4Action Nonpartisan Research Analysis

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation signature research programs, Evidence for Action (E4A), Policies for Action (P4A), and Systems for Action (S4A), fund research evaluating the health and racial equity impacts of policies and other interventions. Featured below is a synopsis of nonpartisan research analyses of 4Action-funded research summarized by topic, along with links to additional resources and information. The summaries below are based on findings from 4Action funded work, and are not inclusive of all research on a particular topic or policy area.

Policy Topics and Related Findings

  • Housing and Neighborhoods

    Across the country, people are struggling to find high-quality affordable housing in socially and economically vibrant neighborhoods. The source of the problem is complex – ranging from challenges maintaining an aging and deteriorating legacy housing stock to rising costs of construction for new homes to discriminatory zoning and financing policies and practices. Solutions must be equally multi-faceted and creative.

    What 4Action funded research says:

    • Individuals experiencing homelessness face significant gaps in access to healthcare services, which leads to heavy reliance on acute emergency services and high rates of hospitalization for preventable conditions, thus increasing health care costs. (See Palimaru et al., 2020 and Davila & Buchanan, 2021).
    • When people with complex needs are offered stable housing AND supportive services, they quickly enter housing and stay there. These individuals also experience long term benefits, like reduced jail time. The costs of providing supportive housing also reduces costs of other services, such as jail stays, court costs, police time, and local emergency services. (See What We Learned from the Evaluation of the Denver Supportive Housing Social Impact Bond Initiative, Urban Institute).
    • Federal housing support is provided to low-income families through public housing projects or subsidies (either to families or to developers or landlords). One strategy is not inherently better than another in improving housing quality or family health and well-being. Each approach has limitations and benefits recipients differently, but in general, any kind of housing support improves housing stability. There are currently insufficient resources to support all the families who are eligible. Allocating additional funding and focusing on improving surrounding neighborhood conditions could benefit millions of American families. (See Farquhar et al., 2018).
    • Comprehensive community development efforts, such as redevelopment strategies for publicly subsidized housing communities, can increase low-income, ethnically diverse resident’s perception of safety. It can also reduce perceptions of problems with drugs, alcohol, or violent activity, as well as contribute to community social cohesion. (See E4A Project Page, Seattle's Yesler Terrace Redevelopment).
    • Families who live in homes that have been weatherized experience improved health and are better able to afford energy bills. Expansion of weatherization programs through cross-sector partnerships with energy, healthcare and public health agencies can help improve families’ physical and financial wellbeing, and may reduce health care costs. (See Tonn et al., 2021).
    • Remediation of abandoned lots has been the target of efforts in multiple municipalities to decrease crime and improve health. The theoretical basis of these efforts is that remediation changes the urban landscape in a way that promotes residents’ willingness and confidence to act in the service of their own security and improves neighborhood functioning which can enhance social engagement and well-being. (See Hohl et al., 2019).
    • Policies that reduce required information on housing applications have had mixed results in the labor market and limited results in the housing market. Following the implementation of a policy that restricted the use of background checks, eviction history, income minimums, and credit history in rental housing applications in Minneapolis, discrimination against African American and Somali American men increased. (See Gorzig & Rho 2021).
    • Opportunity Zones (OZs) were implemented by the federal government and some state and local governments to attract new investments to distressed communities in urban and rural areas in the United States, but some OZ neighborhoods can receive more investments than others.
      • Among the OZ designated census tracts, gentrifying tracts attract more investments for commercial and residential development.
      • Higher gentrification rates are associated with lower vacancy rates and the impact of gentrification on business vacancies is even stronger. This implies that gentrified neighborhoods receive a larger share of OZ investments.
      • The administrative tax and income data from the DC government shows a clear pattern between gentrification and out migration of residents with lower incomes. (See Kurban et al., 2022).
    • Pay-for-success financing programs provide housing to individuals experiencing chronic homelessness, people with mental or behavioral disorders, and adults recently released from prison. These programs deliver a range of supportive services to address the complex psychosocial, behavioral, and medical needs of the people they are meant to benefit. Success payments to the private investors are contingent on some measure of sustained housing. (See Lantz & Iovan 2017).
    • Evictions worsen material deprivation, sort families into lower-quality housing in more disadvantaged neighborhoods, disrupt social networks, erode mental health, and have negative impacts on healthcare utilization and health outcomes.
      • In New York City, eviction increased the likelihood of losing Medicaid coverage and decreased pharmaceutical prescription fills.
      • Among patients who generated healthcare spending, average spending was 20% higher for those who had been evicted. (See Schwartz et al., 2022).
    • The pace of gentrification has accelerated in cities across the US, potentially displacing families and impacting quality of life for children.
      • Children who start out in a gentrifying area experience larger improvements in some aspects of their residential environment than children who start out in persistently low-socioeconomic status areas. Children moving from gentrifying areas also tend to move to lower-quality buildings. (See Dragan, Ellen, & Glied 2019a).
      • The experience of gentrification is associated with moderate increases in diagnoses of anxiety or depression—which are concentrated among children living in market-rate housing.(See Dragan, Ellen, & Glied 2019b).
    • Source of income laws prohibiting landlords from discriminating against tenants based on their income source can help increase access to low-poverty neighborhoods for families with lower incomes. A dataset that includes details on these laws shows that source of income protections help families access low-poverty neighborhoods but these laws take five years, on average, to make an impact. (See Galvez et al., 2020).
  • Education and Early Childhood Care and Development

