisions we ever could have made as a research team because I wouldn't have chosen to do that. I'd have just chosen to leave it be, not talk about it, not step out into that space. And they really have the confidence and the boldness to say that that we had an ethical obligation to do so. And I think they were right. Siers-Poisson: Have you seen any negative effects in in the data? Have there been any unintended consequences that you, you wish hadn't happened? Castro: That's a great question. Some of that we’ll be talking about more as we release the full report. I'd say the number one sort of unintended consequence that would definitely have a negative impact has been interaction with benefits. So this is not just been true in Stockton, this has been true across all the other pilots that we're working with is that within the United States, our social safety net is very punitive. We have something called a benefits cliff, which means that for every dollar that somebody receives, we pull back some of their benefits. So families constantly are in this horrific calculation. “If I take this, you know, I want to take this extra shift at work because I need the cash and because I don't want to lose my job. But if I do that, I might lose my benefits.” And so you're constantly making this calculation, which leaves over less cognitive capacity for other things like goal setting and well-being. That's one issue. But second, it means that families are constantly trapped or penalizing them for working more. So what this meant in Stockton and across all these unconditional cash experiments is that we sometimes have to tailor our recruitment criteria and design to make sure that people aren't losing benefits. So we in many instances where people were randomized into the treatment group to receive the $500 they showed up for the onboarding. They went through the informed consent process and realized, “I’m at way too high of a risk for losing my health insurance, or my housing voucher or my SSI,” and just felt like “I'm too vulnerable. I can't take the risk.” So that is an unintended consequence that we haven't resolved yet. We do our best, but it's one that we're consistently contending with, and it's incredibly frustrating. And what ends up happening is that all of our data is about the people who are willing to take that risk or who were able to take that risk versus those who were forced because of the benefits flip issue to not enroll in these experiments in the first place. Siers-Poisson: I have to say on a human level that I would assume that would be crushing to someone who thinks that they're going to be able to take part in this and then realize it's too much of a risk. Did you get any feedback on it? Castro: Oh man. Yeah. Yes and no. I mean, on one hand, yes, there's times it's crushing and right now my center is embarking on a huge clinical trial with low income cancer patients, and it's a far more vexing issue in that experiment than the other ones. So, yeah, like at times, it is totally crushing. I think what's even more sobering was that people weren't surprised. You know, those who had to decline or who didn't bother were like, “well, of course, the systems turned again. Why would this work in my favor? The world's not set up for me. I don't matter. Government doesn't see me.” It was like, “yeah, of course. Of course it went that way.” And so we had a little bit of both. Siers-Poisson:  One of the things that I was thinking about, especially when you said that the Stockton experiment dispersed its last round of funding earlier this year. Do we know what happens when a program ends and those people who for a couple of years have that regular influx of cash no longer has it? Castro:  Yeah, it's a great question. You know, it's something that we're still sort of obviously collecting data on for all the experiments that we run, we collect data for six months after and then in some cases, there's administrative data that goes on for many years. So I can't give sort of an empirical answer to that quite yet. What I will say is, from a values perspective, this was something that we had to resolve as a team when we were building out Stockton early on, and there really wasn't anything to go on and asking ourselves the question like, “what does it mean to extend hope to somebody and then pull it away?” Like, “How dare you?” Is that even just, is that ethical?” And when I felt caught on that and my team felt caught on that, we went to our Associate Dean of Research, Dr. Solomon, who's a brilliant social work researcher. And she kind of got in my face a little bit, honestly. And she said, “Amy, you are a social worker. What is wrong with you? If you trust people to spend the cash, and to be able to enroll in the experiment, programs are closing on folks all the time. You don't trust them to weather the end?” And it was one of the most profound things of mentorship that I could receive at that moment in time, because she really challenged my biases. Like, I had this