The Election Issues That (Ought to) Matter

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“We’re in the middle of an incredibly contentious and consequential presidential election process,” says John L. Jackson, the Richard Perry University Professor of Communication, Anthropology, and Africana Studies and dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice (SP2). “And no one should be going into it without a rich sense of our most pressing contemporary social issues, and of the data that best contextualizes those issues.”

SP2 is one Penn institution currently tackling the fast-approaching 2016 presidential election. Another is the Institute for Urban Research (IUR). Calling on Penn’s vast network of expertise, both have created platforms to express what they think should be at the forefront of national debate.

Penn Top Ten (, SP2’s contribution, addresses 10 major issues through a variety of media. Anchored by 10 academic essays that will be published in book form, it also features complementary animated videos, a “dynamic workbook with policy recommendations,” and interviews with the contributors, who are SP2 faculty members. “The social justice and policy issues examined in the SP2 Penn Top 10 affect so many out there, which is why it’s important to cast a wide net as we try to inform critical conversations and decisions,” says project director Jessica Bautista. “This is also one of the reasons we’ve made this a multimodal initiative.”

The issues it takes on include homelessness, gun policy, food “deserts,” youth aging out of foster care, mass incarceration, mandated mental health treatment, and child poverty. The project will also offer voter resources to help direct and further inform discussions as the election nears.

Penn IUR chose the coming election as a focal point for this year’s round of its Expert Voices series, conducted annually to investigate urban policy. Eleven faculty fellows and scholars were asked: “What major urban policy issues should the candidates address?” The ensuing discussions were published online (

The commentators identified common challenges that local governments face, and proposed how national politics might play a role in solving them. The topics range from from improving inadequate transportation infrastructure (by Penn engineering professor Daniel Lee) to reforming zoning codes and property-tax systems (by Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class).

The goal is to bridge the gap between researchers and practitioners of urban policy, says IUR co-director Eugenie Birch, the Lawrence C. Nussdorf Professor of Urban Education and Research. Urban areas, infrastructure, and institutions should be at the forefront of an election that is heavily influenced by concerns about the American economy, she adds, given that over 80 percent of the US population is urban, and roughly three-quarters of the US GDP is generated in urban settings. “It really is time to take these urban environments more seriously,” she says.

—Sara Schuster C’17
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