    Wide variance in funding for and access to education – from preschool through post-secondary school – in the United States has rendered the education system one of the most pervasive forces in perpetuating inequities. These inequities are seeded even before children enter school, due to disparities in parental leave policies and childcare options, especially for low- and middle-income families.

    What 4Action funded research says:

    • At least 24 months may be needed to physically recover after giving birth. This is particularly true for those returning to physically demanding jobs. Returning to work before being fully recovered may mean being passed over for promotions or raises if parents can’t meet the physical demands of their jobs, resulting in a de facto financial penalty for giving birth. Parents in physically demanding careers could benefit from comprehensive parental leave and alternative job duties when returning to work. (See Healy & Heissel, 2022).
    • Throughout the course of a child’s development, public education needs more funding. People in the early care and education workforce earn low wages and experience poor mental well-being and high rates of food insecurity. A healthy early childhood education workforce is vital to the delivery of quality childcare. (See Loh, Oddo, & Otten, 2020). 
    • When children receive early high quality education, they accrue health benefits later in life. However, these health improvements differentially benefit white families, sometimes purposefully, and sometimes unintentionally due to the way education is funded. (See Derrington, Huang, & Ferrie, 2021 and this E4A project page).
    • While the general public supports better funding for early childhood education, elected officials are divided along party lines in their willingness to increase resource allocation. The type of information that is effective in garnering the general public’s support is not as convincing for policymakers, suggesting there may be a disconnect between the rationale and values of the electorate and the elected. (See Neiderdeppe et al., 2021).
    • Efforts to prioritize education access and resources for families and children of color - often called affirmative action - have been deemed illegal in some places; but banning affirmative action further harms youth of color. Affirmative action bans resulted in an increase in risky behaviors like smoking and binge drinking among high school students who stood to benefit from these policies. Social policies like college-level affirmative action programs, intended to increase socioeconomic opportunity, could improve population health, wellbeing, and equity. (See Venkataramani et al., 2019).

    • Low-income parents participating in a financial and health empowerment initiative for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients experienced sustained improvement in food security, caregiver health, employment, and savings, along with decreases in depressive symptoms. (See Weida et al., 2020).

    • The quality and consistency of childcare arrangements affects healthy child development and are directly impacted by parent’s work schedules. Routine uncertainty is largely incompatible with formal, center-based care, and increases the likelihood of needing a complex patchwork of care arrangements. Parents’ exposure to on-call work and last-minute shift changes is associated with more numerous care arrangements with a reliance on informal care arrangements, the use of siblings to provide care, and young children being left alone without adult supervision. (See publications from Harknett, Schneider, & Luhr 2019).

