No Small-Scale Dreams Here

The Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities is aiming to — yes — end poverty in America through research, scholarship and frontline savvy. The early returns are encouraging.

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

Take a moment to consider, if you will, one economist’s idea of joy.

Not long ago, William Evans began working with Thread, a Baltimore organization that has deployed more than 3,000 volunteers to support the lowest-performing students in the city’s public high schools. They work toward one goal: Do what it takes to get these young people an education and a diploma.

Baltimore’s high schools graduate 69 percent of their students, a rate that trails the nation by 17 points. To be eligible for Thread means starting your freshman year in the bottom quartile of academic performance. It means you’re one of the hardest cases, the likeliest dropouts, those kids with single-digit odds and, Evans says, “zero hope” of graduating from high school.

Evans knows what dropping out means for them and their communities — on average $6,000 in lost income per person every year. It’s one of the worst moves a person can make for their employability and health, at a cost to the economy that one 2007 study calculated at more than a quarter million dollars over a lifetime, and rising.

Thread’s answer: supportive relationships, an “extended family” of as many as five volunteers — full-court mentorship — who will stand behind the student and their home family all the way through high school and beyond.

This extended family gives rides. Attends meetings. Cooks breakfasts. Tutors. Hooks households up with clothes, appliances, community resources.

They show up, and they keep showing up, for 10 years, together weaving what Thread calls a “new social fabric” of connection and success. And since 2004, not one of Thread’s 719 alumni and current students has dropped out of the program. Seventy-seven percent have graduated from high school and 57 percent have completed a two- or four-year degree or skill certification. 

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The innovation that drives LEO took seed in a conversation that Sullivan (left) and Evans had with the president of Catholic Charities, who asked the economists, what if, instead of responding to poverty, we prevented it from happening in the first place. Photography by Matt Cashore ’94

Intuitively, the program’s benefits are amazing, indisputable. But Thread’s leadership knows what it doesn’t know. “They don’t have a really good comparison of what life would be like for the students who aren’t in the program,” Evans says. “That’s where we’re coming in. They have some historical data that we can use, but we’re moving forward; we’re running an experiment.”

“We” is the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities, which on the Thread project right now mainly means Notre Dame assistant research professors Sarah Kroeger and Jonathan Tebes and Evans himself, the Keough-Hesburgh professor of economics who co-founded Notre Dame’s domestic poverty lab 10 years ago with his department colleague James Sullivan ’93.

“LEO” as it’s known around campus, and increasingly among the government agencies and nonprofit social service providers who are attacking poverty in its every complex facet from Seattle to Orlando, is growing fast around the simple, impossible belief that “rigorous research is a powerful means” to end poverty — yes, to end poverty — in America, and that researchers and social workers will learn how to do this side by side as equal partners in the process.

How? Crunch numbers. Run experiments. Randomized controlled trials, long dismissed as too expensive, too difficult and perhaps too cold for use in domestic poverty programs, are a big tool in the LEO box. One group receives a service, one doesn’t. Track the outcomes for both groups, then measure and interrogate the difference.

The fact is that, research or no research, far more kids are eligible for Thread’s help than the organization can serve given its limited resources, a ubiquitous problem among social service providers in the United States. And so, together, the Thread folks and the LEO folks are taking advantage of this scarcity to design a research study.

“We’re going to randomly assign kids,” Evans says, selecting them from the entire eligibility pool rather than the default method of first come, first served, and tracking both groups over time. The process will educate Thread about the students who don’t get in while gathering bedrock, detailed evidence of the benefit their mentorship model provides.

Ideally, they’ll learn how to do it even better and build a case they can take to city, state and federal officials, corporate partners and education philanthropists to scale it up, to fund the hell out of it, to launch it in other communities, to spark a righteous human revolution against the tyranny of lost opportunity that is making hard lives even harder for the 1.2 million American teenagers who drop out of school every year.


Now you’re depressing me. You promised joy.

“I love my job,” Evans says, feet on his desk in Jenkins-Nanovic Hall as he sizes up a reporter.

