Tag Archives: LBJ School of Public Affairs

A Summer of Evaluation

Right now, I am sitting in a community in the Northern region in Ghana, an extremely rural one I might add. You can tell that it is rural when the electricity poles stop springing up as you drive further along the dirt road by motorbike. There are more cows on the road than people, and the further along the road you go, the less road there is. The nearest town is 40 kilometers away and the last time I went through it, most of the area was out of water, electricity but not short on hospitality and shouts of “salaminga” or white person.

In Wale Wale, where my guesthouse is located, I have made friends with a lady who cooks rice and at night, we climb on top of her stand, have some “chop” (food) and enjoy good conversation under a brilliant starry sky. I’ve noticed that no matter where you go in the world, women can always relate when you talk about work, food and of course, men.

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I am in Ghana working with Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) to implement and monitor the Graduation from Ultra Poor (GUP) project. By the time my internship ends, the GUP team and myself will have surveyed over 4,000 respondents in 241 communities. The GUP project is a randomized control trial (RCT) which aims to lift people from an ultra-poverty status (those below the $1 a day threshold) within 24 months through asset transfers, savings and labor supply. My work consists of a combination of data cleaning and analysis while traveling to rural communities to monitor and implement surveys.

Asset transfers primarily consist of transferring some type of asset like maize production tools or livestock, etc. It seems to me people here always prefer 10 chickens to 4 pigs. However 4 goats always trump all options. The savings intervention of the project evaluates different incentives to save to test what works best. Some families receive 50% matching saving schemes, whereas others get mobile credit or other saving incentives. The labor supply or ‘Bags’ experiments are geared towards understanding the labor elasticity of the Ultra Poor. Here, GUP provides a series of easy and hard to make bags to women, and buys the bags from the women at different prices. We monitor production levels and type of bags made in response to different prices and socioeconomic factors like nutrition and current income.

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But counting cows and leading surveys is not all I have done this summer. Traveling to communities leaves a lot of downtime in the afternoon. When I arrived, I began my trip by traveling to my NGO, Exponential Education. Exponential Education is currently run by an operational director and based in Kumasi, and is expanding quickly. After years of writing letters and holding online fund raisers, I decided that I needed to have a sustainable source of funding for our program. Over the past month, I evaluated numerous alternative models and realized that launching a for-profit business venture would be the best way to go.

Using my down-time wisely, my colleague Bilal Bawany and I are planning to launch an SAT tutoring and higher education advising service that will feed profits into the non-profit organization. The business will launch in mid-September, and will hopefully expand with corresponding Exponential Education programs. With the expansion of Exponential Education, we also decided to implement proper monitoring and evaluation techniques to the non-profit. Using all the skills I have learnt from IPA, I am now designing surveys using Blaise, building our monitoring and data reporting system via Stata and will implement surveys and randomize classes by mid-September. More to come soon!

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New Federal SNAP-Ed Model: Easier Said Than Done

In my first blog post, I mentioned that I am working on the USDA SNAP nutrition education program known as SNAP-Ed. I also mentioned that recent federal legislation significantly expanded the scope of the SNAP-Ed program mission and activities. I’m going to tell you a little more about those changes and the challenges associated with making sure they happen on the ground.

Traditionally, states have used their federal SNAP-Ed funds to provide low-income children and families with lessons on how to shop for, prepare, and eat healthier meals.  The new federal regulations expand the list of “allowable uses” of SNAP-Ed funds to include policy and environmental level changes that create healthier schools, workplaces, and communities for low-income Americans. States can still use the funding for nutrition education lessons, but are encouraged to take a more holistic approach and affect change at all levels of the Social Ecological Model. So what does that really mean?

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Well, it could mean a range of different things and really opens the doors for innovation by state agencies and their community-based partners.  It might mean working with public or private groups to establish a new farmers market or mobile fruit and vegetable stand in a neighborhood without a grocery store. It could mean consulting with convenience and corner store owners to increase the number of healthy options that they stock. It may mean collaborating with other organizations to establish a farm-to-school program that increases the amount of fresh, local produce served to children in public schools.  To determine the best use of funds, states agencies must assess the health needs or gaps that exist in an individual state or community.

That all sounds great, right? Well it is, except that it’s easier said than done. Many state governments and agencies have experienced cuts in their budgets and reduction in staff. This may hinder their ability to recruit and collaborate with new community-based organizations in their state. It may limit the amount of assessment a state agency can do to determine what the needs of their low-income populations truly are.  States agency staff may not be aware of the various non-profits and local entities that have the resources to implement policy and environmental level interventions.

