Hanauer leads organization in fight for good jobs and strong communities

La Follette School Alumni Profiles - November 10, 2011
   
Alumni Profiles from the Robert M. LaFollette School of Public Affairs, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Amy Hanauer didn’t like that the economic expansion in the 1990s had left families in Ohio behind.

“After what many economists characterized as the longest, strongest economic expansion in recorded history, I saw enormous evidence that many Ohio families were not benefiting,” says Hanauer, who completed a master’s degree in public affairs and policy analysis at La Follette in 1997. “What’s more, their stories were not being fully told. My experience in Wisconsin — from the skills I gained at La Follette, to the policy history I read in class, to the direct policy I experienced working for the legislature — all made me feel like I needed to speak out.”

Amy Hanauer with a rally in the background.   Above: Amy Hanauer, right, at a panel discussion with, from left, former Ohio governor Ted Strickland, Vice President Joe Biden and former U.S. secretary of commerce Gary Locke. Left: Hanauer is the founding executive director of Policy Matters Ohio.

Now executive director of Policy Matters Ohio, Hanauer and her husband, 1992 La Follette grad Mark Cassell, produced the first State of Working Ohio report for the Northeast Ohio Research Consortium. The 1999 quantitative assessment of wages and employment deepened understanding of how economic changes had affected Ohio’s workers. That report was the spark needed to establish Policy Matters Ohio, a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research institute based in Cleveland.

“The 1999 report found that working families weren’t sharing in the economic growth that had taken place over the previous two decades,” Hanauer says. “Unfortunately, that is still the case and has gotten worse — most of the gains in America and Ohio go to the very top of the income scale.”

Since Policy Matters Ohio started in January 2000, it has produced more than 250 reports, generated more than 3,000 media stories and is influencing the economic debate in Ohio. The organization does research and advocates for public policies that, as UW-Madison Professor Joel Rogers says, “‘close off the low road and help pave the high road,’” Hanauer notes.

“Policy Matters Ohio has had a hand in raising and indexing Ohio’s minimum wage, requiring utilities to invest in renewable energy, modernizing the unemployment compensation system to better reflect the needs of female and low-wage workers, improving regulation of payday lending, and promoting training that brings people out of poverty and into green jobs,” Hanauer says. “Each of these policies can help create shared prosperity and stronger communities.”

But Hanauer admits that many policies have gotten worse in Ohio. She thinks it’s important to advocate for equity and sustainability, even when policy makers don’t agree. “We are a voice for having adequate revenue to fund things Ohioans need. We raise concerns about privatization of schools, prisons, roads and other services. We pushed for policy that would price carbon emissions, which would have made our economy much more sustainable and less polluting. We don’t win all of these fights — not by a long shot — but I’m proud that we amplify the voice.”

In May 2011, Hanauer received a rating of True from PolitifactOhio for her statement that: “a record four out of every 10 school kids in Ohio now qualifies for subsidized lunch.” That same month, The Nation published an article Hanauer wrote about the state budget, Ohio’s collective bargaining fight, and the movement for good jobs and strong communities in Ohio.

The Nation magazine named Policy Matters Ohio the most valuable state or regional organization in the country in 2009. The Mandel Center for Nonprofit Organizations honored it as the most innovative Ohio nonprofit in 2010, plus Policy Matters received an award for excellence among northern Ohio nonprofits in 2011. Inside Business magazine named Hanauer a policy driver in 2004.

Hanauer graduated from Cornell University in 1989 and worked for a few years, ultimately doing policy analysis for Wisconsin state senator Gwendolynne Moore, who now represents Milwaukee in the U.S. House. Hanauer attended La Follette part time while working for Moore, then headed to Ohio with Cassell in 1998. They have two kids, Max and Katrina, age 13 and 10.

“My La Follette degree has been incredibly useful in understanding economic arguments, dealing with numbers and thinking about policy implications of decisions,” Hanauer says. “I did a lot of reading and writing before coming to and since leaving La Follette. I joke that I knew how to write in paragraphs before I enrolled, but not how to write in bullets — that’s something La Follette taught me. The school also exposed me to the policy literature on a whole range of issues.”

Hanauer sees those classroom policy issues play out in Ohio. “I’ve ended up thinking and writing about many issues we discussed at La Follette and how they relate to each other,” she says. “How do we create an economy that works for everyone? How does policy help enable people to join the middle class? What are the positive and negative externalities of certain behaviors and how can we better incorporate those into the economy? I didn’t talk about externalities before La Follette — and I still might not use that word in mixed company — but I think about the concept all the time.”

While she was working as a policy analyst for Moore and taking public affairs courses, Hanauer did not anticipate starting a research institute. “I’m better at running an organization than I would have thought,” she says. “It’s mostly about communicating clearly, admitting when I’m over my head, asking questions, hiring good people and giving people room to thrive. That all comes pretty easily to me.”

“From a pretty young age, I’ve known that I wanted a society with more opportunity, equity, inclusivity, environmental sustainability and strong public systems, and I’ve always thought that we should have good jobs and strong communities for everyone,” she says. “I also knew that writing would be part of how I tried to work on problems I cared about.”

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