bias like people couldn't handle it. And that's not to say that there's not harm that's caused when something ends. But, you know, what Dr. Solomon pointed out, was the poor constantly having things pulled out from underneath them. There's tremendous resilience there. How dare you assume that they'd be worse off? Why don't you wait and see what happens? So right now, we're waiting to see what happens. Siers-Poisson: You talked earlier about how much of a paradigm shift this is of giving people money, trusting them to spend it as they need. And to me, there's definitely an element of trying to restore some dignity to life for people who have, in many cases, had that taken away from them and respecting them and their choices. How do you see efforts like this working to change the narrative about people living in poverty? Castro: Oh, I mean, it's crucial. Right, so here's the thing scientists tell terrible stories, we're bad at it. If we were better at communicating with the public, people would be vaccinated and COVID would be a little less right now. Right. We're bad at telling stories, we're good at staying in our ivory towers and measuring things. To me, it is without question crucial that we that we deal with narrative. So when we look back throughout U.S. history, we know that when policy windows open and we design new poverty alleviation methods, or we design new policies that really move the needle, we have two things that happen. One, we have consensus on data. So we actually know how to design a good program based on what's happening. And that's colleague to colleague, data to data, right? But then second, we see a shift in public mood. And if you do not tackle that public narrative around deservedness, around shame, around blame and you don't deal with public mood, all you do is migrate shame, blame, and assumptions about race and class from one social program to the other. So one of my driving concerns right now, as guaranteed income programs and conversations take off across the country, is making certain that we are keeping our eye on that narrative change work and not assume that this is some sort of silver bullet that's going to get rid of hundreds of years of racism in the United States, because it's not going to. If we don't do that narrative change work, we're just going to migrate the myth of the welfare queen off of TANF and onto guaranteed income. How do we do that? We're still working on it. But what we do know is that privileging voice, privileging community voice in the process, definitely helps us with this, along with dealing with a lot of things like discourse analysis and leading into narratives and putting people's stories out there in the press and in measured ways where, you know, if you want to change the narrative, change the narrator. It doesn't need to be me being the one who's in front of the mic all the time telling those stories. Siers-Poisson: You said earlier that Stockton was the first pilot project, and there are so many more going on right now that you have a hard time keeping track of how many. So what does success look like as these programs are kind of mushrooming around the country? Castro: I mean, everybody sort of defines that a little bit differently. For us within the center, we define success as first of all, were we able to design and experiment with integrity? So were we able to answer the research questions that we set out to answer with the design that we implemented? That's first and foremost, success. Second, to answer on a values perspective, really, we're pretty clear about what we're trying to do. We want to see policies on unconditional cash. Now again, that is not a silver bullet. But what I think success would look like to us as a center is having policies and unconditional cash that are informed by science, informed by data, and not just informed by somebody's good idea. So for us, we really want to see this movement from pilot to policy, but that those policies are evidence based and that they're rooted in science and rooted in real people's lives. Siers-Poisson: Professor Castro, thanks so much for sharing your work with us, and we'll definitely be looking forward to talking about the results from that second year of Stockton. Castro: Yeah, happy to. Thanks for having me. Siers-Poisson: Thanks so much to Professor Amy Castro, Founding Director of the Center for Guaranteed Income Research and an Assistant Professor of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. If you would like to learn more about pilot programs around the country, check out the website for Mayors for a Guaranteed Income. That's at mayors for A-G-I dot org. The production of this podcast was supported in part by funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, but its contents don’t necessarily represent the opinions or policies of that office, any other agency of the federal government, or the Institute for Research on Poverty. Music for the episode is by Poi Dog Pondering. Thanks for listening.  