    • High quality universal pre-kindergarten (UPK) programs can generate lifetime benefits for participating children and can accelerate the rate at which conditions that could potentially delay learning and cause behavioral problems are identified. 
      • The introduction of UPK in New York City increased the likelihood that a child would be diagnosed with asthma or with vision problems received treatment for hearing or vision problems, or received a screening during the prekindergarten year. UPK also accelerated the timing of diagnoses of vision problems. (See Hong, Dragan, & Glied, 2017).
  • Economic Security & Employment

    Inflation was at a 40-year high in June, 2022. While some economists might suggest raising wages could exacerbate inflation, the “working poor” are already struggling to keep up with raising inflation (See Smialek & Casselman, NY Times). The most common (if not popular) tool for raising low-wage worker compensation is increasing the minimum wage. Other “progressive” practices include living wage policies and guaranteed income initiatives.

    What 4Action funded research says:

    • Minimum wage increases benefit some workers but these benefits are not accrued uniformly. Minimum wage policies should account for the dynamics among different fields and professions, including how higher wages will be accommodated and who will bear the cost.
      • For example, employers may implement higher standards for employment or employ fewer people. In the early childhood care setting, costs are passed along to families who may struggle to afford the added expense.
    • Living wages seem to benefit employees - especially higher skilled workers - more universally. In addition to yielding higher wages, living wage policies also lead to better access to health insurance and better worker health.
    • Guaranteed income appears to be one of the best tools for guarding against income volatility. Despite concerns to the contrary, guaranteed income recipients are actually MORE likely to be gainfully employed. Guaranteed income also bolsters recipient health and well-being - especially notable in decreases in anxiety and depression. At the same time, it is not a panacea – receiving guaranteed income did not improve food security, housing cost burden, or household chaos compared to non-recipients. (See West et al., 2021).
    • Supplemental security income (SSI) benefits are associated with better health outcomes and lower medical expenditures, suggesting that relatively small cash transfers may be a cost-effective way to improve health outcomes and reduce healthcare spending. SSI is associated with 23% lower Medicaid expenditures through age 8. Additionally, in early childhood (prior to age 6), birthweight-eligible children were significantly less likely to be diagnosed with both acute (infection, injury) and chronic (malnutrition, developmental delay) conditions, and were less likely to be admitted to the hospital (See Ko, Howland, & Glied, 2022).
    • The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a critical component of the U.S. safety net, providing support to millions of families with potential health implications for recipients.
      • An additional $100, or a 3% increase, in the average annual EITC exposure between birth and age 18 increases the likelihood of reporting very good or excellent health, and decreases the likelihood of being obese between ages 22 and 27. (See Braga, Blavin, & Gangopadhyaya, 2020).
      • A $1,000 increase in the maximum available EITC credit is associated with a 4% reduction in the likelihood of reporting any poor mental health days in the past month for married mothers and a 4.7% reduction for unmarried mothers. (See Gangopadhyaya et al., 2020).
      • Federal EITC expansions are associated with increased employment for unmarried mothers and small reductions in employment for married mothers while state EITC expansions are associated with improved mental health for married mothers. (See Gangopadhyaya et al., 2020).
    • Increasing in the minimum wage throughout childhood (not a one-time increase) can lead to a significant improvement in child health. Much of the benefits of a higher minimum wage are associated with the period between birth and age 5. A $1 increase in the minimum wage over the child’s early life course, between ages of 0-5 is associated with a 2.7% improvement in general health, an 8.7% increase in the probability of very good or excellent health, a 14% decrease in poor health, and 15.6% decrease in missed school days (See Wehby et al., 2020).
    • Access to paid leave can have significant implications associated with spending, health and well-being for employers and employees, as well as for health care providers.
      • Research evaluating the effects of mandated paid sick leave shows:
        • Neither employment nor wages significantly or systematically increased or decreased after a mandate was introduced. (See Pichler & Ziebarth 2018).
        • Coverage rates increased from 66% to 79% during the first years after the mandates were implemented.
        • There is no evidence that employers decrease other benefits such as paid vacation time or paid family leave.
        • A paid sick leave mandate was significantly associated with decreases in emergency department and specialist visits, increases in primary care use, and an increased probability of receiving certain preventive health services. (See Maclean, Pichler, & Ziebarth, 2020).
      • Estimates of the impacts of proposed national paid family leave and medical programs developed using a simulation model show that paid family and medical leave benefits are well targeted to low wage workers, compared with moderate and higher wage workers. Workers at all earnings and income levels would gain access to new leave benefits. (See Hartmann & Hayes, 2021).
      • Lack of awareness of available paid parental leave benefits has negative effects on take up of the benefit.
        • Lower-income mothers report less knowledge of their maternity leave benefits than other mothers, and are 48% less likely to report receiving information from their employers.
        • Fewer than 2% of lower-income mothers had accurate information about the policy.
        • Employers are not a reliable source of information for many workers. Healthcare providers are the only source of information being used equally by low and high-income women.
        • Among women who were employed during pregnancy, only 33 percent of lower-income women were employed in jobs that were covered by paid parental leave, compared to 65 percent of higher income women. (See Goodman, Elser, & Dow, 2020).
      • When a new paid leave ordinance was enacted in California it expanded job protection and access to leave and improved racial and socioeconomic equity of parental leave access:
        • Extending job protection to all private firms regardless of employment size would increase the proportion of those protected to 73% for non-Hispanic Black parents and 71% for Hispanic parents.
        • The ordinance significantly increased the proportion of San Francisco employers offering paid parental leave. In 2018, 75% of San Francisco employers with 20 or more employees offered paid parental or family leave, compared to 44% in 2016.
        • Few employers reported negative impacts of changing their paid leave policies, and some reported positive impacts. However, many employers reported difficulty understanding legal requirements and responsibilities for compliance.
        • Overall, employer support for the ordinance is high. Seventy-eight percent of employers reported being supportive or very supportive of the ordinance while only 6% were opposed.
        • Before the ordinance took effect, lower-income women were less likely to take over six weeks of leave or receive pay from the government or their employer during their leave; and were offered shorter amounts of leave at a lower wage replacement rate by their employers than higher income women (See Goodman, Dow, & Elser, 2019).
  • Climate and the Environment

