Hutchinson Community Foundation hosts MIT MBA students to identify causes of, solutions to economic disparity

Hutchinson Community Foundation hosts MIT MBA students to identify causes of, solutions to economic disparity

A team of MBA students from MIT’s Sloan School of Management—one of the world’s top-ranked business schools—worked with the Hutchinson Community Foundation on a research project exploring economic disparities between two distinct areas of Hutchinson and Reno County where life expectancy rates differ by 13 years.

Of particular focus was the cliff effect, which occurs when working families lose public support benefits faster than they can earn income to replace the lost resources.  Once ineligible for subsidized food, housing, healthcare, or childcare, people attempting to escape poverty—often by working low-wage jobs—end up worse off than before. The MIT Sloan students were tasked with identifying policy, systems and changes in environment with the potential of reducing or eliminating the cliff effect in Hutchinson.

The students are enrolled in USA Lab, an Action Learning course at MIT Sloan whose goal is to deepen graduate students’ understanding of America’s diverse economic, cultural, and social issues through collaboration and working on-site with community host organizations in rural and small-town settings to uncover solutions together. Due to the pandemic, this is the first year that the course was held virtually. The MBA students are Alex Adamczyk ‘21, Ilona Balagula ’21, and Jack Bowers ‘22.

The Hutchinson Community Foundation’s mission is to inspire philanthropy, collaboration and innovative leadership to strengthen Reno County so all people can thrive. “There are many divides present in our communities that we could have explored with the USA Lab team, but the cliff effect stood out in local conversations as a challenge we needed to research more deeply in order to explore solutions,” said Kari Mailloux, director of strategic initiatives at Hutchinson Community Foundation. “Ilona, Alex, and Jack approached our community and our partners with such genuine curiosity and interest. We feel their findings and recommendations meet us where we are, and push us in directions we have not yet been.”

The MBAs’ recommendations centered on three solution work streams: nonprofit stopgap measures, public policy recommendations, and private industry outreach.

The USA Lab team emphasized including more education about the cliff effect in nonprofit program curriculum for people working towards financial stability; strengthening connections between government and local programs; advancing a Good Jobs Strategy—an MIT initiative to help business leaders who want to improve jobs and lives of employees in a way that improves performance and competitiveness of their organizations—with the Chamber of Commerce and local businesses; and further building out the support system for individuals working to maintain financial stability, which is when the cliff effect hits the hardest.

“Our nonprofit partners see great potential in using these recommendations to strengthen our local support system across the continuum, as well as engage local businesses as part of the solution,” said Mailloux. “We’re now getting to work developing more relationships and connecting existing efforts to make progress.”

Alex Adamczyk, one of the student team members, said, “Working with the Hutchinson Community Foundation was an incredible opportunity to offer solutions to help end generational poverty in the community by helping people overcome the cliff effect. Through wide-ranging discussions with individuals with lived experience with the cliff effect, local nonprofits, the State government, the Chamber of Commerce, and local business leaders our team was able to incorporate many diverse voices into developing strategies to address it. We were able to build on the work from MIT’s Good Jobs Institute and other research across MIT to help nonprofits and businesses develop new ways of working together to create economic opportunity. We are incredibly happy to see the Foundation continuing to build on and implement our recommendations in the community.”

Launched in 2018, the creation of USA Lab, whose formal name is USA Lab: Bridging the American Divides, was motivated by concern about America’s deep divides—economic, cultural, social and geographic—and a determination to better understand the diversity of America’s communities. Students conduct fieldwork with organizations in rural regions and small cities across the US, working with community partners who are dynamic and effective local leaders. Both in class and through fieldwork, student teams work on well-defined projects that contribute to strengthening the social and economic fabric of the host communities. The host organizations are innovative local nonprofit and government organizations.

The course was developed through a collaboration involving MIT Sloan’s Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative and Action Learning program; and the MIT Mens et Manus America Initiative.

“USA Lab is designed to benefit both MIT students and the community organizations that host them,” says Barbara Dyer, Senior Lecturer at MIT Sloan and Executive Director of the School’s Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative. Host organizations gain fresh insights on pressing issues facing their communities, and students hone critical skills such as impact investing, market analysis, strategy development, and empathetic listening, all of which make them better business leaders.”

This year’s other USA Lab projects are taking place in Florida, Iowa, Maine, and Minnesota. USA Lab was among ten higher education courses nationwide honored with the Aspen Institute’s 2019 Ideas Worth Teaching Award.