Policy Analysis Paper

LENGTH: 10-12 pages
DUE DATE: In stages but the final paper is due Friday, December 4 at 11:59 p.m.

This paper is an analysis or evaluation of a program, policy, or problem of your choosing, using library research and primary sources, including ethnographic (CBL) observations, interviews, and quantitative data.  It tests your ability to make a policy argument and back it up with evidence.

To that end, this paper has four requirements:

  1. You must use required course readings, as appropriate
  2. You must use scholarly sources from outside the course, obtained through library research
  3. You must use primary material from each of the following categories:
    1. Statistical data from a Census web tool (such as Social Explorer or Policy Map) or site or report listed on the course website under RESEARCH — Other sources require instructor permission
    2. Field observations recorded in your posts or other posts on the course website
    3. At least one personal interview
  4. You must use “place” as one of your variables of analysis — In other words, don’t evaluate your policy from the vantage point of the nation writ large; talk about how it works in specific communities like Highland Park and the extent to which place impacts the outcomes.


Choose a policy problem, law, or policy that interests you and evaluate how well the problem is being addressed at the local level by federal policies and/or nonprofit efforts.

Below is a list possible policy problems:

  • Obesity
  • Illiteracy
  • Substance abuse
  • Affordable housing
  • Academic achievement
  • The dropout and/or truancy crisis
  • Out-of-wedlock births and/or teenage pregnancy
  • Joblessness, especially among men
  • Affordable child care
  • Disability
  • Childhood lead poisoning
  • High-quality teaching
  • Single parenthood, especially single motherhood
  • Drug dealing
  • Violent crime

In addition, here is a list of selected major federal and state policies, programs, or initiatives at work in low-income communities:

  • Welfare-to-work initiatives (under Temporary Assistance to Needy Families)
  • Job training (a number of small programs scattered across many federal and state offices, now often aggregated under the Workforce Investment Act)
  • Race to the Top
  • No Child Left Behind
  • Faith-Based Initiatives
  • Zero-tolerance approaches to crime
  • Early Childhood Education/The Virginia Preschool Initiative
  • The War on Drugs
  • The Affordable Care Act
  • Medicaid and the medical safety net
  • Community redevelopment
  • Hope VI federal housing programs
  • The Healthy Homes Initiative
  • The American Dream Act (to promote homeownership among low-income families)
  • Low-income food and nutrition programs (Food Stamps or SNAP, WIC, School Lunches and Breakfasts)

Some programs or policies address many problems (in the case of the No Child Left Behind Act — schools with low levels of student achievement, unqualified teachers, lack of data linking student performance to teachers) or serve different groups (in the case of Medicaid — the elderly, the disabled, children, parents in some states but not others, single adults in some states and not others).  So you might need to narrow your evaluation down to a specific group of people (such as single mothers of young children) or a particular problem (such as truancy).

Evidence for the Paper

To conduct this policy evaluation, you may use secondary sources, but you must also use three primary sources of evidence: (1) statistical data, (2) field observations, and (3) interviews.

To the extent appropriate, your analysis should be centered on Highland Park or places like Highland Park in the Richmond metro area, and the evidence you use to support your argument must make use of primary source material listed on the RESEARCH page or other sources of statistical policy data.

Your analysis should also make use of CBL observations, either your own or those of your classmates, which are posted on the course blog.  Space is an important variable in your analysis; therefore, make sure that your analysis is centered on the Richmond metro area in some way rather than talking about “the poor” or some other group or problem writ large.

Finally, you must also conduct at least one interview and incorporate the findings from the interview into your paper.  These interviews can be of a program client (an individual who receives services) or of a stakeholder (one who delivers, organizes, or promotes services).  Stakeholders include government or political officials, nonprofit or private providers, or community leaders.

You may have your own contacts given your CBL, but if you need a place to start, I have a list of people who are stakeholders who have worked with Build It, me, or UR students in the past, and the list includes their position or involvement and their contact information.  The list is accessible here on a password-protected page (https://urplsc366erkulwater.wordpress.com/assignments/policy-analysis-paper/contact-list/). See me if you have lost the password for the site.

Other Requirements

Cite your sources using footnotes or in-text parenthetical citation following the Chicago Manual of Style.  Refer to UR Boatwright Library’s on-line citation guide for guidance on how to format your citations.

If you are using visual aids like maps or tables, you can place those in-text or at the end of your paper.  Make sure that it is clear to the reader which map or table you are referring to when you discuss them in the text by, for instance, numbering them and giving them clear and appropriate titles.  If you refer to Highland Park on a map, don’t assume your reader will know where this is; make sure the neighborhood is actually marked.  Don’t assume your reader can interpret maps without legends either; make sure legends are clearly visible.  And finally make sure it is also clear where the visual aid came from (e.g., Social Explorer, City-Data, KidsCount, and so forth).

The paper should be 10-12 pages, typed and double-spaced with standard fonts and margins.  Page counts do not include any visual aids, such as tables or maps that you place in-text, your title page (if any), or your reference or works cited page.

Due Dates

We will work on the paper in stages, allowing me to track your progress and help as needed.

Preliminary Research Question: Prior to class on Thursday, October 15, please upload your preliminary research question for your Policy Analysis paper.  Include in this write-up, a description of what you already know about your question and what else you think you need to know.  You may want to bring a paper copy of this write-up, since Ms. Samantha Guss will begin the library workshop by asking you where you are at in terms of your thinking and research for the Policy Analysis paper.