Yes, he loves the discovery, the research, all the things he’s done professionally since 1987 when he started teaching and on past 2007 when he arrived at Notre Dame as a leading health policy economist. Evans’ curriculum vitae is what you’d expect from an endowed chairholder: 13 pages of academic posts, noteworthy professional contributions, honors and research that covers a lot more ground than what most of us think about when we think about “health care”: guns, ADHD diagnoses, the opioid crisis, the “Catholic school difference” and similar topics that at last count have garnered his publications 17,771 citations in others’ work. “I’m like a dog with a squirrel,” he says. “I get easily distracted by something new because I’m interested in it.”

But Evans says his LEO research and its long-term, laser focus on poverty has unexpectedly added something of great personal value to that archetypal academic portrait: the human and spiritual dividends that come from doing something that most economists who study American social problems don’t do very often, which is talking — a lot — with people who fight poverty all day.

“I mean, we’re giving our research over to this. They’ve given their lives over to it,” he says. “It’s a very humbling experience.”

He treasures these conversations with social workers on the front lines, “figuring out why they’re into it,” he says, “what their thought process was in developing a new intervention. It’s really quite fascinating. That part of it has been a joy.”

Evans came to Notre Dame knowing he could fuse more of his Catholic faith into his work here, but he says the elementary innovation that drives LEO took seed in a conversation he and James Sullivan had a few years later with Father Larry Snyder, then president of Catholic Charities USA. Snyder told them social work looked essentially the same today as it did in 1910 when his organization was founded. Someone in distress walks through your door and you try to meet their immediate need.

What if, Snyder asked, instead of responding to poverty, we prevented it from happening in the first place?  Great or small, outfits like his hardly had the time or money to figure this out. Could economists help?

“And we immediately said, ‘Well, OK, give us the five best programs you have that move people out of poverty,’” Evans recalls. “And he said, ‘We don’t know what they are.’” Sullivan and Evans explained how economists would run experiments to find out, and Snyder replied, “Great, when can you start?”

Running experiments to evaluate anti-poverty interventions wasn’t the innovation. Development economists like those at the Jameel Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were pioneering this approach in developing countries, where, Evans explains, research can get a “lot more bang per buck.”

No, in retrospect, the innovation was partnering with service providers in the United States — and the humble mutuality of it, the “let’s learn together” spirit.

It helps that LEO’s studies are done at no cost to the charities. Its growing budget makes it a free research-and-development brain for anti-poverty efforts across the country. Any nonprofit with a hot question about the effectiveness of a program, and the will to train its staff to integrate research methodology into their day-to-day work with clients, can apply.

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Reynolds: ‘I don’t think there’s a sadder statement than that you pour your heart, your soul, into serving your community, and then feeling like after decades of work that nothing’s different.’

“I will be the first to confess it,” says Becky Endicott, co-host of the We Are for Good podcast on philanthropy. “We are data averse in the nonprofit sector, and that starts with me. We’re afraid of it. We don’t know how to interpret it. We don’t know how to use it to move our missions forward.”

But here’s a data point Endicott and the rest of us should understand, courtesy of Heather Reynolds, LEO’s Michael L. Smith managing director, during her appearance on Endicott’s show last December: Forty percent of Americans will live a year or more of their lives in poverty before they turn 60.

Four in 10 people in a room. Inevitably, people you and I know. “That just starts to humanize it a little bit more,” Reynolds said.

Soon after Reynolds started her previous job leading Catholic Charities Fort Worth in Texas, she recalls, a leader retired feeling he hadn’t made a difference after devoting decades to solving local homelessness. “I don’t think there’s a sadder statement,” she reflected, “than that you pour your heart, your soul, into serving your community, and then feeling like after decades of work that nothing’s different.”

She was so determined to avoid that fate that she rocketed off in the wrong direction. Grow! Expand! Meet every need! But after a few years of that approach, her staff couldn’t help but notice all their repeat customers. And that was a problem. “If you own a coffee shop, or a restaurant or a boutique, repeat customers are awesome,” Reynolds notes. “If you’re running a nonprofit organization, that kind of means you’ve failed.”

In time the hard questions they were asking themselves yielded the kind of focused questions that today drive LEO’s studies.