34:50 12/15/2021
Amelie Hecht on Universal Free School Meal Programs
In this episode we hear from Dr. Amelie Hecht about universal free school meal programs and how the pandemic may have shifted the outlook for this kind of program. Dr. Hecht is a fellow in the IRP National Poverty Fellows Program where she is in residence at the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation at the federal Administration for Children and Families.  Transcript:  Dave Chancellor: Hello, and thanks for joining us for the Poverty Research and Policy podcast from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I’m Dave Chancellor for this episode. We’re going to be talking to Dr Amelie Hecht about universal free school meals and how the pandemic may have shifted the outlook for this kind of program as we look ahead. Dr. Hecht is a fellow in the IRP National Poverty Fellows program, where she’s in residence at the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation at the Federal Administration for Children and Families. She completed her Ph.D. in Health Policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in 2020. And we’re just really grateful to be able to talk to her about this. Let’s turn to my interview with Dr. Hecht. Chancellor: You wrote your dissertation on Universal Free School Meals, and this has become a big thing, especially kind of since the start of the pandemic. And just to make sure we’re thinking about this in the right way, could you explain how a universal free school meal set up is different from what we might think of as a traditional school meal funding? Amelie Hecht: Yeah, absolutely. So traditionally, the school meal program is in part a means tested program. And what that means is that under the traditional school meal reimbursement model, families complete an annual application with information about their household income, and kids are then eligible to receive a free meal if their family’s household income is below 130 percent of the federal poverty level. It’s about an annual income of thirty-four thousand dollars for a family of four, and then a child can also receive a reduced price meal, which means they pay about 40 cents for lunch if their household income is between one hundred and thirty and one hundred and eighty five percent of the federal poverty level. And then, of course, any other student didn’t qualify for free or reduced price. Meals can also buy a meal, which cost somewhere around a dollar, fifty for breakfast and 250 for lunch, so still relatively low cost. But a school that offers universal free meals offers free meals to all students, regardless of their household income. So those schools no longer collect individual household application forms. All students just get free meals, and in most schools in the U.S., they offer universal free meals through a federal provision called the Community Eligibility Provision. And that’s a provision that’s available to schools in high poverty areas. Chancellor: The timing of you finishing your dissertation coincided really closely with the start of the pandemic back in early 2020. And I guess out of necessity, this was kind of a sea change when it came to universal free school meals because they have this rate. Basically, the USDA gave school districts a waiver that allowed them to offer free breakfasts and lunches to all students. Is that right? Can you tell us about this? Hecht: Yeah, that’s exactly right. So, prior to the pandemic, it was mostly just these schools in high poverty areas that were offering these universal free meals through that provision that I mentioned, for the most part, the community eligibility provision. But when the pandemic began, Congress recognized that schools needed more flexibility to ensure kids were getting fed and that the need for school meals was really increasing dramatically because people were losing their jobs and facing other economic hardship. Congress authorized the USDA, the US Department of Agriculture, to issue these nationwide waivers that allowed schools to serve universal free meals to all students. And that authority has been extended through the end of the current academic year, which is June of 2022. And that waiver has been really hugely helpful to schools and families. It’s meant that schools most schools in the US have been serving free meals to all kids, which is really important at a time when families are facing hard economic times and also schools are facing hard economic times. Chancellor: As a parent, this program was actually really valuable to my family, especially during the months when my kids were doing remote schooling. Our district encouraged parents to sign up for lunch pickup, and honestly, it better lives measurably better. During that time, we were saving money. There was a steady supply of pretty healthy food coming into our house, and it was just a significant time savings for my wife and I as we were both working. Is this kind of what you’ve heard elsewhere? Hecht: Yeah, I think I think what you’re saying is what we are hearing from families all across the country. We know that the free meals help kids in and families in all kinds of ways. It saves families money. It saves families time not having to pack those school meals. And we also know that school meals are on average healthier than the meals that kids pack at home and bring to school anyway. So, it makes sure that kids are eating relatively healthy meals for the most part. And it also really helps a lot of those families that are right on that line, the families who don’t qualify necessarily for free or reduced-price meals, but still sometimes find it hard to afford groceries from week to week or may have lost jobs because of the pandemic. So, I think it’s been hugely helpful to families across the country. Chancellor: But you’ve been studying Universal Free School meals since well