Spotlight Exclusives

Notre Dame Launches New Poverty Initiative

Jim Sullivan Jim Sullivan, posted on

The University of Notre Dame announced earlier this year that it will be launching a new academic initiative focused on studying and combating poverty. The new Poverty Initiative is supported by a $100 million gift from an alumni couple, the largest donation to an academic priority in Notre Dame’s history. Spotlight spoke recently with Jim Sullivan, a professor of economics who heads the university’s Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities and will lead the new Initiative. The transcript of that conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Congratulations on this incredible gift and the new Initiative. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about the background and what you plan to do.

This really all comes out of the University of Notre Dame’s launch of a new strategic framework, which was years in the making, where they were asking the question about where should Notre Dame go over the next decade or so? How can it leverage its strengths to really make a difference in the world? And one of the key themes that emerged from that whole planning process was that Notre Dame had some real strengths and demonstrated expertise in poverty research and yet there was real potential to leverage that to have much greater impact. And it was really with that in mind that the Poverty Initiative was launched.

There are a number of different initiatives that have come out of the strategic framework and people have asked questions about why is Notre Dame doing this or that? But nobody’s asking why has Notre Dame decided to go all in on poverty. And it’s because it’s so mission aligned. And so, it’s not surprising that when Notre Dame announces that they’re going to do this, that there’s just tremendous enthusiasm and support from faculty and staff and, but also from the alumni network.

And how will this enable you to broaden what you’re already doing, Jim?

Eleven years ago, I launched the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO), which is a research center that partners with local nonprofits throughout the country to measure the impact of their anti-poverty work. The idea is that this evidence can be used to inform what programs nonprofits should be implementing to have the greatest impact on the vulnerable populations they serve and also to inform policymakers about how to allocate scarce resources in order to make the biggest difference. We have a number of good proof of concepts—research projects that have generated the kind of evidence that can shape decisions, and which have led to broad scale up of programs.

What the Poverty Initiative will do is allow LEO to do the work that it’s been doing on a much larger scale and have much greater impact and explore many more problems related to the complex nature of poverty. But importantly, the Poverty Initiative also is about something much bigger. It’s about doing this all across the globe and elevating units on campus that already have some expertise in addressing poverty in the developing world and elevate that expertise so that they can have bigger impact. A core part of the strategic framework more generally is this idea of thinking as an institution, challenging that common criticism of academia that we do our work in silos and that we could have bigger impact if we work across many disciplines. A lot of what the Poverty Initiative will do is leverage work that’s been done at LEO and at other units all across campus so that our scientists can contribute to the challenges of understanding the causes and consequences of poverty

And how will this change my experience if I’m a student at Notre Dame?

Obviously, a really high priority at Notre Dame is its undergraduate and increasingly its graduate population. We often describe them as our greatest asset and perhaps the most important mechanism for how we can do good in the world. There are lots of opportunities already for students to engage in experiential learning related to poverty but what we would like to do is to make Notre Dame the place that students who are interested in studying and understanding the complexities of poverty want to go. And what that means is more formal curricular opportunities, concentrations that weave together different courses in a way that compliments each other so that students have a broader understanding. We hope to see many more students getting involved in real world research where they’re studying these problems and other formative experiences that really shape them and prepare them to be the future leaders in the fight against poverty, whether it’s as leaders of nonprofit organizations, members of their boards, or policymakers who are making decisions that help scale up effective programs.

And would this mean Notre Dame would offer a major of sorts in poverty studies?

We’re just beginning to examine how all these different disciplines have ways of contributing to the understanding of poverty. I’m an economist and there’s a lot of work in economics that is directly related to understanding the causes and consequences of poverty and understanding which solutions are affected. But sociology’s doing a lot of important work in this space, as are the sciences, as is our School of Global Affairs. And so, it’s not clear where a major would reside. What we’re thinking is that there should be something that’s cross-cutting across these disciplines. We think there’s real opportunity to have students that are studying global poverty in the School of Global Affairs learn from and benefit from the students studying poverty in the College of Arts and Letters and in social sciences like economics and sociology. We need a mechanism to bring them together and then there should be some cross-cutting, signature courses. For example, many of these students could really benefit from understanding how impact evaluation works—doing the kind of statistical analysis that allows us to understand the direct causal impact of programs.

What about involving your communications or journalism faculty in looking at narrative change in terms of how we talk about poverty and can be more effective in telling that story?

Certainly, there is potential for that. The hope is that any unit that sees a tie to this initiative would feel welcome engaging in it and have opportunities to engage. And there have been conversations about the humanities being involved in ways like you just described—how they can bring to the table a better understanding of how we talk about these issues, how we communicate these issues, how those words are heard by those who with lived experiences.

And finally, Jim, are there particular policies that you’ve been involved with doing impact analysis on?

Addressing the issue of poverty is much broader than what social service providers are providing, although it is a critically important aspect of the way we address poverty. And one where Notre Dame, I think, really is well positioned to advance the work to improve outcomes for vulnerable populations, in particular, because we have strong relationships with broad networks of social service providers that are working directly with those living in and struggling with poverty. They understand the nuances and complexity of the problem. They understand the kinds of needs that are immediate and the kinds of interventions that are likely to resonate or work or not. And all too often that voice is absent in poverty research. Having the provider voice in terms of determining what kinds of questions we ask to ask is critically important.

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