Reflections on the APPAM Spring Conference

Our names are Mike McCarthy, Trevor Mattos, and Jason Wright, and we are graduate research assistants at the Public Policy Center (PPC). The PPC graciously funded our trip to the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM) spring conference entitled “How policymakers use APPAM member research.” The overarching theme of the conference was creating a dialogue among policymakers, practitioners, and researchers, in essence connecting those who make, implement, and study policy. Such a dialogue has the potential to enrich policy debates and the policy process in general by infusing them with empirical knowledge.

One of the main challenges surrounding such an effort is that these actors tend to remain isolated within their respective fields. Researchers, for instance, may not have experience in translating their findings to a large audience or marketing their research within policy circles. The concurrent sessions were designed to highlight examples of when cross-fertilization was successful and strategies and tools for facilitating such interaction.

We attended a session that examined the impact of research, and specifically evaluation of state policy innovation, surrounding the 1996 welfare reform. The session focused on how research on welfare programs contributed to the final reforms and the ways in which this research reached the reform’s architects. One of the main points was that confidence in a research team’s ability and integrity built trust on the part of managers, thus reputation matters greatly. Unfortunately, these individuals do not necessarily have the time or resources to devote to learning about advanced statistical methods, meaning that trust is crucial in ensuring that research findings make their way into the decision making process. To this point, panelists closed the session by discussing how scholars can best market their research to policymakers. A major takeaway for us was that connections between researches and government are often strongest at the local level, mostly through the presence of university centers that provide a service to their communities in the form of objective research.

Another session examined recent developments in federal research clearinghouses. These websites feature research related to federally funded programs. The “What Works Clearinghouse” is particularly well developed. It includes practice guides for educators, intervention reports, and reviews of single studies and research efforts at large. Perhaps the best aspect of these resources is that they are in the public domain, increasing access to individual practitioners and their institutions regardless of available resources.

We also attended a session entitled “Simple isn’t Stupid” that focused on disseminating research findings in the digital age. Doing so involves an active effort and multiple platforms, formats, and instances of release are key to success. Comparisons were drawn with the timeline of a movie release. First, we hear news that a project has started and learn who the major actors are. Next, a trailer is seen, which is comparable to a project update, research brief, or infographic highlighting preliminary findings. Then, there are reviews that offer a synopsis of the film, which parallels the executive summary. Finally, it was suggested that the release of the final report should have a number of well-timed publicity pushes, like we would expect to see from a major film release. Having a thoughtful dissemination plan for research ensures that all potentially interested parties have an opportunity to come into contact with some aspect of the project.

Over lunch, we heard from a congressional staffer. This talk was eye opening because it showed how little members of Congress are briefed on the important issues before them. The staffer mentioned that they often had only a two to three minute train ride from the office complex to the capitol during which they could brief their boss. Thus, a translatable summary of research findings is critical!

Fortunately, we were able to enjoy the city around the conference events. The capital is a bustling city made even more so by the cherry blossom festival that was still ongoing that weekend. The trees were beautiful, and the National Mall is a great tribute to civic virtues. We also had some great food and toured Georgetown. We were able to learn a lot, meet great people, and see great sights thanks to the support of the PPC.

Below is a picture of us near the White House

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Trevor, Mike, and Jason

Summer Intern Work Update: Survey of Elected Officials

Hi! It’s your summer interns: Emma and Ellie!

We are thrilled to announce that we recently completed our survey of elected officials gender, age, race, language, educational attainment, annual income, and geographical location in Fall River and New Bedford. We received our first response today and hope to receive many more in the coming weeks. We expect to be able to share our results with the online community in mid-August, so keep your eyes peeled!

Happy reading!

Welcome returning intern Emma York

Hello again! This summer I am thrilled to continue collaborating with fellow interns at the Urban Initiative to discuss a myriad of local issues including…..

Religion in New Bedford, purportedly the most godless city in America according to a recent article in Time Magazine which cited statistics from the American Bible Society http://time.com/1541/godless-cities-in-america/

Racial, Age, Gender, and Geographic Representation in Our Elected Officials and its effect on voting habits and funding allocation in New Bedford and Fall River, areas with recent influxes of immigrant populations

And any other issues that spark our interest over the summer!

I will be entering my senior year at New Bedford High School and recently completed an Advanced Placement Statistics course in my Junior Year in which we chose to survey students at New Bedford High School to answer the inquiry: Does race effect our perception of beauty? My results, a resounding yes, have certainly influenced my interests this summer and hopefully the course has honed my skills as a statistician and I hope that I can bring all of that enthusiasm to the urban initiative page over the summer so stay tuned!

