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Social Worker Appointed to Lead Institute for Research on Poverty

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Dr. Lawrence M. Berger is the 12th director of the venerable Institute for Research on Poverty (IRP) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a professor and chair of the Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Social Work and a brilliant researcher. Lonnie, as he prefers to be called, is also a dear friend. We entered the doctoral program at Columbia University School of Social Work together in 1997 and graduated together in 2002. Lonnie earned his M.S.W. degree at Hunter College School of Social Work and now has the responsibility of leading the oldest of three federally-supported institutes for research on poverty.

The IRP was created at UW-M in 1966 by the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to provide research on the War on Poverty Programs. The 44-year old scholar took over the helm of the IRP last year when the previous director, Dr. Maria Cancian, was nominated to become Assistant Secretary for the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). I had the opportunity to catch up with Lonnie recently and he graciously answered a few questions.

I asked Lonnie a question you will hear repeatedly in the coming weeks: why social work? What motivated you to become a social worker?

Dr. Lawrence Berger

I was always interested in social causes and social issues. My parents were pretty active with various causes. After graduating college (Rutgers) and trying to decide what to do next, I was doing a great deal of volunteer work with hunger and homeless type organizations. I was always interested in being a researcher so in choosing an academic researcher path, social work seem to be a good fit. Before I received my M.S.W., I really didn’t have a good sense of the range of things social workers do and can do.

I asked Lonnie to describe the focus of his research.

I am interested in what influences the context in which families function and children grow up. I am interested in the intersection between public policies, family resources, family structures and context and how these factors play out in terms of parenting quality, parenting behavior, and eventually children’s health and well being. I’ve conducted my research in a range of areas. I’ve done much research on family complexity and family structure change. I’ve done research on child abuse and neglect, particularly the role of economic resources in child abuse and neglect. I am currently working on projects looking at how household debt plays a role in family functioning. I’ve also done work on family leave and housing and a range of issues around policy and family functioning.

Because CRISP focuses on policies at the federal level, I asked Lonnie about the implications of his research for federal policy.

I have done projects where I have looked at a specific federal policy or set of policies, but more broadly federal policy—whether you are considering tax policy or income transfer policy, or provision of child care, provision of early child education programs, or near-cash things like SNAP, those policies can influence family contexts and resources. So while my research may not focus on a specific federal policy, what drives me is doing research that has policy implications that help explain how family resources are impacted or how family change is affected, so you can go back and understand how these policies are affecting families and children.

Because of the IRP’s association with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE), I asked if the IRP’s research had greater impact with federal agencies than with Congress.

The IRP has this long history of doing policy experiments and policy-related research, particularly in the area of child support policy. In the late 1990s, the IRP conducted an experiment in welfare reform policy on “pass-through” policy, determining how much child support payments would be passed on to the mother after the state had taken its share to repay the state for benefits. In this experiment, the state passed through all of the money to the mother of the child and it turned out not to have adverse effects in terms of labor supply and fertility and it had some positive effects. That ended up driving a change in federal policy so that now states are able to pass through all of the child support payment to mothers. They don’t all do it, but they are not prohibited from doing it. Currently we are doing a large eight-state randomized evaluation called the Child Support Parenting and Employment Demonstration Project for the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement which is looking at how these policies impact low-income fathers.

With 200 national affiliates, a burgeoning research portfolio, his wife Melissa, and four- and two-year old children to care for, I asked Lonnie how he was able to manage his many responsibilities. I also asked about his vision for the IRP going forward.

It’s a bit overwhelming, but I try not to think about it. I am fortunate to have a really good staff and we have really great researchers. I am teaching one class this semester—a professional development seminar for our Ph.D. students. There are things we do extremely well at the IRP and I want to keep doing those things. I think we speak really well—less so to the politicians—but to agency personnel and policy-related groups. We’re quite connected to policymakers and practitioners and we’re really good at doing the translational work. We partner with Brookings (Institution) on a number of things and we have Jennifer Noyes as an associated director who has been very involved with the National Council of State Legislatures and groups like that.

I want to focus on keeping us policy relevant and to keep talking to people who are on the ground and doing the work. One area that I believe is hugely important to poverty but has not been a core focus of poverty research is the criminal justice system writ large. We are looking at all levels from policing to incarceration to release and post-incarceration. Another is location and spatial factors of poverty, whether that’s around neighbor or the region you’re in. Those are areas I would like to see us focus on more.

Dr. Berger is the latest of a number of directors of the IRP with academic appointments to schools of social work. Most, if not all, of the previous directors were trained as economists. Lonnie wears his MSW credential proudly. He did focus on economics during his doctoral work and studied with the phenomenal Jane Waldfogel. I expect him to make significant contributions to the field of poverty research and policy. I am proud of you, my friend.

Dr. Charles E. Lewis, Jr. is President the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy. He has served as deputy chief of staff and communications director for former Congressman Edolphus “Ed” Towns and was the staff coordinator for the Congressional Social Work Caucus.

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