Jens Ludwig elected to prestigious Institute of Medicine for research on social determinants of health

Jens Ludwig, one of the nation’s leading researchers applying scientific tools to the study of social issues such as crime, poverty and health, has been elected to the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine.

Ludwig, the McCormick Foundation Professor of Social Service Administration, Law and Public Policy, and director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, is one of 70 new members and 10 foreign associates elected to the prestigious organization. He is the 14th member of the UChicago faculty to be elected to the group since 1978.

The Institute of Medicine is both an honorific membership organization and a policy research organization. Membership in the Institute is considered "one of the highest honors in the fields of health and medicine and recognizes individuals who have demonstrated outstanding professional achievements and commitment to service," according to the IOM. The Institute's members serve without compensation in the conduct of studies and other activities on matters of significance to health.

Current active members elect new members from among candidates nominated for their accomplishments and contributions to the advancement of the medical sciences, health care and public health. Established in 1970 as a component of the National Academy of Sciences, the IOM has become recognized as a national resource for independent, scientifically informed analysis and recommendations on health issues.

“It is a great honor to be selected to join the IOM,” said Ludwig. “Researchers and policymakers are increasingly aware that some of the most important determinants of health have nothing to do with what happens in the medical system, and are instead related to the social environment. It is a privilege to be able to work with the IOM to learn more about social determinants of health outcomes for some of our nation’s most economically disadvantaged people.”

“The Institute of Medicine is greatly enriched by the addition of our newly elected colleagues, each of whom has significantly advanced health and medicine,” said IOM President Harvey V. Fineberg. “Through their research, teaching, clinical work and other contributions, these distinguished individuals have inspired and served as role models to others.”

Ludwig’s research on the social determinants of health has focused largely on three areas: the prevention of violent crime, the effects of urban poverty on health and well-being, and the ways in which public policy affects health outcomes.

With his colleagues at the University of Chicago Crime Lab and its sister organization, the Urban Education Lab within the Urban Education Institute, Ludwig partners with government agencies to carry out randomized clinical trials to learn more about the most cost-effective ways to prevent violence and closely related social problems, such as high-school dropout. The Crime Lab recently released the results of one large-scale randomized trial that was carried out in partnership with the Chicago Public Schools and two local non-profits (Youth Guidance and World Sport Chicago). The study randomly assigned 2,740 disadvantaged young males in grades 7-10 from distressed South and West Side neighborhoods in a counseling and mentoring program called Becoming a Man – Sports Edition.

Ludwig and colleagues found that even a modest investment in strengthening “non-academic” skills such as impulse control, future orientation and social-information processing – at a cost of about $1,100 per participant – was capable of increasing high school graduation rates by 7 to 22 percent, and reducing violent-crime arrests by fully 44 percent. The Crime Lab is now partnering with the MacArthur Foundation to carry out an even more ambitious experiment starting in the fall of 2013.

A second strand of Ludwig’s research focuses on the effects of urban poverty on the health and well-being of low-income families. Violence, adverse health outcomes and many other social problems are geographically clustered and disproportionately concentrated in the most distressed urban neighborhoods. This pattern has raised questions about whether something about neighborhood environments themselves might causally affect people’s life outcomes, although this hypothesis has been difficult to test with available data.

Since 1995 Ludwig has been involved in the study of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Moving to Opportunity (MTO) residential-mobility experiment, which randomly offered some public housing families the opportunity to use housing vouchers to move into less-distressed neighborhoods. Ludwig served as the project director for the long-term (10-15 year) MTO follow-up, for which he had lead responsibility for raising $16 million from HUD, NIH, NSF, CDC, the US Department of Education and numerous private foundations to carry out in-person data collection from families – including the collection of “biomarkers” to measure detailed health outcomes. In a series of recent papers, including publications in the New England Journal of Medicine and Science, Ludwig and his collaborators showed that while moving from a high-poverty into a lower-poverty neighborhood had few detectable effects on adult economic outcomes or children’s schooling outcomes, such moves generated very large declines in rates of extreme obesity, diabetes, and clinical depression.

A third strand of his research focuses on the effects of education and other public policy interventions on health outcomes. He has, for example, written about the sensitivity of health outcomes to policy intervention during early childhood as part of his work on Head Start. He has also carried out research on gun violence, including efforts to measure the social impacts of gun violence on American society (Gun Violence: The Real Costs, with Philip Cook, Oxford University Press, 2000); a study with Cook on the effects of the Brady Act on gun violence, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association; and a study of the “industrial organization” of underground gun markets in Chicago and the implications for violence prevention, carried out in partnership with Cook, Anthony Braga, and Sudhir Venkatesh.

Ludwig, 43, was born in Germany and grew up in Massachusetts and New Jersey. He received his PhD from Duke University. From 1994-2007 he was on the faculty of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., before coming to the University of Chicago.

Ludwig has received many honors including the David Kershaw Prize from the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management, for contributions to public policy by age 40, an Investigator Award in Health Policy from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a visiting scholar award from the Russell Sage Foundation. He is also an elected fellow of the Academy of Experimental Criminology, non-resident senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, and co-director of the National Bureau of Economic Research working group on the economics of crime.

Ludwig is married to Elizabeth Scott. They have one child and are expecting another, and live with their dog, Trixi, in Hyde Park.