    Denial of climate change is waning as shifting weather patterns and the frequency and adverse effects of extreme climate events like heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes and flooding increase. However, discrepancy remains about how to mitigate the impact of climate change, and the systems and infrastructure that are in greatest need of shoring up - water, transportation, energy, etc. - are expensive to build and maintain.

    What 4Action funded research says:

  • Voter Turnout and Civic Engagement

    Claims of voter fraud contrasted with concerns about voter suppression may both be contributing to eroding faith in America’s democracy.

    What 4Action funded research says:

    • There is a growing disconnect between voters and elected officials.
      • Although many youth still generally trust the American governmental system, young people simultaneously believe that elected officials don’t really care about their opinions and that there isn’t a good way to “make elected officials listen to them. (See E4A Grantee Page for more information).
      • Unfortunately, these beliefs prove to be true in some cases. Firearm regulations and early-childhood care and education are two issues where the politicians’ views remain relatively entrenched despite public support. (See Niederdeppe et al., 2021Siegel & Boine, 2020; and Winett et al., 2021). 
  • Reproductive Health

    Public debates about the very private issues of reproductive health, including abortion access, are highly charged in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Systemic efforts to deny access to reproductive healthcare have serious consequences that disproportionately harm low-income people and families of color. (See statement from RWJF President & CEO for more information).

    What 4Action funded research says:

