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Institute for Research on Poverty marks 40 years of innovative work

October 24, 2006 By Dennis Chaptman

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

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

The institute was founded as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, in an effort to provide a nonpartisan, scholarly approach to finding answers to this complicated social problem and measuring its effects.

Today, it is a prime example of the vitality of the Wisconsin Idea.

“The institute is building on a venerable Wisconsin tradition of turning our best minds and our best efforts to improving the well-being of our citizens,” says Gary Sandefur, dean of the College of Letters and Science. “What better place than IRP, the birthplace of national poverty research, and what better university than UW–Madison, home of the Wisconsin Idea, to confront the new face of poverty in the 21st century?”

Institute researchers have developed methods to gauge the level and trend of poverty over time and have pioneered experimental evaluation of social welfare programs such as the negative income tax, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Medicaid, food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Beginning in the 1980s, researchers at the institute undertook an intensive re-evaluation of the U.S. child support system.

And the institute has evaluated many welfare reform programs instituted in the late 1990s. Its work has led to tangible changes for families nationwide.

For example, its research on child support in the wake of welfare reforms in the late 1990s sparked major national reform.

Traditionally, child support payments for those in welfare programs had gone directly to the government. But institute researchers conducted a federal experiment here in which some Wisconsin Works participants were allowed to receive full child support payments, and others had their child support withheld.

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

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

The institute is also nationally recognized for training scholars — often across a range of disciplines — in the implications of poverty and in developing methods to analyze and fight it.

The institute also sponsors academic seminars and conferences and was instrumental in setting up the nation’s first regional network of senior welfare officials from Wisconsin and six other Midwestern states to share ideas and compare notes on how welfare reform is working.

The institute’s anniversary will be marked during the annual research conference of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management at Madison’s Monona Terrace Convention Center on Friday, Nov. 3.

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

“One of the things we’ve come to understand is that when you move from traditional support mechanisms to making more demands of poor individuals, it puts more demands on government,” Cancian says. “It’s harder to help someone be self-sufficient than to send them a check.”

During the 40 years of the institute’s existence, one thing has become clear: Poverty is a stubborn, complex problem linked to economic factors, social factors and government policy.

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like poverty will be eliminated any time soon,” she adds.