Our job at the federal level is to provide adequate guidance and resources to improve the ability of states to successfully implement the new regulations. The federal SNAP-Ed team here at FNS has published tool kits, provided professional development tools, and released policy memos and guidance which clarify and exemplify possible new uses of the SNAP-Ed funding. This information is passed down through a network of regional and state-level administrators, who then pass information down to community-based organizations which receive grant money to implement programs.  As you can see, this is a long chain of communication and it’s likely that it will take some time for the true intent of the regulatory changes to be realized in every community where SNAP-Ed operates.

In my view, this is an illustration of the challenge of working within a federalist structure of government. Federal changes must be communicated to states that then must interpret those changes and implement in the way that makes sense for their population. Although this requires a great deal of time, effort, and error along the way, it makes sense. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for changing the health behaviors of Americans. The nutrition interventions needed in rural Arkansas are vastly different than those needed in downtown Los Angeles. It’s up to each state and locality to determine what’s best for them…within federal guidelines of course.

Office Culture and Cube Life

 

USDA Intern Welcome  Panel featuring LBJ School alum, Johnie Jones

USDA Intern Welcome
Panel featuring LBJ School Alum Johnie Jones

 For this entry, I originally planned to write a riveting post about the SNAP-Ed interim rule comment analysis that I’m working on, but decided to shift gears and share a bit about the day-to-day culture here at the USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) office.  Over the last few days, I have been reflecting on the impressive level of professionalism and congeniality that exists in the particular FNS branch in which I’m working.   I’ve also been struck by the number of culture building activities and events hosted by FNS aimed to increase awareness, respect, and quality of life among employees.

Let me start specifically with my branch, the SNAP State Administration Branch, which is currently made up of 6 employees, led by one Branch Chief.  This team has truly welcomed me with open arms and made an extra effort to include me in as many staff meetings, events, and outings as possible.  They happily answered the litany of questions that I had in the first weeks of my internship and continue to support me in understanding the various projects that we’re working on this summer.  It’s not always easy being the new person, especially the new intern, but this group has really gone out of their way to make me feel like part of the team.  After just a month, I am really feeling at home in my little cubicle.

There is a feeling of urgency that pervades our branch, but stress levels don’t (regularly) appear too high. I attribute this to the flexibility of work hours and location enjoyed by staff. Many of my coworkers are able to “telework” one day per week, meaning they work from home with their office laptop and phone connected.  Also, staff are required to work forty hours per week, but don’t have to work the regular 8am to 5pm hours.  For example, one colleague is in the office daily from 6:30am to 3:30pm, teleworks on Tuesday, and has every other Friday off. 

Employee quality of life at FNS also seems to be improved by the significant amount of culture building that occurs on formal and informal levels.  In my first month on the job, I have attended or been invited to attend formal sessions on stress management, LBGT awareness, civil rights issues, and setting health and fitness goals.  The sessions I’ve been present at have been well attended and staff seemed genuinely engaged in the issues being discussed.

Staff have also organized informal gatherings outside of work including attending a Nationals game, a weekend BBQ, and various happy hours.  Many coworkers take time in the beginning or end of the day to catch up with each other on what’s happening in each others’ lives. Most seem to authentically enjoy their work and colleagues and I know that from prior experiences (and from chatting with friends in other internships), that this is not the case in all offices. That being said, I feel truly fortunate to have landed in this particular cubicle, in this particular office, even if just for a summer.

Settling in at USDA

Hi all! I’m officially two weeks into my internship at the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), an agency within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).  My office is located just outside of D.C. in Alexandria, VA, and I’ve finally started to figure out my way around town and the massive building that I work in. So what exactly will I be doing at USDA this summer? My work at FNS will be primarily focused on the federal nutrition education program called SNAP-Education (SNAP-Ed).

Did you catch all of those acronyms?  I’ll try to not to bore you with too much bureaucratic lingo, but I want to give you a sense of exactly what I’ll be focused on this summer.  SNAP (formerly known as the food stamp program) serves over 47 million low-income Americans in the form of electronic benefits that can be redeemed for food at most grocery outlets. While there are few restrictions on the types of food items that can be purchased with SNAP benefits, the federal government is focused on improving the nutrition of SNAP recipients.  To do so, Congress appropriates funds ($285 million in FY 2013) to SNAP-Ed, which USDA distributes to states according to the funding allocation prescribed by statute. Each state, in turn, implements its own unique version of the SNAP-Ed program.

