Podcast

Sarah Rosen Wartell | Urban Institute

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Financial inequity and systemic racism are two of the most pressing policy issues in America today as the country moves out of the pandemic. Urban Institute President Sarah Rosen Wartell joins Jennifer to discuss the country’s progress when it comes to affordable housing, the labor market, and racial inequity, as well as the role of government in enabling individuals to thrive.

Sarah Rosen Wartell

Sarah Rosen Wartell

In 2012, Sarah Rosen Wartell became the third president of the Urban Institute in its 50+-year history. During her tenure, Urban has worked to bring more of its research insights to federal, state, and local governments and businesses; establish leadership in research, communications, and data visualization; and undertake an ambitious program of business systems and technology modernization. Previously, Wartell was deputy assistant to the president for economic policy and deputy director of the National Economic Council, and executive vice president for Center for American Progress. Prior to that, she practiced law with Arnold & Porter in Washington, D.C.

Learn more about the Urban Institute and check out additional episodes of EMERGE Everywhere.

Episode Transcript

Jennifer Tescher:
Welcome to EMERGE Everywhere. I’m Jennifer Tescher, journalist turned financial health champion. As founder and CEO of the Financial Health Network, I’ve spent my career breaking down silos by engaging with innovators across industries, and now, I’m sharing those conversations with you. Meet the forward thinking leaders challenging the status quo and unleashing creative new ways of improving financial health by seeing their customers, employees, and communities in 3D.

My guest today, Sarah Rosen Wartell, is the president of the Urban Institute and a powerful voice for driving policy solutions for cities and communities across the country. Sarah took the reins of the historic organization in 2012 and has been passionate about elevating the “power of place.” She has devoted her career to uncovering the root of society’s problems to address systemic racism and give individuals and communities a chance to thrive. For that to happen, she believes we need a government that works. 

Sarah, welcome to EMERGE Everywhere.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
Thanks for having me. Excited to be with you.

Jennifer Tescher:
So, you are only the third president in the history of the Urban Institute, which is, for those who don’t know, a research and policy organization that was actually launched by President Johnson back in 1968. And I remember you telling me the founding story in your office a couple of years ago. Tell our listeners about that founding story. It’s really interesting.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
So you’ll remember the mid-’60s, or maybe you won’t remember, but you know about the mid-’60s. The country was trying to suddenly understand the lived experience of particularly African Americans in its cities who had moved there over decades. And they were seeing rioting and coming to understand the deprivation and poverty. And President Johnson was going to wage a war on poverty, in many ways the way he had waged a Cold War overseas. And there was a kind of emerging interest in applying social science to policy and human understanding.

He had the help of the Brand Institution, I think, in prosecuting the Cold War. They wanted the help of a social science equivalent to prosecute the war on poverty. And there was a young MacNamara whiz kid named Bill Gorham who had gone from the Defense Department to HHS, called HEW at the time, to create something we now know as ASPE. It was inside the government research tank to understand poverty and similar problems. And he built this great team of 50-some folks.

And so he was strongly opposed to there being something outside of government that was going to duplicate what he was doing. And Johnson had the wisdom to understand that something inside government would never be as trusted, because it would always be in service of a particular team’s administration. He wanted an organization that was independent and he wanted an organization whose board was not just scholars but civic leaders, bipartisan. And that creation was the Urban Institute. And his last thing was to say that the guy who had been most vehemently opposed to creating Urban was the person who he insisted would head it. And he led it for 33 years. And that bipartisan board helped us weather changes in administration after he stepped down. When some people were skeptical whether the federal government should fund an outside, independent place created by Johnson.

And 50-plus years later, here we are.

Jennifer Tescher:
Mmm. So, we’ve been through a pandemic that’s had disastrous consequences for low-income Americans in particular. And we’re in the midst of a racial reckoning as significant I believe as the Civil Rights era when the Urban Institute was born.

The question is, I think, have we made any progress on issues of poverty and inequality? Has anything changed in the last half century? What is the data tell us?

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
The Urban Institute gets that question a lot, typically from folks who are skeptical of many of programs and policies that have been put in place over the years. You know, we don’t know the counter faction. What would’ve happened if we didn’t have Social Security or the Earned Income Tax Credit.