Meet Eleanor Bodington, our new summer intern!

Hi, I’m Eleanor Bodington, and I will be a senior this fall at Durfee High School in Fall River. I transferred to Durfee my junior year, and I spent this past year pretty much getting a feel for the school and all it has to offer. I joined the mock trial team and dance team, and this upcoming year, I plan on joining the debate team as well. At my old school, Tiverton High School, I was on the school newspaper, the Tiger Rumble. This summer, I hope to be able to gain a greater understanding of my community and the people that live here. I also hope to be able to analyze data and interpret it in a way that could benefit my community. This autumn, I will be applying to college, where I hope to study Broadcast Journalism. However, I have been recently considering taking a “gap year” to become a “real person” as a coworker once told me. But I suppose it all depends on what I decide come autumn. My biggest anxiety about college is being able to afford it. My parents already have two children in college, so I am going to try my hardest to get a substantional scholarship. Hopefully the Urban Initiative will help me stand out in the application process. I am very excited to be working with the other interns on the Urban Intiative, and I’m sure I’ll have a great summer!

Reflections on my work at the Urban Initiative

Katya Starostina

Graduate Research Assistant

I am graduating on Friday, May 16th from UMass Dartmouth with a Master of Public Policy. Sadly this means that my time as a graduate research assistant at the Urban Initiative is coming to an end. This year, I got the chance to work on many great projects across a spectrum of local issues. This was a wonderful opportunity through which I gained extensive experience in applied research and learned many valuable skills along the way. And needless to say, Colleen Dawicki is the best manager anyone could ask for. For my last blog, I answered a few questions about my work this past year.

What was your favorite project at the UI and why?

One of my favorite projects at the UI has been publishing SCUIP pages. SouthCoast Urban Indicators Project is a website developed to measure quality of life factors in the Gateway Cities of the SouthCoast, which are Fall River and New Bedford. The goal of the project is to inform decision-making by presenting and analyzing data in a way that is easily understood by any stakeholder and members of the communities. I developed web pages on school performance, teacher characteristics, public investment in education, and college access.

The first page that I had developed on public investment in education proved to be very relevant for New Bedford and Fall River school districts at the present time. Both of the Gateway Cities have a history of spending the bare minimum required by the state for its public education. Both communities fund less than 20 percent of their school district budget while the average Massachusetts municipality contributes 57 percent of local dollars toward their budget. The rest is covered by Chapter 70 Aid from the state.

In New Bedford, there is currently a great debate about whether the school budget should be increased. The new superintendent Pia Durkin requested a budget of $4.6 million above the state-mandated minimum for the upcoming year, making the case that money is needed to update the 11-year-old literacy curriculum among many other things. The proposed budget was approved unanimously by the School Committee. Whether the City Council will approve the budget or not will send a strong message about how invested New Bedford is in improving its public education.

What was your most challenging project at the UI and why?

The LifeWork Project was a challenge but also one of my favorite projects. It is a pilot program from the Women’s Fund of Southeastern Massachusetts that supports women with children to become self-sufficient. Through a partnership with Bristol Community College, LifeWork participants take college classes there, get trained in financial literacy, and receive job training. The Urban Initiative has designed a program evaluation for LifeWork, customizing data collection through tools like the Quality of Life Index and the Bridge to Self-Sufficiency, developed by the Crittenton Women’s Union. I had received training in Salesforce to then design a database for tracking participant data and train the client on the use of the software. Using Salesforce to aggregate and analyze data, I was able to report on the characteristics of the women that the project is currently serving.

LifeWork Project meets a great need in the community. Program evaluation is a powerful tool to measure program efforts and report on the outcomes. It has been a challenging process to implement the pilot evaluation as there are many critical pieces to the puzzle, but I am really excited about it continuing in subsequent years and measuring the impact LifeWork is having on its participants.

What’s something you’ve learned during your time here that surprised you?

Having conducted extensive research on the present state of public education in Gateway Cities of Massachusetts, it has surprised me to learn how low education attainment is across these urban cities and how much it affects the economy of the state. High school dropout rates are extremely high: Gateway Cities School Districts have an annual dropout rate of 5.6 percent, almost four times the rate of other Massachusetts districts. Of the students that do graduate, many are not college-ready. As a result, only 21 percent of Gateway Cities residents who are 25 years of age or older have attained a bachelor’s degree, compared with the state average of 39 percent. Many of these young adults do not have access to the economic streamline and do not earn a living wage. There is a great effort currently among state and education sector leaders to improve public education, ensuring a sufficient supply of skilled labor force and igniting local economic growth.