What effect do maternity homes have on housing stability and other measures of well-being for the mother and child?

Can a transitional jobs program improve participants’ earnings and employment outcomes?

Does providing intensive mentoring and emergency financial assistance to low-income community college students increase the likelihood they will earn a college degree? 

In its first 10 years, LEO has launched 92 such studies of intervention programs in education, health, housing, criminal justice and employment all designed to move people out of — or catch them at the brink of falling into — poverty. Reynolds says they’ve completed 36 projects to date; that findings from half have effected a change in policy or philanthropy once providers and LEO staff have presented them to decision-makers.

After LEO research demonstrated, for instance, how Goodwill Excel Centers — charter high schools for adult students — help graduates earn full diplomas rather than GED diplomas, leading to better jobs and higher incomes, the lab’s dissemination team mobilized. Arizona adopted the program, and the governor found $12 million to support it. Other states are now looking at changing their laws to allow people over 21 to attend high school, which would open legal doors presently closed to the innovative concept.

That third question about community college completion is one that Reynolds herself and her staff back in Texas were asking about Catholic Charities’ Stay the Course program, and it illustrates the value of research even when it finds what doesn’t work. The study divided students into three groups who received either cash grants or personal mentoring from case managers or no help at all. “Year one results came back,” Reynolds says, and the best performers by far were the students assigned to the mentors.

Then, the real shock: “The second-best group was the group who got nothing at all,” Reynolds says. “And the third group was the group who got the money.”

It seems too many participants were signing up for Stay the Course for the money rather than the degree it was supposed to help them complete. Over the next year, Reynolds recalls, the failure of financial assistance got all the attention among the philanthropic foundations that had invested so much in it. They soon shifted their money into coaching and mentoring.

The real problem, the study found, was how life gets in the way, especially for people burdened with heavy responsibilities at home, whose education, properly understood, is as much about learning how to set priorities, change old ways of thinking and address the baggage they carry through their days as it is about writing composition, business skills, American government and general chemistry.


Not so much as a dollar of every $100 the federal government spends “is backed by even the most basic evidence that the money is being spent wisely.”

So, slinging their “rough calculations” in The Atlantic in 2013, wrote a pair of economists who would know: John Bridgeland, White House Domestic Policy Council director under George W. Bush, and Peter Orszag, who led the Congressional Budget Office before joining Barack Obama’s administration as head of the Office of Management and Budget.

The thing is, we have the data. LEO’s academic director, James Sullivan, says so.

Take employment and earnings. The unemployment insurance system created under the Social Security Act of 1935 collects this information for about 95 percent of the workforce. Many anti-poverty programs cite earnings or employment as key outcomes to look at for demonstrations of impact, Sullivan says, but we’re using so little of what we already know to help us measure changes in those outcomes — or assess unintended consequences. Much of this kind of data remains off limits, or accessible only with difficulty.

Using quantitative methods to address human needs has animated Sullivan since his days as an economics major at Notre Dame. After graduation, he taught high school in the Bronx, asking himself all the while, “Can we do it better?” — a fury that drove him back to graduate school and a career in anti-poverty research.

Before long he formed strong views on the need for better access to government data. Then, two years into the creation of LEO, Sullivan was invited to visit the office of Paul Ryan, then chair of the budget committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, to talk about the barriers between key government datasets and the legions of qualified social scientists willing and able to better understand the effectiveness of anti-poverty programs.

Time and again these obstacles stymied the public interest even within government, Sullivan told Ryan. If, for example, the Census Bureau wanted to link its own figures with data from the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, it had to negotiate separate access contracts with every state-level agency charged with administering SNAP benefits. 

The politician assigned the professor homework: Write it up. Sullivan’s white paper would help inform the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018, which requires government entities to establish data-sharing protocols. Breaking down these walls is “going to take a while,” he says, but momentum is building.

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Using quantitative methods to address human needs has animated Sullivan since his days as an economics major at Notre Dame. After graduation, he taught high school in the Bronx, asking himself all the while, ‘Can we do it better?’ — a fury that drove him back to graduate school and a career in anti-poverty research.

