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Urban Institute

Program, Membership and Funding, Organization and Funding, History

The Urban Institute, founded in 1968, is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to conducting independent research on a broad range of social and economic issues of particular importance to improving the quality of life in metropolitan centers in the nation and throughout the developing world. Through statistical research, polling, and interviews, the institute seeks to make available pertinent data that will help in the formulation of state and federal policy. Its published reports, offered in print and on the Internet, are made available to interested individuals, organizations, and researchers free of charge, in the interest of expanding public debate.


The Urban Institute carries out its mission of research and education through the activities conducted by its nine research centers, each of which specializes in particular aspects of the urban experience. For instance, the Education Policy Center generates research on all aspects of education reform, particularly as it relates to the needs of urban public school programs. The Health Policy Center has long concerned itself in studying the changing landscape of insurance availability and, especially, the growing numbers of uninsured and underinsured workers. The Labor and Social Policy Center explores trends in employment and unemployment and, since the late 1980s, has taken a special interest in addressing the problem of rising homelessness in the nation's cities. And the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Center has concentrated on research into standards and availability of low-and middle-income urban housing and on the social and economic effects of housing policy at the state and federal level.

In addition to research, the institute actively seeks to disseminate its findings to interested parties, from policymakers at the state and national level to academic researchers and the general public. To accomplish this goal, the institute makes its data available, free of charge, to all interested parties via its website, and its experts regularly present their research results in a variety of formats, from books and journal articles to interviews, radio addresses, and testimony before congressional committees. "First Tuesdays" is a series of seminars on urban-related topics of current interest, hosted at the institute's headquarters in Washington, D.C., on the first Tuesday of each month from October to June. In addition, the institute participates in a nationally syndicated program, City Scapes, in partnership with WAMU-FM, a Washington, D.C., radio station.

Membership and Funding

The institute draws its members from the fields of government and community service, academia, journalism, and business. A small group of senior fellows directs institute-sponsored research with the assistance of a research staff of 400. In addition to directing specific projects, senior fellows also conduct independent research, publish in scholarly and mass-market publications, and represent the institute in the media and while testifying before Congress.

Organization and Funding

The Urban Institute is home to nine separate research centers: the Education Policy Center, the Health Policy Center, the Income and Benefits Policy Center, the International Activities Center, the Justice Policy Center, the Labor and Social Policy Center, the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Center, the Nonprofits and Philanthropy Center, and the Population Studies Center. It receives financial support from government agencies, charitable foundations, corporate sponsors, individual donations, and grants from international organizations such as the World Bank.


In the mid-to late 1960s the United States was confronted by increasing urban unrest. Then-president Lyndon B. Johnson had initiated an extensive array of social initiatives, termed the "Great Society," in an effort to address many of the problems facing the nation during that era. In 1968 the Urban Institute was created specifically to evaluate the successes and failings of President Johnson's policies, particularly as they affected key urban issues, such as poverty, educational finance, unemployment, housing, transportation, and welfare. Among the first projects undertaken by the institute was a pioneering effort to use computer modeling to track the results achieved by federal social programs and changes in the tax law and to investigate the impact of these policies on a wide variety of U.S. households.

In the 1970s the institute expanded its areas of interest to develop new management techniques, with the goal of aiding federal and state agencies in improving their performance in delivering their program benefits. These early concerns remain central to the institute's mission today, and the research generated by early institute scholars provided the initial data from which the current databases were built.

In the 1980s the institute devoted much of its resources to producing a detailed chronicle of the urban policy initiatives of the Reagan administration. At the same time, however, other research was still carried out, including an in-depth examination of the proliferation of federal and state programs. One result of this latter research was the recognition that many of these programs were redundant and that overlapping authorities, competing bureaucracies, and a host of contradictory eligibility requirements actually inhibited the implementation of many desired initiatives. To address these problems, the institute developed the concept of the block grant approach to federal funding, in an effort to provide states with greater flexibility in addressing the particular needs of their communities. In 1987 the institute also released a groundbreaking study of the problem of urban homelessness. In 1988 it took on the problem of uninsurance and underinsurance, bringing to public awareness the fact that this was not just a problem for the unemployed but for working Americans as well.

The 1990s saw a further broadening of the institute's interests, when the International Activities Center was launched. In 1992 the Los Angeles riots once again brought the institute's attention to the core problems facing the nation's cities, including the problems attendant on the rise in legal and illegal immigration, particularly from Latin America. Meanwhile, increased concerns about problems facing the nation's courts led to the creation, in 1994, of the Federal Justice Statistics Resource Center, a database of trends and issues in criminal justice. In 1997 the institute published its "neighborhood indicators," a progress-assessment checklist designed to help state and local municipalities improve their performance in achieving social and economic goals.

In the year 2000 the institute inaugurated a new project, Assessing the New Federalism. This program, inspired by the trend toward "devolution" (the reversion of control over social and economic policy to the states), monitors the progress of local and state initiatives and makes that information available to the wider public.


URBAN INSTITUTE. 2002. <www.urban.org>.


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