But analysts like my colleagues have done great work to say how much worse would the problem be without this infrastructure. And the answer is clear that our seniors, large portions of them would continue to live in poverty. Still too many of our children do. But clearly, the Child Tax Credit is making a difference. Earned Income Tax Credit is moving many people out. And a lot of our programs have been proven to make a difference. So, it could’ve been a lot worse.

What we’ve learned in the intervening years and especially over the last decade, though, is the extent to which these problems are deeper and more structural. We can help someone individually move up above the poverty line so they can support their families. But in many ways, technological change is what’s driving our labor market and the demand for skills. And leaving some people, left in poverty and intergenerational poverty. Structural racism is embedding through wealth inequality and many other systems and structures of the people are getting locked into the poverty levels.

So it would be much worse, I believe, were it not for some of these systems. But they will not be sufficient in ending the problem unless we start tackling the root causes. And we design our structures in ways that kind of keep the persistence and the isolation of poverty at bay.

Jennifer Tescher:
And so it would seem that the pandemic in a way and sort of what happened to people in terms of their both physical and financial health and the understanding that we’ve now gained, and the racial reckoning create on the one hand it’s unfortunate, but create a great environment for figuring out how to address those structural causes and problems.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
I think that’s right. I think that each of the main systems that are really holding people down are ones in which we’re beginning to make an effort to not just a return to where we were before, but to try to take the system we had before and retool it in ways that make it less, if you will, sticky.

We’re thinking a lot about the housing market. We’re thinking a lot about the labor market. We’re thinking about our educational systems. All of those were severely challenged by the pandemic and each of them now, we need to sort of tackle in a way that builds a closing equity gap, both income inequality which has become harder and both intractable and racial equity among the other exclusions at the same time.

Jennifer Tescher:
So, let’s talk for a minute about the labor market because I know you’ve spent much of your career on housing and I want to spend some time on that as well because it seems like such a big pain point at the moment. But you talked initially about these structural changes, among them technological changes that are driving changes to labor market.

What do we do about that? We’re certainly not going to roll back the clock on technology. It strikes me that there’s going to be a very big connection between the labor market and the education market because some of that’s got to be training. But training can’t be the only thing we’re doing. So, tell me how the Urban is thinking about that?

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
Well, one of my board members is probably one of our country’s finest labor economists, a guy named David Autor. And he’s used the expression that the pandemic will probably accelerate by half a decade, maybe a decade sort of broader forces that were already happening in the economy. Sort of an industrial transformation of the kind that we had. We knew that AI and technology was going to continue to rearrange what kind of. Doesn’t necessarily destroy the number of jobs, but many jobs were being lost and new jobs were being created. And there was a mismatch. There always are in great period of industrial transformation. Lots of losers who were trained and built their careers around the systems that existed in the past.

So, we just sped up this process and left a lot of people perilously behind. What we’re seeing now is that productivity level is actually quite high. Meaning that for a dollar a company spends, the amount of output they’re producing because through the pandemic they had to find other ways to do work. And in many cases, that meant that we lost a lot of jobs. And those are jobs that are in many cases may not be coming back.

For a long time now, we’ve been having a debate about the future of work. And in my mind, too much of the solution is on the supply side. Meaning, we’ve got to retrain everyone. Yes, to some extent, we have to retrain some. People we need to improve the quality of our education system as many of our competitors do, to better match the skills. We really still have that agricultural era school system where kids go home in June and don’t come back for three months and leave school at 3 o’clock and that doesn’t work for working parents either. Although kids can’t, brains can’t absorb the whole time but we could structure the day differently if we had a different system. And because of the learning loss now maybe there will be some innovation in how to do that.

But at some point, we also have to rearrange the way work works for people so that it is the kind of job that you more than anyone understand the issue of volatility that people experience, both of their income but also of their expenses in society. And yet our employment system provides people so much shock, they don’t have support through those. Maybe we ought to. What comes with work? What kinds of social insurance schemes do we have? What kinds of minimum protections do we have for people? That might ultimately, even if it costs more to produce a particular widget, might leave us with fewer costs in trying to help deal with these transitions that so many have.

Jennifer Tescher:
And how do you add on a layer around racial inequity in thinking about the labor market?