While states do have flexibility in how they run their program, as with any federal grant program, there are many guidelines, regulations, and reporting requirements that state agencies must adhere to.  In fact, many of the rules and regulations were recently altered significantly by federal legislation, meaning that there is a lot of education that must occur between the national office, regional offices, and state agencies. That’s where my work comes in this summer!

To start, I will be combing through the annual SNAP-Ed plans and reports submitted by each state to better understand what is happening on the ground across the country.  Each state agency contracts with a number of sub-grantees, creating a network of organizations that implement the SNAP-Ed program in slightly different ways. For example, most of the federal money that Texas receives goes to regional food banks and Texas AgriLife Extension sites, which provide nutrition education classes to low-income individuals in their communities. In California, on the other hand, the majority of the funds are spent by the state Department of Public Health and local public health departments with a focus on nutrition-related social media campaigns as well as nutrition education classes.

However a state chooses to deliver the SNAP-Ed program, they have to submit an annual plan. All of those plans must be collected, approved, and archived by the federal office.  They currently exist as a pile of CDs on my desk, and call me a wonk, but I am thoroughly excited to explore them!

 

Starting Off Right

I started my internship with a bang a few weeks ago, arriving at 8:30 on my first day to accompany the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition’s (TCJC) executive director and a group of staff to June 5th Sunset Advisory Commission Hearing on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Inside the Sunset Advisory Commission Hearing on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice

As far as first days of work go, it was a pretty great one. Walking through the halls of the Capital always gives me sense of endless possibility and fills me with excitement about where I can take everything I’ve learned at LBJ and what I can do in the future to make real, positive change.

In the hearing, I had the opportunity to learn about the current state of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and get a sneak peek into the sort of  initiatives we can expect to see in the upcoming Legislative Session. It was especially interesting to listen to discussions of current inefficiencies in the system, and the policies that foster them. For example, did you know that the ten sickest inmates cost the State approximately $1 million dollars each year, but because of restrictions on eligibility for the Medically Recommended Intensive Supervision (MRIS) Program, they remain in TDCJ custody? These individuals are too sick to be a threat to society and could easily be released into treatment facilities or nursing homes where Medicaid & Medicare would cover their expenses. Instead, because of what Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston) described as “tough politics” they remain in TDCJ custody, costing the state money that could be spent elsewhere.

It is these sorts of inefficiencies, that could be solved through making tough political choices and improving policy, that the Sunset Advisory Commission highlighted for legislatures in the June 5th hearing. As I learn more and more about criminal justice in Texas, and become more and more invested in finding ways to improve the condition of system involved individuals, I will be interested to see how the next Legislative Session unfolds!

Since that first introduction to the current state of Texas criminal justice, I’ve been back in the TCJC offices working on a number of projects related to the employment issues facing former offenders in Texas…in fact, I almost have my first product ready to be sent off for publication…but more on that later! All in all, I definitely have no complaints about the first few weeks of my summer internship experience!

 

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Summer Internship at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC)

Howdy, y’all! Greetings from Austin, TX!  After finishing up my first year at LBJ, I’m excited to get start my summer internship at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC).

This summer, I’ll be working primarily on issues related to employment post-reentry. For many formerly incarcerated individuals, obtaining employment after release is a critical step towards successfully re-integrating into their community and becoming responsible, law-abiding citizens. Unfortunately, finding a job after you’ve spent time in the Criminal Justice System is often not an easy task. My job this summer is to figure out what policy makers may be able to do to help non-violent offenders find jobs and obtain economic stability. I’m excited to work on this topic, as it perfectly melds my dual interests in social and economic policies and provides me with a chance to explore how various factors influence an individual’s long-term economic success.

My work will involve data base construction, survey research, policy brief writing, and much more. I won’t start work until June 5th but I’ve met with my internship supervisor and am looking forward to my first day. As fate would have it, June 5th is also the scheduled Sunset Advisory Commission hearing for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. So my first day of work I’ll be arriving early to head over to the Capital with TCJC’s Executive Director to observe the hearings and take notes for later use!

Can’t wait to have that experience and start getting to work on my projects at TCJC!