Urban Institute

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Public Policy
The Urban Institute is a think tank and public policy research center based in Washington D.C. The organization was founded in 1968 to provide a nonpartisan voice to gauge the effectiveness of War on Poverty programs that were created in the 1960s. Today, the organization conducts policy research, gathers and analyzes data, evaluates programs and services and educates Americans on critical issues and trends. Its nonpartisan and independent position has built a reputation of reliability and objectivity.


The Urban Institute is a think tank and public policy research center and a product of the social and political reforms of the 1960s. Created to research and assess the scores of governmental programs that sprung up, the Urban Institute developed into a significant contributor to the social and economic research community. The institute's nonpartisan and independent position has built a reputation of reliability and objectivity, essential qualities needed to conduct and report research accurately. 

The mission of the Urban Institute is to “open minds, shape decisions, and offer solutions through economic and social policy research” (Urban Institute 2019). The Urban Institute focuses its economic and social policy research within four primary focus areas: expanding opportunity, promoting well-being, strengthen communities and advancing democracy (Urban Institute 2017). Topics within these areas include healthcare, tax policies, affordable housing, criminal justice, economic growth, immigration, poverty related programs and many more.  

Historic Roots

As racial tensions mounted in the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy and his Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson drafted the Civil Rights Act. The piece of legislations was signed into law in 1964 by President Johnson after President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. 

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced the War on Poverty. The Johnson administration, his Cabinet, and Congress implemented a set of initiatives to “not only relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it” Johnson said at his 1964 State of the Union address (Matthews, War on Poverty). These initiatives included establishing Medicare and Medicaid, expanding Social Security benefits, making food stamps a permanent program and establishing the Office of Economic Opportunity – an office within the White House that administered some War on Poverty programs. 

The Johnson administration realized in 1966 that War on Poverty programs were being under-funded, and they were not seeing people being lifted out of poverty like they expected. In 1968, President Johnson convened a group of social scientist and economists to evaluate the effectiveness of War on Poverty programs. This group became the Urban Institute. 

In an April 1968 meeting with the newly established Board of Trustees of the Urban Institute, President Johnson told the Trustees “you will not lay a single brick or build a single house. But the work of the Institute will do – the studies and the evaluations and the free and searching inquires – will build the strongest foundation upon which we can renew our cities and transform the lives of people” (Text of the President's Remarks). President Johnson stressed to the group that the Institute must always search for the truth and remain bipartisan.  


The Urban Institute's work educating policymakers and the general public has shaped critical pieces of legislation since the organizations founding in 1968.  

As mentioned above, President Johnson made food stamps a permanent program during the War on Poverty. The Urban Institute studied the effectiveness of this program in the early 2000s and discovered that there were millions of eligible families not receiving federal nutrition assistance because of bureaucratic red tape. Food stamps, now known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), are giving millions of additional family’s access to nutritious food thanks to research and policy recommendations by the Urban Institute (Urban Institute 2017). 

Arguably the most debated piece of legislation in the last ten years is the Affordable Care Act. After the bill was signed into law by President Obama in 2010, the Urban Institute began studying how each component of the bill was affecting the general population and United States economy. Research from the Urban Institute was sited by Supreme Court justices when the law was questioned for constitutionality. When President Trump attempted to repeal and replace the law, the Urban Institute was quick to provide data and around the number of citizens that would lose their health insurance if the law were to be repealed (Making Facts Matter). 

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Within the Urban Institute, there is a Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy (CNP) that conducts research on policy issues affecting nonprofit organizations. In recent years, the CNP has invested heavily in its capabilities to help nonprofits build capacity and make the industry more effective and efficient through data gathering and analysis. The CNP is home to the country’s largest research database on nonprofits, the National Center for Charitable Statistics (Centers on Nonprofits and Philanthropy). 

Research from the Urban Institute has made significant impacts on policymaker’s and individual’s decisions of where to direct resources. In 2017, 26% of the federal budget ($1 trillion) went to Medicare, Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and marketplace subsides (Policy Basics). Urban Institute research, which is typically released weeks before the Congressional Budget Office’s findings, helped legislatures, media and healthcare advocates engage in debates on the future of the Affordable Care Act. In fact, in the early 2000s, the Urban Institute created healthcare reform measures that were adopted in Massachusetts and later became the model for the Affordable Care Act. (Urban Institute 2017). American’s contributed over $427 billion to charity in 2018, with 10% or $40.78 billion being directed to health-related nonprofits (Giving USA). The work of the Urban Institute has shaped the way the United States government, nonprofits, private sector and individuals view and access healthcare. 

The Urban Institute, like most nonprofit organizations, relies on financial support for individual, corporate and foundation donations. Those three groups accounted for 41.86% of Urban Institute’s revenue in 2017, while the government (federal, state and local) provide 46.46% of revenues. Overall, the Urban Institute had revenues of $87.4 million in 2017 with expenses totaling $92.4 million (Urban Institute 2017). 

Key Related Ideas

Impartiality in research: From its inception, the Urban Institute has maintained independence from any one sector of American society, any political affiliation or any special interest groups. This independence has allowed for the objectivity needed to report research accurately and without bias. Today, the Urban Institute’s board is made up of individuals on both sides of the political isle including former Indiana Republican governor, Mitch Daniel and assistant to the president and senior adviser for President Clinton, Donald Baer (Board of Trustees).  

Resource for everyone: The Urban Institute regularly provides federal, state and local governments with information on the effects of policies and demographic trends. They also share their findings with business and philanthropic leaders, media and the general public so that everyone can play an active role in shaping the political and social discourse in the country. 