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
I’d spent a lot of my time thinking about segregation. That is, in essence, the way in which we sorted ourselves geographically across the country. In the last few years, I have kind of had, even though I sort of knew it, I never realized the degree to which occupational segregation, which has its roots in so many, you know, labor unions that were racist in the way in which if you think about it, whether it’s a dry cleaners or a particular higher skill job, there are proclivities for employers to hire people like the ones they already have. There’s all kinds of ways in which it nurses increasingly, you know, was a gender specified job. And even still, there’s great resistance to that.

So we’ve got to be thinking, just as one example, of the way in which these occupational segregation locks people of color in the jobs that have the least of these supports. It’s not, I believe, it wasn’t an accident that our social security system would so much security for people, especially later in life, excluded certain occupations for a long time in its earlier years. Those were often occupations that were predominantly occupied by people of color. And so you have this, it’s yet another way it builds intergenerational poverty in place that made it impossible for wealth to be transferred.

The recasting of the labor market requires an equity lens, as we’re going to talk about, I hope, on the president’s executive order. Almost every dimension of policy has ways in which it locks us into the existing patterns that we have. And we have to be open to thinking about, should we invest in ways that break those patterns?

Jennifer Tescher:
Now let’s bring that lens into the conversation about housing. As I mentioned earlier, I know you’ve spent a lot of your career focused on housing, which is just a massive pain point, even before the pandemic. Certainly in terms of affordability. And now I’m deeply worried about the tens of millions of Americans who have been surviving through moratorium on eviction or through mortgage forbearance, but that’s going to start to unwind if it hasn’t already.

Then there’s the racial and ethnic inequities in home ownership rates and just the geographic, the spatial segregation that has become part and parcel of this country. I live in a city like Chicago, right? You can’t understand this city without understanding segregation.

That’s a lot of problems. How do you start to prioritize those? Or do you have to move on all fronts at once? And what’s going to be most critical given the moment we’re in now, exiting the pandemic?

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
So, first of all, I generally agree with you. We have a lot of things to work on in the housing market. I am a little more sanguine about the mortgage market because of a strange phenomenon, but it also demonstrates the inequities you’ve described.

For the most part, because we learned so much during the pandemic about how to help people stay in their homes, which was cost effective for lenders and for borrowers, people who are facing eviction are, or who might’ve otherwise facing foreclosure, were given many efforts to forebear. And because home prices have largely risen, not entirely risen, even if people now have larger arrearage that are coming due, many of those will be restructured into the mortgage. We’ve learned how to do that. And if not, there’s more equity in those homes, so people can avoid that.

Except in those places where home property values are not rising and those tend to be in neighborhoods that are concentrated of color. It’s another example of the structures we’re talking about.

But more broadly, I think you’re exactly right. Our housing market I suspect most of your listeners will disagree with this idea that housing is an essential platform. That kind of stability, it’s been demonstrated if your children live in stable housing and are not couch surfing and having all their possessions put out on the street frequently, their chances of educational attainment, their chances of going on to succeed later in life are much great. That’s really not much in controversy anymore.

And so, if your goal is stable housing, the key questions I think for us to think about are supply, especially at the low end, although supply overall and equity. Starting in 2008, during the crisis, housing market just came to a screeching halt as far as the development of new supply. We had always had trouble in we never had enough units affordable to the low income. But then we stopped producing the units affordable to the middle as well and just only seem to produce McMansions.

And the result of that is that when supply gets constrained, middle income families end up occupying housing that might otherwise have once been affordable to low and moderate income families. And so, you know, we learned this in econ class, right, supply and demand. It has had a post-recession era, we didn’t catch back up with the rate of household formation. Not even close. And we had a whole set of ways in which even when there was production, it was skewed to the upper end because of so many state and local rules that make it impossible for people to build where there’s room to build, I.e. in communities where there’s less density. So then NIMBY isn’t at its worst.

And it’s an interesting moment now because interestingly, conservatives and progressives, coming from different reasons. Maybe conservatives particularly frightened by the sort of market control that is inefficient and causing the supply problems. And progressives because we’ve realized that NIMBYism is excluding people from communities of opportunity. Have kind of aligned interests now in dealing with these exclusionary policies at the local end. It’ll take additional subsidy for the affordability as well.