Complex, stubborn, aggressive. These are the adjectives LEO uses to describe what it’s up against in its mission to end poverty even as inflation persists, borrowing costs rise, personal savings tank, the income gap widens. No aspect of domestic poverty may be more confounding than affordable housing and homelessness, which may explain why LEO has taken on more projects in this category than any other.

There isn’t a single American city that isn’t struggling to keep people in their homes, or to shelter those who have already lost them. During last Christmas season, NPR reported that COVID-19 tenant protections were set to expire in Los Angeles, putting 30,000 households at risk of joining the 70,000 Angelenos already experiencing homelessness as towering back rents came due — a surge anticipated across the country.

Meanwhile, New York City was empowering first responders to check homeless people in mental health crises into institutions without consent, citing violence rates in the city’s encampments. Columbus, Ohio, expanded a street outreach program. Chicago announced it would use federal COVID-19 stimulus funds to build “tiny homes” for the homeless.

What of all this will help? Might money invested in these measures be better spent to achieve more for those most vulnerable? How would we know?

One of LEO’s first big scores studied the Homelessness Prevention Call Center in Chicago: an example of the proactive approach Father Larry Snyder was advocating. One big takeaway from that study, Reynolds says: If cash alone doesn’t keep community college students on track to graduate, it can be salvific for renters with eviction notices in hand.

Evans, Sullivan and Melanie Wallskog ’16 reviewed two years of call records to determine outcomes for people seeking one-time rent assistance of anywhere from $300 to $900, enough to keep them stably in their homes. The unpredictable nature of funding availability, the sample sizes of callers who received aid and those who didn’t, and the ability to link call data with information about entries and exits from Chicago shelters were sufficient to create the “good-as-random” conditions that the researchers needed to measure impacts, which were significant.

In their 2016 article in the journal Science, the trio concluded that people who called the center when funding was available were 76 percent less likely to enter a shelter in the next six months. They also found that the $10,000 expended to prevent a spell of homelessness produced $20,000 in benefits such as the averted costs of providing shelter as well as reduced mortality. But by further refining the one-time cash assistance to target those who would be helped by it most, the researchers found, the cost of preventing homelessness could be cut as much as 35 percent.

By then, officials in Santa Clara County, California, were paying attention. “We have two people becoming homeless for every one person that we’re able to get off the streets,” explains Jennifer Loving, CEO of Destination: Home, a nonprofit public-private partnership to end homelessness that the county and its largest city, San Jose, set up back in 2008 when the problem was an emerging issue. Today, it’s a full-blown crisis.

What Loving and others wanted to know is, what if the cash assistance isn’t one time or limited by dollar amount, but is customized to what a household needs?

Santa Clara is Silicon Valley, home to Apple, Facebook, Google and one of the highest concentrations of multimillionaires in the U.S. Median home values exceed $1.5 million. A modest apartment might rent for $2,000 to $4,000, and the market is tight, with vacancies in the low single digits.

Santa Clara is also farms and wineries and an ethnically diverse population that deputy county executive Ky Le ballparks at about one-third immigrant. And thanks to that severe lack of affordable housing, the astronomical wealth disparity and pretty terrific weather, the county also has one of the largest homeless populations in the country.

In 2021, a federal assessment reported 350 encampments around San Jose. A year later, more than 10,000 people were tallied on that single night in January when the national homelessness count is taken each year. By December, according to the Silicon Valley Interreligious Council, 246 of them had died from exposure, medical conditions, drug overdoses, pedestrian accidents or suicide. Seven were teenagers, three were infants, 146 were senior citizens. More than half were people of color.

The problem is not local indifference. To understand the Homelessness Prevention System (HPS) that Destination: Home launched in 2017, it helps to see the bigger picture. When an earlier study found the county was, in Loving’s words, “wasting half a billion dollars a year not solving homelessness,” the partners put the financial case to voters, who passed a $950 million bond issue to build housing that has since moved 20,000 residents permanently off the streets.