Turning facts into solutions: While the Urban Institute is always chasing the facts, individuals need more than the facts to change their perception on topics that have such monumental impacts on our lives like those researched by the organization. That is why the Urban Institute is focusing more of its attention on strategic communication. People’s hearts and minds aren’t changed by data and statistics, they are changed by the stories behind that data and lives that are impacted.  

Important People Related to the Topic

Elizabeth T. Boris: Boris, who currently serves as an Institute Fellow at the Urban Institute, was the founding director of Urban Institute’s Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy. The Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy analyzes policy issues affecting nonprofits. Prior to joining the Urban Institute, Boris led the Aspen Institute’s Nonprofit Sector Research Fund. 

Lyndon B. Johnson: Johnson served as President of the United States from 1963-1969. Johnson was responsible for identifying the need for an organization like the Urban Institute and brought together the right talent and minds to launch the organization. Many of the programs that came out of the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty still affect our daily lives over 50 years later. These programs include Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps, Head Start, Social Security expansion and civil rights legislation. 

Sarah Rosen Wartell: Since 2012, Wartell has been the president of the Urban Institute, becoming just the third president and first women president in the organization’s history. Wartell leads a team of over 450 researchers and staff. Since Wartell took over, the Urban Institute has focused more attention on becoming a leader in research communication and upgrading their technology to remain a leader in local, state and national research (Authors and Staff, 2019). 

William Gorham: William Gorham was hand selected by President Johnson to be the first president of the Urban Institute. Prior to leading the Urban Institute, Gorham served as Assistant Secretary of Defense from 1962–1965 and Assistant Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare from 1965–1968 (Conyers). Gorham led the organization from 1968–2000 and currently serves as president emeritus. 

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Brookings Institution is a national thinktank that conducts research and provides policy recommendation on issues ranging from economics to foreign policy. Brookings Institution was founded in 1916 and has remained focused on providing independent and impartial research without taking positions on issues, rather providing data driven ideas to solve issues facing our nation. Through a joint venture, the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution created the Tax Policy Center which provides analysis on tax policy to government leaders and researchers. (https://www.brookings.edu/) 
  • RAND Corporation is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, international research organization focusing on public policy to make the world safer, healthier and more prosperous. RAND Corporation and the Urban Institute have partnered on projects ranging from healthcare to immigration. The first president of the Urban Institute, William Gorham, was a researcher at RAND Corporation before joining Urban Institute. (https://www.rand.org/) 
  • The Aspen Institute is a nonpartisan organization that works towards a free, just and equitable society. They do this by bring together diverse groups of thought leaders to address complex issues facing the world. (https://www.aspeninstitute.org/)  
  • The Hudson Institute is a Washington, D.C. based thinktank focused on national security, economic and U.S. foreign and domestic policy. The Hudson Institute is well respected for their forward thinking in addressing twenty-first century issues in an unconventional way. National legislatures often turn to the Hudson Institute for policy recommendations on the above-mentioned topics. (https://www.hudson.org/) 


Reflection Question 

What do you believe are the most pressing issues facing our society that the Urban Institute should research in order to make policy recommendations? 



  • “About the Urban Institute.” Urban Institute. https://www.urban.org/aboutus (November 2, 2019) 
  •  “About Us: Authors and Staff.” Urban Institute. https://www.urban.org/author/sarah-rosen-wartell (November 2, 2019) 
  •  “Board of Trustees.” Urban Institute, September 26, 2019. https://www.urban.org/aboutus/who-we-are/board-trustees. 
  • “Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy.” Urban Institute, August 25, 2017. https://www.urban.org/policy-centers/center-nonprofits-and-philanthropy. 
  • Conyers, John. Congressional record. proceedings of and debates of the 90th Congress, second session, 114 Congressional record. proceedings of and debates of the 90th Congress, second session § (1968). 
  • “Elizabeth T. Boris.” Urban Institute, January 30, 2017. https://www.urban.org/author/elizabeth-t-boris. 
  • “Giving USA 2019: Americans Gave $427.71 Billion to Charity in 2018 amid Complex Year for Charitable Giving.” Giving USA, June 18, 2019. https://givingusa.org/giving-usa-2019-americans-gave-427-71-billion-to-charity-in-2018-amid-complex-year-for-charitable-giving/. 
  • “Making Facts Matter for 50 Years—and Counting.” Urban Institute. Accessed October 30, 2019. https://www.urban.org/about/our-history. 
  • Matthews, Dylan. “Everything You Need to Know about the War on Poverty.” The Washington Post, April 26, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/01/08/everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-war-on-poverty/. 
  • “Policy Basics: Where Do Our Federal Tax Dollars Go?” The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, January 29, 2019. https://www.cbpp.org/research/federal-budget/policy-basics-where-do-our-federal-tax-dollars-go. 
  • "The Urban Institute: Text of the President's Remarks at a Meeting with the Board of Trustees of the New Institute, April 26, 1968 with Text of the Prospectus for the Urban Institute]." 1968.Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents 4 (Apr 29): 719-720. http://ulib.iupui.edu/cgi-bin/proxy.pl?url=http://search.proquest.com.proxy.ulib.uits.iu.edu/docview/59372940?accountid=7398. 
  • Urban Institute, 2015 Annual Report, accessed September 22, 2019, http://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/2015-annual-report.pdf 
  • Urban Institute, 2017 Annual Report, accessed September 22, 2019, https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/ui-annual-report-2017.pdf 


This briefing paper was authored by a student taking a philanthropic studies course in 2019 at The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.