But if you partner those two things together, you sort of have a plan on the supply. And then-

Jennifer Tescher:
And it sounds like, you know, those efforts are going to largely be at the local level, which gives me some hope that they will actually occur as opposed to some of the gridlock in Washington.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
Although one of the interesting proposals that President Biden put forward, which was modeled after, I hope, a paper written by some of my colleagues and Ellen at NYU. Cause for race to the top, in order to try to showcase, just as we did in education policy, the plans and programs that work. And I hope that makes its way through because we need some best practice. Everyone says to me, show me a place that has gotten this right and I can never find one place. Maybe this policy’s better here and that policy is better there.

But we need some stars so that people can follow. The other problem, though, is as we’re trying to do this, we’ve got to bring this equity lens because so much of the challenges I would not have designed a system in housing wealth was the primary means by which people pass on wealth to their future generations, but it is the American system. And if we simply have a system which says that’s available to some and not others, we will never get it right. The rate of black home ownership today is lower than it was in 1968, the year when it became legal to discriminate on the basis of race in housing. And it’s these structures and systems that make intergenerational wealth transfer. And of course, the equity stripping that was so terrible during the Great Recession and that has kept people out.

So, we need to do things that overcome the barriers to entry. We also need to make sure that in the communities where black and brown families acquire property, that there’s the same level of public investment in amenities and schools and keep preventing tearing down transportation barriers. So that those places can become places where not only children have access to opportunity, families do as well. But the property that becomes the nest egg for those families has a chance to appreciate.

Jennifer Tescher:
Well, no shortage of work to do there. A number of Urban staff, in addition to your work being very influential in terms of government policy, a number of your staff, including a very close friend of yours and mine, have recently joined the Biden administration. And you’re no stranger to government. You spent quite a bit of time there during the Clinton era. Quite a different time than this one. What’s your assessment so far of the Biden administration after these first six months? And what would you be encouraging him to really focus on?

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
Well, I think any assessment needs to start from the fact that the degree of difficulty inherited by this administration is unlike anything I’ve seen, including in 2009 era, late 8 and early 9 with financial crisis. You’ve got a public health crisis, you’ve got sort of a moment you could seize but huge difficulty in addressing enduring racism. You’ve got a climate crisis. And the biggest one that we have is this utter lack of trust in the public sector-

Jennifer Tescher:
Yeah.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
Which has been completely eroded. And this idea in which parts of our population just believe completely different things about the world. And so if you don’t have any shared knowledge, it’s very hard to build support for anything. It’s always sort of a, can you get to 51 percent, never finding a kind of middle support for an agenda.

So the degree of difficulty is impossible. I think generally speaking, they have done a very good job of laying out kind of simple, clear message. And I think, and we can talk about this in a minute, putting racial equity at the center of that and putting it as a key, defining element of how we think about our policy in different ways is going to be critical.

When I was in government, civil rights and justice policy was kind of on one silo. And then there was the housing people and the transportation people and the labor market folks. And clearly, the right thing to do is say, this is a consideration needs to be on the table in each of those domains. So I think they’ve gotten that right as well.

That said, unless we can solve some of these intractable issues and find ways in which people have a lived experience of shared experience, of progress. So much of the lack of trust comes from the fact that so many people have experienced, even in an economy that seems to be blooming, kind of forestalled futures for their children. And that’s true in rural America as it is in inner cities. Until we can change that, we’re not going to get back to a politics I think that really works for folks.

Jennifer Tescher:
I want to go back to the Biden administration and the first action that President Biden took when he took office, issuing the executive order on advancing racial equity. And if I’m not mistaken, the Urban Institute is doing quite a bit of work there in helping the administration figure out how to execute and implement the ideas in that order.

Tell us more about that work and about what levers the government can use to really make progress. You’ve already talked about the need to not silo this, right, but use this lens across everything that we do. Then what?

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
Well, I think first of all, I lead an organization full of people who bring data and evidence to decision. We’d be fooling ourselves if we said that that then decides the question.

