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Harris on his presidential appointment in D.C: 'Frustrating, but extremely rewarding'

In his 15 months at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, David Harris, professor of sociology and senior associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, dealt with homelessness, incarceration and re-entry, child welfare reform, and urban and childhood education policies.

It was "frustrating, but extremely rewarding and unforgettable," he said in a talk about the presidential appointment Sept. 9 in the ILR Conference Center.

Harris served as the deputy assistant secretary for human services policy in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation from April 2010 to July 2011.

The appointment, said Harris, held a personal significance. "Having grown up as one of the people who benefited from these programs, on a very personal level it was exciting that I could go to HHS and improve them for others," Harris said. "And I was asked by this administration to work on poverty policy; I never expected to see a black president in my lifetime, so to see him, the kind of social reforms he was talking about and the opportunity to bring together research, policy and administration was hard to walk away from."

Some of the initiatives Harris was involved in included implementation of the administration's evidence-based policies and the development of the Strong Cities, Strong Communities Initiative, a program focused on improving the match between local needs and federal resources.

Yet the issues of finding bipartisan solutions to the problems of incarceration and poverty monopolized much of Harris' time. "The challenge of trying to develop and improve policy at a time when almost nothing gets through Congress" was frustrating, he noted.

"There are boys born in extreme poverty who we worry about, and we have social programs that are going to help for a year or so, but they're rest stops, not off ramps," Harris said, "and soon they're back where they started. So in creating programs we'd think, do we know whether this program is an off ramp or a rest stop? My office was the lead on putting in place the first-ever strategic plan to end homelessness."

The Affordable Care Act of 2010, he said, will be "extremely helpful" in the war against poverty, "probably the most important anti-poverty program in the last 10 years or so. It has huge potential to eradicate poverty but only if it is implemented in the right way."

Harris' time in Washington was enhanced by his academic background and position at Cornell as a deputy provost.

"A lot of people in Washington don't take a lot of time consulting with academics, but we are incredibly valuable commodities; there is a lot of research in this field, and we are listened to, but it's hard to break in," Harris said. "As an academic, I was more likely to understand all the layers behind problems -- looking at poverty, for example, you have to look at jobs, housing, historical factors, all these different things. And being a deputy and interim provost at Cornell helped tremendously. Most people I'd met in Washington had never run a large organization, and so that leadership experience was extremely valuable for me."

Shashwat Samudra '14 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

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