    • Obtaining a legal nonrestrictive abortion does not result in negative health outcomes for the vast majority of people. However, restricting access to abortion causes mental and emotional distress, most significantly experienced prior to obtaining an abortion, especially when care is not easily accessible. Furthermore, research exploring the impacts of carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term, exposed serious consequences to women’s and children’s health and well-being (See The Turnaway Project from Greene Foster et al.).
    • Although not directly focused on abortion, studies demonstrate improved maternal and infant health outcomes when immigrants have access to reproductive health care (See Swartz et al, 2017) and other social services (See Koball & Hartig). Research also demonstrates that supportive prenatal substance use policies result in significantly better outcomes for pregnant people and infants compared to punitive policies (See Maclean et al., 2022; Meinhofer et al., 2022; and Tabatabaeepour et al., 2022). Such studies offer learnings that are applicable to this issue. Criminalizing abortion is likely to worsen physical, mental, and emotional health.
    • Person-centered contraceptive access supports and promotes reproductive autonomy, sexual well-being, menstrual regulation, and preventive health measures, but access varies by geography. On average, state contraceptive access expanded between 2006 and 2021, but by 2021 access to contraception was markedly more limited in states in the Midwest and the South than in the Northeast and the West. (See Rice et al., 2022).
    • Place matters: municipal budget allocations can have consequences for severe maternal morbidity (SMM). Municipalities that spend more on fire and ambulance services, transportation, public health, housing, and libraries tend to have lower rates of SMM, whereas those with higher police spending had higher rates of SMM. (See Muchomba et al., 2021).
    • Medicaid has a long history of serving pregnant women and is associated with positive health outcomes for mothers, but many women are not eligible for Medicaid before pregnancy or after sixty days postpartum.
      • More than one in four new mothers with Medicaid-covered prenatal care was uninsured before pregnancy, one in five became uninsured two to six months postpartum, and one in three was uninsured in either period. (See Johnston et al., 2021).
      • Women with low incomes who had access to health insurance through Medicaid expansion were more likely to take a daily folic acid supplement in the month before pregnancy, report having a preconception health conversation with a healthcare provider before pregnancy, and use effective contraception methods during the postpartum period. (See Myerson, Crawford, & Wherry, 2020).
      • About 1 in 5 uninsured new mothers reported at least one unmet need for medical care because of cost in the past year, and over half were very worried about paying their medical bills. Moreover, about one-third of new mothers who lost Medicaid and became uninsured were recovering from a cesarean section, and just over one-quarter reported being depressed sometimes, often, or always in the months after giving birth. (See McMorrow et al., 2020).
    • Access to paid family leave increases the length of time that mothers are able to breastfeed:
      • In California, paid family leave increased the overall duration of breastfeeding by nearly 18 days, and improved the likelihood of breastfeeding for at least six months.
      • Access to paid family leave has substantially larger effects on breastfeeding duration for some disadvantaged mothers. (See Pac et al., 2019).
    • Medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD) improve outcomes for pregnant women and infants but access to them is not equitable among mothers:
      • Pregnant women with opioid use disorder (OUD) in rural areas and who are aged 35 years or older are less likely to have received MOUD.
      • Families in which the mother’s primary language is English and paternity is recorded on the birth certificate are more likely to receive medications.
      • Regardless of high school degree attainment, non-Hispanic Black people were less likely than non-Hispanic white people to receive medications.
      • Hispanic women without a high school degree were less likely to receive medications. (See Henkhaus et al., 2021).
  • Crime and Policing

    Debates about how to address crime and policing range from a focus on police training and practices, to community-level interventions to disrupt interactions with the criminal-legal system.

    What 4Action funded research says:

    • In efforts to more adequately address mental health crises with the appropriate resources, cities across the country are experimenting with alternative first responder models. Characteristics of these approaches often include co-development with community members, differential triaging by dispatchers, partnerships between police and social workers, and independent crisis intervention teams, among others. (See E4A projects: Transforming Public Safety to Address Structural Racism and Reduce Health Inequities and Exploring Alternative Models of 911 Response to Behavioral/Mental Health Crises).
    • Housing first models, which connect individuals and families experiencing homelessness to permanent housing without preconditions and barriers to entry, can successfully interrupt cycling through the criminal justice system. This is because people who are unhoused often cycle in and out of jails due to the criminalization of activities like loitering. (See Hanson, Gillespie, & Oneto, 2022).
    • Remediation of abandoned lots has been the target of efforts in multiple municipalities to decrease crime and improve health. The theoretical basis of these efforts is that remediation changes the urban landscape in a way that promotes residents’ willingness and confidence to act in the service of their own security and improves neighborhood functioning which can enhance social engagement and well-being. (See Hohl et al., 2019).
    • How we measure impacts of these efforts matters.
    • Stronger connections between law enforcement and local health and social service organizations may help to build cultures and practices that promote health, safety and social justice. (See findings from the S4A Using Network Science to Explore Pathways for Reducing Policing-Attributable Health Problems And Inequities Evidence Brief project).
    • Coordinated supportive services can help break a negative feedback loop wherein people who have uncontrolled medical or behavioral health issues have increased contact with law enforcement, leading to arrests and incarceration, which adds additional stress and trauma and perpetuates their risk of future negative outcomes.
  • Immigration

    U.S. Immigration policy is ever evolving - rules regarding who is eligible and by what means have changed over time and continue to fluctuate. Overarching immigration laws are set by the federal government, but states have the ability to regulate more nuanced aspects of immigrants’ experiences, like access to some social supports and services.