But it is a necessary if not sufficient condition, that you actually have insight into information. And so, one of the critical pieces is to begin, you know, the regulatory process, we know how powerful it was. When we began to say, we have to look at cost/benefit and we often debated, well, how do you weigh a human life in the cost/benefit analysis? What kind of evidence is sufficient?

But once you did, that created a framework for evaluating choice that is built into many of our decision-making processes. Congressional Budget Office, CBO, and the Joint Economic Committee, they look at tax plans and they say, who wins, who loses by quintile of income, right? But we as a society have some sort of things we think we know, but we don’t really look closely at who wins and who loses by race and ethnicity and other dimensions of difference.

And so, building the capacity to do that, the vision the project we’re working on with PolicyLink is to be able to score legislation, not only for its fiscal impact and its distributional effect, but for its racial equity impact. And not this is to say that answers the question, but if you have two possible housing policy approaches, or retirement security subsidy approaches, wouldn’t you want to know which one might reinforce the wealth and inequality and which one might help us to mitigate and close the gap?

And that requires building kind of what if tools, right? You being able to model what might happen under different policies. We’ve built micro-simulation models for decades. But we have a problem, we don’t have a lot of the data you need by race, right? The data is not always collected by race and these other dimensions of difference. And even when it is, it’s at such large scales. You know, it’s usually black, Latinx, other, right? Well, Asian American population is probably so diverse and their individual circumstances and stories aren’t told.

But interestingly enough, some of these great innovations in data science are giving us tools to disaggregate data in data sets that aren’t collected that way. Because you can impute other dimensions from matching data sets with these very sophisticated tools to bring them together. And if you can do that, then you can start to figure you know, transparently, a lot of detail that somebody can vet your analysis. But then you can start to and you have to be really careful to protect privacy, because matching data sets is, you have to have very sharp, clear norms of what is ethical and responsible in doing this.

But if you do it right, it can give us insight and help shape policy. And if you have that information at time of decision, it can help you mobilize constituencies and it just changes the conversation. It doesn’t decide it, but change it. And across government agencies that make policy decisions, they have to learn these new methods and techniques. And we have a racial equity analytics lab that is doing some of this for the first time ourselves as well. And then, wherever we can, sharing what we’re learning with others.

Jennifer Tescher:
And so ultimately, the idea is to equip the government across to just make this part of the standard operating practice, if you will.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
That’s right. And in fact, it’s not just the government, it’s also the ecosystem of actors around government. When I was at the federal housing agency administration, we would develop a credit subsidy and then one of the advocates would come and say, “We think your estimate’s wrong because you’re not combing this data well enough.”

You want an ecosystem of decision-making in which people can increase and improve the quality, not just on the black box inside the federal government or inside a CBO, but actually the whole ecosystem of influencers and academics and others who are having these conversations. And advocates, empowering them to get access to this kind of information.

And when you do and it’s not just federal, too. In fact, we are seeing some really, a number of cities have not only created chief equity offices, but they’re requiring their own kind of equity analysis for local policymaking. And in some cases, that’s getting more places like DC, which is sort of more like-minded. They still find plenty of things to disagree about, but a more like-minded city council are starting to bring that kind of analysis into their decision-making. Chicago’s starting to think about this, too.

Jennifer Tescher:
So, you have spent most of your career focused on issues of inequity, whether it was directly or indirectly. And while you certainly have significant expertise in housing, you know a lot about a lot of things because I think you and I share the same belief that everything is ultimately interconnected.

How did you come to this work? I know you’re a lawyer by training. But where does your passion for this work come from, Sarah?

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
I had an amazing experience growing up. I was a sort of lower middle class family. My parents were college educated, but my dad was a draftsman in an architectural firm. Three kids. And we lived in a federally subsidized mixed income housing project in what I think is one of the most interesting neighborhoods in the country. Because it was in the ’60s and early ’70s, the Upper West Side in New York was a very dilapidated area. And there were huge swaths of property torn down. You could buy what is now a multimillionaire town home for $10,000 if you put sweat equity into it. I mean, the neighborhood was not strong, but it had Central Park and Riverside Drive which held on to an upper middle class families.

And so the result was the flood of Johnson-era subsidy programs came into the area. We quickly created a multiracial, multi-income community. And I was the beneficiary of growing up in a place of opportunity, where I was ultimately a scholarship student at a private school and I went back and forth between these two worlds. And I saw the power of place. And I lived in a world of real diversity even in my friend group. And it just shaped how I think about these problems.

