Meet The Scholars: Laura Morales

Laura Morales is . She is a member of Health Policy Research Scholars Cohort 2022.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what your research interests are. 

I am broadly interested in public goods for underserved communities. I am very passionate about ending water poverty in the United States. The way I see water poverty is that there is both an affordability issue and an accessibility problem. In the U.S., our water systems directly reflect the development of our built environment where bias and fragmentation are built in. When I read the news, I usually read about some communities that lost access to water due to poor infrastructure or never had it to begin with and are struggling. These communities are statistically likely to be majority POC and considered low-income.

On the water utility side, as one of my advisors always states, “water utilities are not struggling because of engineering challenges but because of political ones.” Extending pipelines and affordability programs is not feasible when water utilities are extraordinarily underfunded and fragmented. In my research, I hope to understand further how regionalization of water utilities by natural boundaries can be a step towards ending water poverty in the United States. The benefits to water utilities could be financial stability, lower drinking water violations (cleaner water), environmental stewardship, and additional capacity for the organization. However, the challenge is giving up local control and collaboration.

What’s the story behind why you’re doing what you’re doing?  

There are two stories behind what I am doing: lived experience with water poverty and working in the United Kingdom for a large water utility provider. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to work in the U.K., and I found myself at one of the 25 private water utility providers. What I immediately noticed when I was being onboarded was being able to meet people in different departments. These were technicians that worked on the ground, customer service representatives, engineers, operators, and a variety of others who worked hard to provide consistent water service. What was different was the proactive management of a water network. That was my job. I found problems before they occurred, and if maintenance had to be done, someone from customer service would notify customers. In addition, the water utility provided dividends to customers and affordability programs. If customers disclose personal information about their health, such as if they are on dialysis, customer service would prioritize calls and send a truck with water during repairs.

It was fascinating that it is illegal to shut off someone’s water for nonpayment because they were a private water utility. In the U.S., water utility providers do not want to shut off service for nonpayment but do not have the financial capacity to carry the debt incurred. One of the reasons that water utilities in the UK could help with affordability and have service in somewhat remote areas (I think) is because of regionalization. For comparison, there are 25 water providers in the UK and 4500 in Texas alone. Half of those in Texas serve less than 500 people. What you will find if you look at a map, is that mobile home parks will often have their water system separate from the municipal water utility. Fragmentation is a significant problem, especially for underserved communities.

Tell us about a project you are currently working on that you are excited about.

Currently, I am a Madison Forward Fund Fellow. The Madison Forward Fund is an experiment to determine how a guaranteed base income (GBI) could address poverty and create more access and opportunity for residents and their families struggling economically. The Madison Forward Fund is modeled after the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED), which was the nation’s first municipal-level GBI program. Comparable to SEED, the Madison Forward Fund will evaluate how an income floor of $500 a month can improve the economic security of and well-being of City of Madison residents. The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty is partnering with the Center for Guaranteed Income Research at the University of Pennsylvania to gather valuable survey data throughout the program.

I could not be more grateful for this opportunity to work on something crosscutting in research and to be hands-on with participants. I work with the treatment and control groups; one group receives payment, and the other doesn’t. The control group is full of heroes who are compensated for the surveys but don’t receive $500.

For people unfamiliar with your research area, what is one piece of information you think is important for them to know?  

When you turn on your tap, expecting it to run with clean and good-quality water is a privilege. Some people in the United States do not have this as easy, which determines your future health.

Who is a researcher you admire and why? 

I have a three-way tie! I have co-advisors and a supervisor I enjoy working with on the Madison Forward Fund project. Ken Genskow is in my department (Urban and Regional Planning) and has taught me about applied research relating to collaborative governance. He knows so much about getting people in a room and working together. Manny Teodoro is the LaFollette School of Public Affairs and constantly teaches me about the water industry as well as the public policy/politics intersection. Finally, Hilary Shager is a superwoman in real life. She is the Assistant Director of the Institute for Research on Poverty and is someone who knows what it takes to get a project off the ground.

How do you think HPRS will complement your doctoral training?

Being a part of a program that believes in me being a leader and has a shared value of health. These are very important, and it would take a lot of work to sustain momentum in my doctoral program. Usually, doctoral students are concentrated on one particular thing, and having the opportunity to think about the larger picture is an amazing opportunity.

What part(s) of HPRS excite you the most?

The HPRS community of scholars is what excites me. It is a fantastic opportunity to have a community of people who care about changing the world for the better. When I first met my cohort, everyone in the room was working on something that could have a positive impact.

In the RWJF HPRS program we will work with you to help you think further about using your research to develop policy. If you could use your research to change any policy, what policy would it be?  

If my research inclinations are correct, a policy that fosters regionalization of water utilities would tremendously impact service delivery to customers and increase coverage to areas that did not previously have service.

Here’s a fun question to wrap things up. If you were stranded on a desert island, what three items would you want to have with you?

If I were stranded on an island, three items I would want to have on me would be small-scale water desalination, an emergency signaling device, and a tent with a mosquito net.

Read Laura’s bio.


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