Reflections on Research: Bristol County Veterans Needs Assessment

By Michael P. McCarthy, Senior English Undergraduate, Research Assistant, UMass Dartmouth Urban Initiative

 

Working at the Urban Initiative has kept my curiosity satisfied. Since I began here last summer, I’ve been able to participate in a variety of projects with different levels of intensity. Whether I was helping edit a report for the Taunton Housing Authority or updating information on a SCUIP page, there was always a new way immerse myself in a foreign subject. I’ve always enjoyed going down the rabbit a hole a little ways if it means I can come back having learned something new about our work or my perception of the world.

When fall began, the Veteran’s Transition House of New Bedford contracted us to assess the needs of local Veterans. Colleen asked me if I’d like to helm the project. I will admit that I was slightly nervous; working for years as a cook, I had gotten used to instant results and taking on a project from the start seemed daunting. But I’m glad I accepted it.

With help from my colleagues here at UI, Katya, Bob, and Colleen, and David Borges from the Center for Policy Analysis, I began to formulate a plan. The Veterans Transition House had defined their service area as the entirety of Bristol County, but when I poked around the VA for information on the cities and towns of the county, I could not find any detailed information – the VA has public data on the county and the Congressional district, which was not updated to reflected Massachusetts’ redistricting. What I did find was a national survey of Veterans and homeless Veterans needs assessment. Keeping in mind one our favorite idioms, “no need to reinvent the wheel,” I adapted the survey to assess the needs of Bristol County Veterans. To me this had two major benefits: first, I didn’t have to design a survey from scratch, and I would have national figures to compare with the local Veteran population.

After Colleen and I piloted the survey during New Bedford’s Veterans’ Day parade, we felt that we were ready to administer it to the greater Veteran population. The roll out was on Thanksgiving. I spent the morning at the transition house packing the surveys in with the 160 or so meals brought local Veterans and their families. Everyone got turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and their own pie – randomized between berry and apple. I learned two important lessons from this day. First, incentives are important; the survey included a raffle entry form and nearly all were returned with a completed form. Also, many people in New Bedford and the area are concerned with improving the lives of our Veterans. So many volunteers showed up to help that most job stations were double staffed. I had two assistants just for handing envelopes to drivers. I went to my family dinner that night wanting to produce a report that would validate all the work being done by the volunteers and staff at the transition house, something that would make their mission easier to complete.

While I waited for the surveys to come back, I began pouring over Census and VA information on Bristol County Veterans. I learned about the VA’s VetPop population model, which predicted a decline in the local population. Comparing these to recent Census figures showed just how accurate the projections are. I hope that we are able to avoid another large spike in combat Veterans and reach the 2040 projection, meaning our Veteran population would have declined by nearly 60 percent.

Another interesting take away from my compilation of secondary data was the Veteran unemployment rates. Before the recession, Bristol County Veterans had a lower unemployment rate than the general population. By 2010, the rate among Veterans had risen nearly four points and was one and half points higher than general unemployment. Searching for an explanation, I happened across the Congressional Joint Economic Committee’s annual report on Veteran employment. I learned that not only are Veterans in Massachusetts disproportionately unemployed at a rate 9.9 percent, but Veterans of the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have unemployment rates more than double their fellow Veterans – 23 percent. For people working to end homelessness among Veterans, like the transition house, this number speaks to the uncertainty facing those returning home from war.

By early March, surveys had begun trickling in from Veteran Service Offices in the cities and towns across the county. Recruiting VSOs to help administer the surveys showed me the importance of engaging with stakeholders in the community. Massachusetts mandates that each municipality have a service officer, or for small towns share one with nearby communities, in order to help Veterans apply for services and receive financial aid for housing, clothing, and food. These VSOs deal directly with the Veteran subpopulation I was hoping to reach with the needs assessment. On average, most of the VSOs I spoke with dealt with around 35 active cases, ranging from Veterans’ widows to homeless young Veterans. To some extend this portion of the research was frustrating, both due to lack of engagement from some partners and low return rate from those able to assist. I reminded myself that all the surveys were voluntary and analyzed the responses. As it turns out, the Veterans surveyed have needs similar their national cohort, and they are most lacking in dental care, perhaps the most complex aspect of the VA medical benefits application process. However, their basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter were mostly met.

