Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Marks looks to structural changes to counter poverty

La Follette School photo taken July 9, 2009, by Andy Manis
Joanna Marks


After graduating in May 2010, Joanna Marks became a researcher at the Institute for Research on Poverty. She co-authored the second Wisconsin Poverty Report and an article in the spring 2011 La Follette Policy Report.

Joanna Marks still thinks about the families she met in Kentucky as a volunteer coordinator for a nonprofit agency that helped people navigate the court system.

"We were talking about welfare reform in professor Maria Cancian's Public Assistance Policy and Management class," Marks says, "and the effects of time limits on cash assistance the government gives people, and I remembered this family I knew that had a history of domestic violence. The mom wasn't working, and their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families was going to run out. She didn't know what she was going to do. Her story put a face on our classroom discussion about benefit reductions."

A few years later, when Marks enrolled at the La Follette School to pursue a Master of Public Affairs, she brought with her several years of experience in the nonprofit world.

"I chose to attend La Follette because of its outstanding coursework and faculty expertise in policy analysis and in social and poverty policy," she says. "Students work alongside professors to gain skills for collaborating with state agencies, legislators and other groups."

Her career was already moving her from the personal to the structural. In Louisville, Marks worked for a nonprofit organization, Court Appointed Special Advocates, to help individual families. She recruited, screened and trained volunteer advocates for abused and neglected children, assessed whether the children needed legal and social services, and wrote and edited case reports for the court.

From there Marks moved into a policy analysis position with Kentucky Youth Advocates. She analyzed state policies, conducted outreach, authored publications and responded to data requests from individuals, government agencies and private organizations.

"The job with KYA really triggered my interest in studying at La Follette, while teaching me that policy is intertwined with politics — policy is shaped by more than good research and analysis," Marks says. "My work with KYA has fit really well with my studies at La Follette. For instance, I've contributed to their annual Kentucky KIDS COUNT data book for several years. KIDS COUNT is an initiative of the Annie E. Casey Foundation to measure and influence the well-being of children nationwide. And I'm learning much more about the context behind KIDS COUNT and other efforts in Professor Moynihan's performance management course this semester."

Marks also participated in fund-raising activities for CASA and KYA, including grant writing, implementation of a donor database and publication of an annual report. Those experiences helped her when she moved to Madison, where she worked as grant development coordinator for the YMCA of Dane County, a position she kept during her first semester at La Follette.

Marks received a scholarship her first year at La Follette, that, for her, reflects the value of her professional work prior to enrolling. "The scholarship affirmed my decision to invest further in my career to gain tools and knowledge I need to help enact systemic change to help disadvantaged children and families."

To stay current with fund-raising practices and develop the next generation of non-profit leaders, Marks has been helping to establish the student chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals as its director of fund-raising. "Non-profit organizations always have to cultivate supporters," she says, "so I want to keep up my skills in that critical area. During the spring of 2009, we recruited applications from local non-profits for assistance with philanthropic projects. This year we will assist the Literacy Network and the Liberian Assistance Program with planning and execution of fund-raising events."

Starting her second semester, Marks had a project assistantship with the Wisconsin Tobacco Surveillance and Evaluation Program. There she focused on monitoring the tobacco use of Wisconsin youth, including their interest in quitting, types of products used, access to the products, and compliance with state and federal legislation. "Tobacco is a really interesting policy area because of the remarkable changes that have occurred in social norms in recent decades, and the accompanying gains in public health," Marks says.

In the summer she continued the PAship and "gained additional hands-on tools for policy work through coursework with the Department of Population Health Sciences' summer institute."

For her second year, Marks took a position at the Institute for Research on Poverty with La Follette professor Tim Smeeding and Julia Isaacs, a visiting scholar from the Brookings Institution. The project assistantship aligns with her career goal to focus on structural causes of and remedies for poverty. "At IRP we are looking at more comprehensive ways of measuring poverty, such as valuing near-cash benefits for nutrition and energy assistance, as well as considering the effects of work-related costs such as transportation and child care," Marks says. "Our measure will help policymakers develop a better understanding of how anti-poverty policies are affecting populations."