before the pandemic. And you know, in your research, what are some of the areas you’ve looked at to understand, I guess, the impact of universal free school meals or just how these programs work? Hecht: Yeah, so I’ve done research, both looking at the implementation of universal preschool meal policies and their impacts on students and some of the research that I’ve done looking at impacts just looks across the sort of the whole body of literature that’s been produced so far on universal free meals. And so, you know, looking across that body of literature in the U.S., we see that universal free meals have a lot of benefits for families, for students, for schools. You know, first, we know that universal free meals really achieve their primary goal, which is increasing meal participation rates. More kids are eating school meals. We also see improvements in academic performance, which is not really surprising because we know kids do better in school when they don’t come to school, hungry when they’re not hungry in class and during test times. And we also see some improvement in diet quality. And that’s likely because school meals, as I said before, are healthier on average than the meals that kids pack at home and bring to school. And really importantly, we actually see benefits for kids who qualify for free and reduced-price meals before. But we also see improvements for kids who didn’t qualify, who are above those income thresholds before, but are now participating in school meals. And then, in addition to helping kids, universal free meals have a lot of benefits for schools. They help reduce the administrative burden that schools face. Schools no longer need to process those meal application forms that I was talking about. They don’t need to track families or kids down to make sure that they fill out those forms, and they also don’t have to track student lunch charges or unpaid meal debt. And we know that was a really hot topic in the past few years. You know, it’s the idea that when kids don’t have enough money to afford the school meal, that the school will either provide them a cold cheese sandwich or they’ll send them home with a letter that says that they need to pay their meal debts. And, you know, schools are no longer responsible for doing that because all the kids are getting their free meals. I did interviews with food service staff at schools offering universal free meals in Maryland, and they really highlighted for me how that change that elimination of school meal debt and meal training really improved staff morale among food service staff because they no longer needed to track kids down or not give kids the hot meal. They also talked about how it reduced financial stress for parents and it reduced student stigma because all the kids were now eating the school meal, not just not just the students who were singled out for being low income and needing to rely on that school meals. So, a lot of benefits across the board. Chancellor: So, you know, I mentioned earlier that we had received outreach from our kids’ school district about this program, encouraging us to sign up, and they were kind of really direct in their messaging. They said, you know, please sign up even if you’re not struggling to pay for meals. If more families sign up, our cost per meal will be lower and we can offer better quality food. And I think they’re kind of a couple of things going on here. But you know, one, I know you’ve written about how messaging and communication with parents and students can be important in these programs. So, what can you tell us about that? Hecht: Yeah, I think getting parents on board with these programs is really important to their success. Schools that serve universal free meals want to encourage as many kids to participate as possible because it does reduce the cost of producing meals per student. A lot of their production costs are fixed costs, and so the more kids that participate, the lower per meal cost it is for the school. So, they really do want as many kids to participate as possible. And so, getting families and parents on board is important. I think some ways that schools have been successful in communicating to parents is sharing at back-to-school nights, sharing through letters to parents and sharing at school board meetings as well, and communicating the benefits to parents of participating in this formula. Sort of all the things I talked about earlier that improved academic performance, sometimes better attendance rates. Other on-time grade promotion. Other outcomes like that. So, I think that’s been hugely helpful to families. And I think one important thing that we’re dealing with right now is that a lot of schools are asking families to fill out what are called alternative income forms. These are forms where families share information on their household income, and they’re really important because they give schools this critical data that that schools then use to apply for and receive funds. Is from the federal government, from the state government and also private foundations and other grant making bodies, and historically schools got it on household income from those free and reduced-price meal applications, and they used that date, as I said, to apply for different funding. But with universal free meal programs in place, they no longer collect those free and reduced-price meal applications. And they’re now needing to ask families to fill out these alternative income forms. And it can be challenging for schools to get good data from those forms because parents have less incentive to fill out those forms because they aren’t directly linked to whether or not their kids get a free meal. But those forms are really important for schools to get other kinds of funding to provide high quality education for students. So, schools are really working hard to communicate the importance