Scott W. Allard is a Professor of Public Affairs at the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance. Allard is also on the executive committee of the West Coast Poverty Center and Urban@UW, and an affiliate of the Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology. We sat down with him to discuss his work at the UW and beyond.
How do your current research interests intersect with urban issues?
My work focuses on issues of poverty place and safety-net participation. Historically, poverty problems have been concentrated in the cities of the US; even today as the majority of poor people in our metro areas live in the suburbs, poverty rates remain much higher in cities. Problems of poverty are also much more persistent in cities, and often more racially segregated in cities than in suburban or other areas.
What led you to studying poverty?
When I was a college student, my dad lost his job. He didn’t have a college degree and he struggled to find work for a long time. Around this time I took a class in social policy and later started to do research with the professor. And I thought, if I did work that advanced our understanding of the safety net and how society could better provide help, we could help workers who have a hard time finding or keeping jobs. It seemed if I could do research around poverty and policy, it had the potential to help folks – like my Dad—who struggled sometimes to make ends meet.
How do you think research in poverty has changed over the years?
I think we have a better understanding today of the many factors that lead families to have income near or below the poverty line. We also have a better understanding of which programs best help families escape poverty or weather periods of hardship, and of what it takes to help workers without advanced education or training to find and keep good paying jobs. I also think we understand more of the racial and ethnic inequalities that underlie a lot of our poverty problems, although there remains much we need to know about inequality in the US.
What other fields of study do you regularly work with?
My work is very interdisciplinary. I draw on the work of sociologists, economists, political scientists, public health and social work, and sometimes urban planning and design. My interest in cross-disciplinary research also leads me to engage practitioners and policy-makers from a variety of different sectors whether that’s at the federal level, in state agencies or local government, or locally based non profit agencies. This outreach is something I’m working on these days, as I’m relatively new to Seattle and look forward to opportunities around issues of social service provision and poverty programming.
What would you say are the top challenges facing cities today? One of the biggest challenges today is the shifts in the labor market, where we’re creating many high-paying jobs that require a lot of education and training, and then we’re creating an abundance of low-paying jobs that don’t require a lot of advanced training. This leads to not only income inequality but also difficulties for people with less access to education and training to earn enough to provide the basics for their families.
Second, research clearly points to committing resources to early childhood education, and I think cities face significant challenges in dedicating resources to public education that supports kids from birth through college.
Last, many metro areas face both traffic gridlock problems but also limited access to and availability of public transit options. As cities become more dense and in many ways more vibrant places, solving those transportation problems is important for families across the income spectrum.
What do you see for the future of poverty research and policy-making? Right now we live in a politicized environment, which doesn’t take evidence seriously in policy debates. I worry that today’s ideological divides create a lot of challenges for researchers, policymakers, and for advocates who are interested in the value of evidence to improve programs and policies. Even though there may be limited interest in poverty policy at the federal level now, there is lots of opportunity with states and local governments to develop and study new tools or solutions, or to experiment with new programs.
So, gathering good data seems key to addressing poverty challenges.
When we don’t have good data about the nature of our poverty problems its hard for us to develop effective interventions. We risk pursuing policies or programs that either have no effect or unintended consequences. Low-income households don’t deserve just any program or policy; they deserve programs and policies that will work, and that will increase opportunity. We have an obligation to weigh objective evidence when we make policy that affects the most vulnerable families in our community.
What led you to UW?
One of the reasons I was attracted to UW and the Evans School—I moved here from the University of Chicago a few years ago—was of the large number of scholars in various departments interested in urban issues. I’m excited to see how the work of the university and the Urban@UW community continue to evolve together. I hope in the coming years we develop insights and solutions that will help the region tackle the many challenges it faces.
If you could give aspiring urban scholars a piece of advice, what would it be?
Spend time in communities engaging with local organizations. Spend time with families and case workers, program managers on the grounds.That kind of street-level perspective helps you not only identify important questions, it also helps makes sure that you’re answering those questions with integrity and with a grounding in real-world experience. Its easy for us to study urban problems far removed from the communities that are vulnerable. Rolling up our sleeves and spending time in neighborhoods and communities is critical to developing inclusive and culturally competent solutions.
Written by Shahd Al Baz, Urban@UW Communications Assistant