    What 4Action funded research says:

    • Supportive immigrant policies can improve health and wellbeing for individuals, children, and families, whereas punitive policies lead to worse health outcomes and reduced access to care for immigrants.
      • For instance, social policies and programs like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), sanctuary policies, and issuance of drivers licenses all resulted in better health outcomes for immigrants (See Koball & Hartig, 2020). Whereas enforcement of punitive policies and programs, such as the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) 287(g) Program, resulted in worse health outcomes at birth and a large reduction in the utilization of adequate prenatal care (See Tome et al., 2021).
      • DACA, specifically, improved psychological health and wellbeing for eligible individuals; and children whose mothers were eligible for the program were more likely to participate in the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC). (See A. Venkataramani et al., 2017 and M. Venkataramani et al., 2018).
    • Expanding prenatal care coverage to immigrant women, regardless of documentation status, is a cost-effective strategy that improves maternal and child health - during pregnancy, immediately following birth and into early childhood, increasing well-child visits and vaccination rates among children during the first year of life. (See Rodriguez et al., 2019 and Daw & Summers, 2017).
    • The positive impacts of municipal sanctuary laws and policies are limited by preemption and other state and federal actions. These preemptive laws and policies are confusing for the communities impacted, have a chilling effect on health services use, and make life harder overall for Latine communities. Evidence shows they likely increase the climate of hostility and fear that adds to stress and reluctance to seek services. (See Hall, Mann-Jackson, & Rhodes, 2021 and Mann-Jackson et al., 2022).
  • Gun Violence

    In the wake of the first federal legislative action related to firearm regulation in nearly three decades, efforts to curb gun violence continue at the state and local levels, with heightened focus on enforcement as well as greater attention to providing resources for mental health services.

    What 4Action funded research says:

    Broader adoption and stricter enforcement of effective firearm regulations and increased investments in and availability of mental health resources are both necessary.

    Related to firearm regulations:

    • There isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” approach – different policies work better in different places.
      • While permit requirements are generally effective in lowering firearm homicide rates across the board, universal background checks and “may issue” laws seem to be most effective in large cities, while laws prohibiting gun possession by people convicted of a violent misdemeanor are more effective in suburban and rural areas. (See Siegel et al., 2019).
    • The nuances of policy provisions are important.
      • Providing law enforcement officials greater discretion when issuing firearm permits tends to be more effective at curbing gun violence. (See Siegel et al., 2017).
      • Including enforcement provisions to guarantee that people prohibited from possessing firearms do not have access to weapons is a critical component of effective firearm regulations. (See Diez et al., 2017).
    • Although laws banning assault weapons or large capacity ammunition magazines may seem like an appropriate response, especially in the context of mass shooting events, there is no significant relationship between these laws and homicide rates. The same is true for stand your ground laws, one gun per month laws, and prohibitions on gun trafficking. (See policy brief from Siegel & Boine).
    • The strongest single predictor of a state’s youth suicide rate is the prevalence of household gun ownership in that state. The availability of firearms is contributing to an increase in the number of suicides, not just leading youth to substitute other means of suicide for guns. (See Knopov et al., 2019).
    • The presence of state firearm-related laws varies across states, but with the exception of “punitive preemption” the number of gun-control, gun-rights, and preemptive measures remained consistent in most states from 2009 through 2018. As of 2018, a majority of states had preemptive measures on almost all gun-control policy topics without enacting substantive gun-control measures. (See Pomeranz, Silver, & Lieff, 2021).


    Related to mental health resources:

    • School-based mental health services may help prevent youth suicide attempts.
    • Students make better use of mental health resources when services are embedded in schools.

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