While I lacked the targeted number of surveys, the database started by the research can be used to further explore the needs of local Veterans. I hope that the Veteran’s Transition House will be able to continue administering the needs assessment and building the database, as it will prove useful as they realign their mission to the changing needs of Veterans. Hopefully, it will also be of use to future researchers and community partners. Now, I’m looking forward to my next project, whatever it may be, so that I can immerse myself in a new world and conduct research to inform people working to strengthen our community and region.

Jeff McCormick Visits to Discuss the Gateway Cities

Michael McCarthy, Research Assistant, UMass Dartmouth Urban Initiative

            This morning, Jeff McCormick, founder of venture capitalist firm Saturn Partners, announced his candidacy for governor in Massachusetts. The announcement comes as no surprise to anyone who has been following the race, and especially not to us at the Urban Initiative. In the mid January, Mr. McCormick visited New Bedford, including a stop at our satellite office at the Quest Center. With a refreshing sense of curiosity, he asked us about the unique challenges facing the SouthCoast Gateway Cities of New Bedford and Fall River, which we cover extensively on our SCUIP page.

Although his background is in financing high tech business ventures around Boston, Mr. McCormick is cognizant that those industries may not take hold in and revive New Bedford, a city with a degree attainment rate less than half the state average (21.1% to 46.7% according to the 2008-2012 American Community Survey). To that point, we discussed the true obstacles that are holding back New Bedford – the need for systemic educational reform compassionate to the changing population and the creation of new jobs in the form of small business or skilled labor – and what a governor could do to alleviate them.

Mr. McCormick quickly dismissed the typical political practice of attacking large problems, like those plaguing the Gateway Cities, with a top-down pointed plan. Instead, he recognized that “a perfect plan doesn’t exist” and in order to foster growth in the Gateway Cities a successful government must “treat everything like it’s unique…and acknowledge the nuances of each city.” He outlined addressing the issues facing Massachusetts’ smaller cities with a method similar to investing in a fledgling company with unfamiliar product – go to the experts in that field, listen to what they had to say, and inform himself on the particulars of the situation before implementing an action plan.

In this regard, Mr. McCormick’s approach is familiar to the one favored by our current businessman-turned-governor. This type governance, one that relies on local experts and best practices, will be essential in the next administration if we hope to address the complex issues holding our Gateway Cities back from realizing their true potential as 21st century cities. With that in mind, the Urban Initiative would like to invite all other Massachusetts gubernatorial candidates to visit us and discuss their plans for the future of the Gateway Cities.

Walking With the Homeless

Robert Golder, Graduate Research Assistant, Urban Initiative

Last Wednesday night I walked the streets of New Bedford, bundled in more layers of clothing than I ever wore while working outdoors on fisheries projects in Alaska. The air temperature had plummeted to the low 20s, and the wind chill was bitter for the start of the 2014 Point-in-Time (PIT) Homeless Count, conducted in communities throughout the United States. The U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires the number of persons experiencing homelessness (whether sheltered or unsheltered) to be annually counted, and briefly surveyed if possible. Urban Initiative project manager Colleen Dawicki, graduate research assistant Katya Starostina, and I joined more than forty other volunteers who fanned out across New Bedford on January 29-30 to conduct the annual 24-hour count. Carrying clipboards, survey sheets, and backpacks full of warm socks, hats, and canned food, we left our headquarters at the Sister Rose House on Eighth Street, and began to walk the blocks from County Street east toward the downtown district.

Last year in New Bedford, volunteers found 338 homeless persons, 119 of whom were in unsheltered conditions. That number seems likely to rise when all the data are assessed for 2014.

As we walked, Colleen, Katya and I asked passersby whether they had secured housing for the evening. Some people who, judging by their clothes and behavior, seemed likely to be housed – perhaps even likely to own a home – turned out not to have any place to stay that night. I conducted my first interview on Union Street with a young man who I thought was probably an undergraduate student at the downtown Star Store campus of UMass Dartmouth. As I introduced myself to him, I thought I was merely going to get some practice in asking a stranger whether he had housing for the night. I didn’t really expect him to tell me he was homeless, but he did, and I reached for my pencil and a survey form. Like most of the homeless people our group spoke with, the young man was cordial, well-spoken, and willing to be interviewed so that community organizers and government officials might gain a greater awareness and understanding of homelessness in America. We offered him, and the many others we met that night, the contents of our backpacks and a “Street Sheet” brochure, produced by the Homeless Service Providers’ Network, that described available support services.