of filling out those forms to parents. And I guess I’ll also call to action to parents to please fill out those forms. If you’re asked because those forms are so important for your families, for your kids to get high quality funding for her education program. Chancellor: It seems like there’s been some traction for continued universal free school meals nationwide or at least across more districts beyond the expiration of the current USDA waivers. And you know, I know in the last few months a few states have passed their own Universal Free School meal programs, and New York City, if I’m right, has had a universal free school meals for a few years now. So, you know, what do you see going forward? What do you kind of looking at here? Hecht: Yeah, this is really exciting for me and for other researchers and advocates and policymakers in this space. The pandemic, I think, is really highlighted the importance of school meals for kids. And now that schools have been offering universal free meals for two years, it’s going to be really hard for schools to go back at the end of the year and take that away from families at the state level. Yeah. Both Maine and California have passed laws authorizing universal free meals starting next school year. And at the federal level, there has been some discussion about national universal free meal programs or at least expanding the community eligibility provision. That provision that I mentioned earlier that authorizes universal free meals for schools in high poverty areas. And you have we’re seeing a big policy shift here, this policy window to get these things passed, and I’m actually just starting a new policy analysis study where we’re going to actually look very closely at Maine and California to try and understand what the critical ingredients were that allowed them to get those state policies passed. And we’re going to try and tease out lessons that advocates and other policymakers in other states and maybe a federal level can use to pass similar legislation elsewhere. I think universal free milk programs are here to stay in some way or another because of what the pandemic has done in highlighting for us that the importance of school meals. Chancellor: I so appreciate you taking the time to talk to us about this. You know, I learned a lot and I’m just really grateful for this interview. Hecht: Thanks so much for the opportunity. It was great to discuss this. Chancellor: Thanks again to Amelie Hecht for taking the time to talk to us. The production of this podcast was supported in part by funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. But its contents don’t necessarily represent the opinions or policies of that office, any other agency of the federal government or the Institute for Research on Poverty. Music for the episode is by Martin de Boer. Thanks for listening.
14:31 11/29/2021
Juan Pedroza on Immigrant Health, Place, and the Pandemic
For this episode of the Poverty Research and Policy Podcast, we hear from Juan Pedroza about immigration in the United States, the COVID-19 Pandemic, and how place matters when it comes to thinking about immigrant health. Pedroza is an Assistant Professor of Demography, Migration and Inequality in the Sociology Department at the University of California Santa Cruz and was a fellow in IRP's Emerging Poverty Scholars Program. You can find more of Professor Pedroza's work at and follow him on twitter at @ijuanathesaurus If you would like to connect with other resources from the Institute for Research on Poverty, sign up for our email lists.
24:09 11/17/2021
Judi Bartfeld on Food Insecurity Rates and the Increase in SNAP Benefits
In this episode, Judi Bartfeld shares how the COVID-19 pandemic, and the social safety net’s response to it, has affected food insecurity in the United States. She also explains how the permanent increase in SNAP benefits that took effect October 1, 2021, fits into the larger picture of ensuring that people have consistent access to nourishing foods. Dr. Bartfeld is a professor in the School of Human Ecology at UW-Madison and is also a food security research and policy specialist in the Division of Extension at UW, and is an IRP faculty affiliate.
26:33 10/15/2021
Mustafa Hussein on the Broader Effects of Local Living Wage Ordinances
In this episode, Mustafa Hussein talks about living wage ordinances that were passed in the 1990s and 2000s in cities across the United States. These ordinances were only directed at relatively small groups of lower wage workers in these cities, but Dr. Hussein and his team set out to see if these smaller ordinances would have larger impacts on these local labor markets. Dr. Hussein is an assistant professor of health policy and economics at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Public Health and an IRP faculty affiliate.
25:59 09/30/2021
J. Michael Collins on whether allowances help to develop financial capability
In this episode, we hear from  IRP Affiliate J. Michael Collins, Professor of Public Affairs and Consumer Science at UW-Madison and the director of the Center for Financial Security. He talks about whether parents from different racial and ethnic groups and with varying income levels are more or less likely to give their children an allowance. He also explains what parents might be hoping to achieve by giving their child money that they manage themselves, and whether that translates into more financial capability as a young adult.
20:40 09/13/2021
Adrian Huerta on the School Experiences of Gang-Associated Youth
In this episode we hear from Adrian Huerta of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. Huerta shares his research that came from talking to gang-associated youth in high school, what their education experiences looked like, and how that translated to what they thought about the options they had when it came to going to college.