Jennifer Tescher:
Your founding story, if you will, reminds me a lot of Darren Walker’s story from the Ford Foundation in that both of you were beneficiaries of government working well.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
That’s exactly right. And I ultimately believe that there are things in community that we as a society need shared institutions to do, to create the I’m a capitalist, like most of us. But I believe that that has to be bound by a situation created, a fairness and an equity that’s created by our public sector. It’s a help in some cases, it’s a leveling the playing field in others.

And we don’t see that confidence in the public sector. We’ve been told and taught, and sometimes experienced things not working. And we have plenty of stories of things that did. I would argue we haven’t done a good enough job telling those stories either. But I’m encouraged because even though the public is losing its confidence in the public sector, we all did come together, to your empathy point, and look at our essential workers and believe in them. And we did get private sector brought us vaccines, but it brought us vaccines in an environment that was ultimately shaped and then the distribution shaped by policy. And I’m hopeful we can tell some of those stories.

And I think we’re starting to see not just policy advocates understand how important it is to have a government that works.

Jennifer Tescher:
So, it feels like ages ago, but in that before time, before the pandemic, you celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Urban Institute. And you organized this really incredible and broadly inclusive effort to map out the next 50 years of work, to eliminate inequities and to ensure that all people can thrive.

Given the last 15 months, what does that plan look like now? Is it still relevant? And tell us what the future looks like for Urban?

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
Well, I would generally say that in fact, I look at that plan now and I feel like it’s a great road map. But I will say one thing in the interim, which is we built that plan with not enough inclusion inside my own organization. And it didn’t have the degree of buy-in that it needed to. It didn’t have enough internal voice. You know, you have limited resources, you’re doing day thing, this is the thing you’re doing on the side, you’re trying to raise money for your anniversary. And we did certainly do a lot of consulting, but we didn’t do nearly enough real ownership and involvement.

So, in some ways we’re redoing it. And yet the alignment to the key questions is pretty much the same. It’s just getting smarter and nuanced in its implementation. Two things I’m really proud we did back, really in 2018, when we sort of shaped that strategy.

The first was that we said that a key focus of our next 50 have to be to tackle systemic racism. And at that point, I would say we had a small group of scholars across Urban in different centers beginning to work on it. We were making modest internal investments in that and we grew them after the celebration, but nothing like the kind of work we’re doing today. But it gave us a foothold and an anchor from which to get deeper credibility, with other people to kind of learn from within our own work what this kind of not simply describing the disparities, but understanding its root causes and looking at the policies that would actually close it.

The other thing we said then that was really important was to really embrace technology and AI, because in a world where the pace of change was going to come faster and faster, we needed to take those tools to help us, you know, next generation research and social policy. And that meant the kind of tools I was describing earlier wouldn’t have been possible without the tech and data science teams that we’ve built over the last five years. And the kind of just amazing young people who are so excited about applying those tools to the problems of structural racism that we’re seeing now.

We also made a big pledge to work much more at the state and level level, and we are building tools that we know cities are using to recover from the pandemic. So when we kind of jumped into action over COVID, we had things that we had been kind of that were nascent that we could sort of rush out with.

So on the one hand, we got the direction right. On the other hand, how we run ourselves as an institution needed to change and to be more inclusive. And that is a learning journey that we’re on. I think you may know that we recently recognized a staff union for the first time. And we have made a $7 million commitment from internal resources to a racial equity framework that we’re pursuing that works on our climate, the culture of the institution, as well as the content of the work we do.

And we’re just beginning. We have a lot to learn.

Jennifer Tescher:
Sarah, thank you so much for joining me on EMERGE Everywhere.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
It was great to be with you as always, Jennifer.

Jennifer Tescher:
This has been EMERGE Everywhere, a Financial Health Network production. I’m Jennifer Tescher, and I’d love to hear your ideas for future guests and your reactions to the show. You can connect with me on Twitter @JenTescher. If you liked this episode, please review the show and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. To learn more about the work and research we do, please visit emerge.finhealthnetwork.org. See you next time.

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