The Policy Analysis Proposal: By Thursday, October 22, I would like for you to hand in a proposal for your policy analysis paper.  In this proposal include your research question, a short annotated bibliography on the literature you plan to use (including course readings), a statement of what literature you have left to locate, and a description of the data you plan to use to answer your question, including your likely interviewees.

Hint: I recommend you phrase your research question as a “how” or “why” question.  For example:

Why do low-income women have children out-of-wedlock and often before they have completed their secondary schooling?  Do sex education courses reduce teenage pregnancies?  Do the anti-teenage pregnancy provisions of welfare reform seem to be working (however I define that)?  How might policy more effectively address this problem?

How do “get tough” policies for drug offenses affect law-abiding residents, especially women and children, in communities targeted for these initiatives?  Do they make communities safer, and if not or at too high a social cost, how might policy more effectively address drug-related crimes?

In addition, when listing your sources in your annotated bibliography, include 10 scholarly sources that come from outside the course readings.  Along with the full citation, annotate your works with a short description of what the work argues, and classify your source according to the BEAM model.  Most of your sources should be A sources.

In preparing your proposal, note that you don’t necessarily have to follow through on your initial plan, but I would like you to at least have given some thought to how you might substantiate your arguments.  The more concrete and specific you can be, the more confidence I will have in your ability to pull off the Policy Analysis Paper and the more I will be able to provide you with guidance.

Draft of the Policy Analysis Paper: A draft of your paper is due Monday, November 16.  Let me underscore the important of the word DRAFT.  I do do not expect you to have completed, or even to be near completion of the paper at this point.  My goal is to clear the decks of additional reading so that we can focus making these policy analysis papers as strong as possible.  We will hold panel presentations for the next three class periods, and I will read and comment on the drafts.  During this period, you will have time to sharpen your analysis and receive feedback from both your peers and myself.

The Final Copy of the Policy Analysis PaperThe final paper is due Friday, December 6.  When you hand in your paper, place your URID rather than our name on the paper, and upload the paper to Blackboard.

Helpful Hints

A policy paper like this is somewhat different from a typical academic paper, and it is worth noting those differences upfront.  The first difference is that of purpose and audience.  A traditional academic paper is written for an audience of scholars whose primary interest is in improving the theories we use to explain social, political, or economic phenomena.  A policy paper, on the other hand, is written for an audience of practitioners – policymakers, government and nonprofit officials, and citizens – who are concerned, above all, with changing society for the better, however they define that.  It is, first and foremost, a work of advocacy and persuasion about real world action, and its tone should reflect this purpose – In other words, write as an engaged reformer, not a detached scientist.

Second, every policy paper must define the policy goal for the reader.  We say we value things like equity, liberty, effectiveness, and security.  But what do these things mean?  Different people define them differently.  So policy papers must first clarify for their readers what goal the reformer wants to accomplish – that all children enter kindergarten ready to learn, that all students receive a high-quality education, that all communities are safe and healthy places to live, and so on.  In a policy paper like this one, before the reader can be convinced about the reforms you will suggest or the direction you wish to take, you must tell the reader what your endpoint is and convince her that it is a worthy one.

Third, policy papers frame the problem for the reader.  Say our goal is ending poverty.  There are lots of roads to this endpoint and which one we are willing to take depends on what we think is the cause of the problem, who is to blame.  If I believe that poverty is caused by young women who fail to get married before they have children, then the reform I am likely to endorse will be different than if I believe poverty is caused by people not work, jobs paying workers too little, or too few jobs available to the people who need them.  Therefore, after convincing your reader of your goals, you need to frame the problem for the reader by describing the scope and nature of the problem and explaining what causes it, what is the root cause that we reformers need to target if we are to make a dent in this problem.  You are essentially building a causal chain of events for your reader so that she walks down the road toward your favored reform and you convince her why alternative roads are not viable.

Fourth, once you have defined your goals and framed your problem (thus “buttered up” the audience), only then can you lay out for your reader your favored reform.  In this particular paper, you need not get overly detailed.  But it is appropriate, once you have convinced the reader that the current state of affairs is untenable, to end on a hopeful note by showing the reader that there is a way out.

So – goals, problems, solutions.  I call this the “narrative arc” of policy papers.  Follow it, and you will find that it helps you organize your thinking and writing.

The “Literature Review”

Because academics are interested primarily in theory building, the academic paper always begins with a literature review, in which we survey the different schools of thought out there that explain our topic and we set out to debunk or build upon one or another of these schools.  On the other hand, because practitioners don’t care about building theory, but only want to know “what works,” policy papers don’t have extensive literature reviews.  Instead, they start with defining their goals, then they frame the problem, and then they finally lay out a solution.

To the extent that policy analysts engage with fellow scholars (that is, to the extent their writings fall into the A part of the BEAM typology), it is because they engage in vigorous conversations about what goals policy should serve and how the policy problem should be framed.  I imagine that much of your A sources in your annotated bibliography will be used in defining your goals and framing your problem.

Policy analysts also often argue about the proper method (an M source) for gathering and analyzing evidence (e.g., should we look at spreadsheets of data, or live among the people we study and record observations?).  In this paper, I am asking you to engage in what is known as mixed-method analysis: part qualitative, part quantitative, so no need for now to engage in methodological debates in your paper.


Please refer to the handout “How to Write an ‘A’ Paper” and the assessment rubric for a discussion of my expectations when evaluating your papers.

Header Image: The rooftops of Church Hill