28:27 07/01/2021
Maia Cucchiara on the Hidden Curriculum of Parenting Education
For this episode, we hear from Maia Cucchiara, a professor of Urban Education at Temple University. She talks about low-income mothers’ experiences with parenting education courses, which are designed to teach parenting techniques and about things like child development. They might be offered in schools or community settings and participation is sometimes voluntary, sometimes included as part of participation in other programs, and sometimes mandated as part of a court decision, for example. The interview draws on a paper she wrote on the hidden curriculum of parenting education. We hear about what was taught in the classes she observed, what wasn’t, and why that matters.
27:13 06/15/2021
Andria Smythe on the College Outcomes of Young Adults in a Recession
There's a sort of conventional wisdom that during recessions, more  people enroll in college or stay in college longer when jobs are scarce. But it's not clear that this "benefit" extends to everyone. In this episode, Howard University economist Andria Smythe talks about her research looking at how college outcomes of young adults shifted during a recession and how she found that those from disadvantaged backgrounds' levels of college completion were hurt more during a recession.
16:02 05/17/2021
Katherine Magnuson on the American Families Plan and Child Care as Infrastructure
In this episode, we hear from IRP Director Katherine Magnuson about components of the just-released American Families Plan. Magnuson discusses parental leave, funding for child care, universal pre-kindergarten, and expansions of child tax credits. She says efforts to support parents and invest in families can help them to meet their goals and do what they want to do for their children and for themselves.
18:21 05/07/2021
Kathryn Anne Edwards on Women Leaving the Labor Force in the COVID-19 Pandemic
A striking number of women, and especially moms, have left the U.S. labor force since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. In this podcast episode, labor economist Kathryn Anne Edwards talks about some of the patterns she’s seen around why women are leaving the labor force and how the lack of support for working parents could roll back the gains we’ve seen in women’s work and the economic benefits that have come with them.
30:19 04/08/2021
Chloe Gibbs on Full-Day Kindergarten and its Impact on Academic Achievement
In the last few decades, there has been a major expansion in the number of states and localities offering full-day kindergarten. In this podcast episode, economist Chloe Gibbs of the University of Notre Dame talks about how these expansions impacted academic achievement and outcomes at the school district level.   
19:04 03/11/2021
Timothy Smeeding on Proposals for a Refundable Monthly Child Tax Credit
In this episode, Timothy Smeeding talks about proposals from Senator Mitt Romney and from Democratic leadership for a fully refundable monthly child tax credit or child allowance and how these types of policies could reduce child poverty and help working parents in the pandemic and beyond. Smeeding is the Lee Rainwater Distinguished Professor of Public Affairs and Economics at the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was Director of the Institute for Research on Poverty from 2008-2014. 
23:38 03/05/2021
Jacob Faber on How a New Deal Era Program Shaped America's Racial Geography
In this episode we hear from Jacob Faber of New York University about a federal government program called the Home Owners' Loan Corporation that started in the 1930s and how the decisions made in that program promoted residential segregation that is still with us today.
16:26 02/17/2021
Pamela Oliver on What the Numbers Say About How to Reduce Imprisonment, Part 2
The goal of reducing incarceration has been gaining traction for at least the last decade in the United States. In an interview we did with sociologist Pamela Oliver in late 2020, she talked about how we got to where we are today when it comes to U.S. imprisonment (Part 1) and the impact that different reforms would have on reducing the U.S. prison population (Part 2).  The interview is based on a paper Professor Oliver wrote for the Marquette Law Review (Volume 103, Issue 3).  
15:30 02/01/2021
Pamela Oliver on What the Numbers Say About How to Reduce Imprisonment, Part 1
The goal of reducing incarceration has been gaining traction for at least the last decade in the United States. In an interview we did with sociologist Pamela Oliver in late 2020, she talked about how we got to where we are today when it comes to U.S. imprisonment and the impact that different reforms would have on reducing the U.S. prison population. This is part 1 of the interview.  The interview is based on a paper Professor Oliver wrote for the Marquette Law Review (Volume 103, Issue 3).  
15:46 01/25/2021