We wished each individual well and moved on, seeking the next interview, which was never long in coming. As researchers, we were conflicted: was it “good” that we were interviewing so many people and gathering so much information… or was it bad for New Bedford, and the nation, that on a bitterly cold winter night we walked among so many homeless persons, many of whom reported educational attainments or life experiences not dissimilar to our own.

After a few hours, I walked back up the hill toward my comfortable home, while the homeless walked toward an emergency shelter, a church hall, a friend’s apartment with a sofa to lie on, or perhaps a pile of blankets under a bridge.

Dogs in New Bedford, Then and Now

Robert Golder, Graduate Research Assistant, Urban Initiative

This is Guapo. His name is the Spanish word for “handsome.” He is my dog, raised from a puppy and about to turn eight years old. Yesterday I went to the City Clerk’s office in New Bedford and bought Guapo’s dog license for 2014.

Guapo_crop_Nov2013_y1200

Guapo is part Lab and part Golden Retriever; perhaps some other breeds are represented as well. He is no purebred but, as far as I am concerned, Guapo is the best dog in New Bedford.

One hundred-and-forty years ago, the best dog in New Bedford was Adonis, a purebred black, tan, and white English setter owned by George Delgado, whose company made whale spermaceti candles. When the first formal “stud book” of dog-breeding records, The American Kennel and Sporting Field, was published in 1876, Adonis was ranked at the very top of the list. In 1878 Adonis, of New Bedford, Massachusetts, was honored as the very first dog to be registered in the United States by the American Kennel Club, which in February 2014 will host the 138th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

Many show dogs came from New Bedford in the late nineteenth century. This is not surprising, as New Bedford was one of the richest cities in the world, and it was fashionable among the elites to own purebred dogs. The City licensed dogs, just as it does today, but the purposes and the costs of licensure seem to have been very different. Take a look at this “Memorandum of Dogs licensed in the City of New Bedford to June 1, 1887,” written by Daniel B. Leonard, City Clerk (click to enlarge):

NB_1887DogLicenses_y1200

Notice that the cost of a license was different for male and female dogs. It cost two dollars to buy a male’s license, and five dollars for a female’s license. That’s a big difference! 555 males were licensed in the year ending June 1 of 1887, but only 51 females, or less than nine percent of the total population of licensed dogs. In 2014, the City of New Bedford doesn’t care whether your dog is male or female, but the City very much cares whether your dog’s rabies vaccination certificate is up to date. There has been a big shift in policy concerns over the years. Whether those concerns have been addressed effectively by the chosen policies is another question altogether.

I don’t know why the cost for female licensure was so high in 1887. What could have been the reason for this public policy? Were higher costs for females an indirect attempt to control the city’s dog population in an age before spaying and neutering? That theory doesn’t seem to fit with the fact that many of the licensed animals were prize show dogs whose breeding was carefully controlled and tracked. Did higher costs perhaps reflect a quaint Victorian idea that females (canine as well as human) required more protection? Maybe the City promised to specially care for and return any lost dog with an identification tag, rather than send it to the dog pound. If so, most owners of female dogs took their chances rather than pay the additional three dollars.

One thing I’m quite sure of, though, is that all the owners who licensed their dogs were very wealthy men like George Delgado. Because of inflation, one dollar spent in 1887 would be worth about $25 today. You could therefore consider the 1887 dog license fee as having a value of $50 today for a male. The female fee would cost $250 today. You can license an ordinary dog like Guapo for only five dollars today, if you show proof that he has attended a canine obedience class. Today’s low cost probably reflects a city policy to ensure that as many dogs as possible are vaccinated for rabies, regardless of the owner’s socioeconomic status. But how many dog owners in the city comply with this law? Does the law really make a difference? How would you proactively enforce the law? Would license fees provide sufficient funding for enforcement?

In 1887 the City of New Bedford collected $1365 in dog license fees (about $34,125  in 2014 dollars). Notice that the City only kept $121.20 of this sum (less than nine percent), taking only twenty cents in revenue per dog, whether male or female. The City turned over $1243.80 to the treasurer of Bristol County. This shows how powerful and important county government was at the time. The City did all of the work of collecting the fees, but the County pocketed more than 91% of the funds. What did the City do with its twenty cents per dog licensed? What did the County do with the much larger cut that it took? What benefits accrued to dog owners and to the general populace? Then, as now, answers to policy questions are not always obvious.

2013 voter turnout in Gateway Cities

We’ll update the following graph as more data becomes available. Worth noting that mayoral contest in New Bedford was uncontested (but still…)

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