Still, it wasn’t enough, as the economy forced more people into homelessness every day. So corporations chipped in tens of millions more dollars to help seed the HPS. Working with Sacred Heart Community Services, the county’s leading anti-poverty agency, Destination: Home began linking together every local nonprofit whose clients were at high risk of eviction because they’d lost a job or wages, or couldn’t afford to pay for childcare, medicine or a car repair, or because another breadwinner left the home or was abusing them or their children. Today the network includes 19 agencies around the county. Several serve Santa Clara’s large Asian and Hispanic communities, where the language of an intake assessment matters.

Darcie Green, the executive director of Latinas Contra Cancer, which has helped low-income patients manage the blistering costs of their care for 20 years, remembers the first client who came to her for rental help because she’d lost her job and housing on the same day. Suddenly it was nonstop: “The pandemic and everything that went along with it” was pushing these especially vulnerable patients and their caregivers out of their homes. Today, she says, “the number one issue our clients face is the ability just to stay housed.”

LEO’s study, led by Sullivan and research professor David Phillips, took three years. The findings, presented last September, were strikingly similar to the Chicago study, a roughly 80 percent reduction in the likelihood of becoming homeless among those receiving cash aid — meaning a “very large” reduction in costlier services to the homeless, Sullivan said. This was no mere delay in homelessness, but a persistent prevention — hundreds of children, women and men spared an indefinite turn in a shelter or out on the street. Further, although some families needed and received as much as $5,000 to stay housed, Sullivan could still estimate that “for every $1 spent on program participants, $2 to $3 in benefits are created.”

As always, the findings raised questions. What other outcomes matter besides staying housed? How to identify and prioritize those who might benefit the most?

The bottom line, though: Cash-assistance homelessness prevention programs give the most financially vulnerable among us just enough space and time to breathe and think and regroup while remaining in place. All society needs to do now is fund them.

Loving, who grew up around the shelter her aunt and uncle ran in Southern California, carries a lifelong firestorm about the issue in her heart. While she oversees a system that served 1,600 households last year and kept 96 percent of them sustainably housed, and which expects to serve 2,500 annually by 2025, it had to turn another 5,000 households away — even as the lifting of COVID-19 protections promises to glut the system. Already “over half of everybody coming to us is 100 percent rent-burdened,” she notes, meaning rent alone exceeds their monthly income.

The result, she says, is “stupid suffering,” totally avoidable, totally solvable and not the fault of those who endure it. “We have a model that’s working. We could grow it. We can’t grow it alone,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”


Those aren’t words of resignation, but determination. Ending homelessness in Santa Clara County, what though the odds, has been the vision all along. It’s an audacious goal, like LEO’s to “end” poverty.

“Let’s be clear,” Heather Reynolds says. “Will there be zero poor people on Earth? No. But do I believe that poverty is solvable? Yes. Do I believe we have the resources, especially in this country, to solve poverty? Yes.”

“I think we’re going to make important inroads in a lot of different areas,” William Evans affirms. “The problem is just there’s so many ways that people can fall through the cracks, and there are a lot of cracks.”

When it comes to ending poverty in a household, a community, a nation, money is necessary but often insufficient. In LEO’s first 10 years, Evans has seen how his questions always go deeper. Connect these dots with those, he says, and you begin to see how the roots of so many LEO projects “are the trauma people experience as kids.”

Violence, abuse, neglect in our homes and neighborhoods. Addiction. Broken families. Loss of home. The Centers for Disease Control says 61 percent of American adults grew up with at least one such “adverse childhood experience” from a core list of about 10. Evans says the participants in one LEO study have on average five or six.

Going deeper, he says, means figuring out first how to prevent trauma from happening, but second, when it happens, how to solve it so it doesn’t impair. If economists can uncover something systematic about who benefits and who doesn’t from an intervention, providers can focus on those who need it most. And then? You figure out how to take care of the rest.

More hands make lighter work. LEO is strengthening. Graduate and undergraduate students are meaningfully involved in the research. Heather Reynolds says the lab’s team and research portfolio have tripled since she arrived in 2019. She expects to reach capacity in another decade: 55 team members, 300 projects, a $15 million budget.

One other number also matters, an indistinct metric that will console her whenever she decides to retire, and it’s somewhere up in the hundreds, she says: stories she can tell about LEO and its army of partners making a difference.

John Nagy is managing editor of this magazine.