Faculty Spotlight

From Econ 101 to Better Policies for Low-Income Children

Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach studies early education, social safety net


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Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach speaks at the Hamilton Project's "Addressing America's Poverty Crisis" panel in 2014.

Econ 101 at Wellesley was where Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach set on her career path. The professor teaching the course, Karl “Chip” Case, “talked about how you can use math and microeconomics to help poor people,” she recalled.

Majoring in economics seemed like a natural fit for this native of Florissant, Mo., who grew up less than two miles from where the Ferguson protests took place in August. During her education in schools attended by Florissant and Ferguson students from both sides of the socioeconomic spectrum, she honed her talent for math and nurtured her passion for helping the less privileged.

“I’ve been fortunate in my career to be able to look at important questions, and use that math to try to make policies better for poor kids,” Schanzenbach said, and “that my skills and interests were able to align.”

Food stamps

Some of Schanzenbach’s most influential work to date has investigated the role of food stamps, a federal program first started in 1964 and now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

“We found that there was this long era across which they were introducing the food stamp program. Nobody had used that to look at its impact before,” she said.

In a series of articles, she evaluated food stamps’ influence on a variety of factors. The first articles in the series looked at food stamp recipients’ participation in the labor force and how they used their food vouchers; the later papers, at the program’s impact on children’s long-run health and educational outcomes.

Schanzenbach and her colleagues found that children exposed to food stamps early in life grew up to be healthier, better-educated adults who were also less likely to rely on the safety net later on.

Her research detailing the significant effects of such programs emboldened her to pitch her findings directly to a complete stranger at a dinner, New York Times contributor Paul Krugman. His column appeared in September 2013, at the height of discussion over cutting SNAP’s funding.  “I’m not an advocate for SNAP—I’m a scholar,” Schanzenbach pointed out. “But, obviously, based on my work I think the program has been highly effective.”

Early education

Another line of Schanzenbach’s research evaluates the impacts of high-quality, early education on children—work that was built off her dissertation on small K–3 classes, and which also led to her think about preschool expansion.

In research published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics—and featured on the front page of the New York Times—Schanzenbach and her colleagues, including Harvard’s Raj Chetty and the University of California, Berkeley’s Emmanuel Saez, looked at adult outcomes for children who had participated in Project STAR, a 1980s randomized class-size experiment in Tennessee. The children assigned to smaller classes and better teachers were more likely to go on to college and earn more money as adults.

Prior to this research, economists tended to underestimate the benefits of early childhood education—mainly because its impact on test scores tended to “fade out” by junior high and high school. Called “explosive” by the Times, the findings by these leading economists provide evidence that a good teacher might transmit noncognitive skills like patience and determination that might not be picked up by test scores.

Schanzenbach has also studied potential implications of expanding high-quality, public preschool programs—such as those touted in President Obama’s “Preschool for All” initiative—with her findings showing that expanding preschool will result in increased enrollment, though some of this will be due to children from higher-SES families switching to a public preschool from a private one. 

Next steps

For her next project, Schanzenbach will examine how changes in school finances since 1990 affect children in poorer school districts. The research, with funding from the Spencer Foundation, is in its very early stages.

Up until 1990, court-mandated school district reforms encouraged equity between rich and poor school districts by increasing spending in poorer districts. But, “Over time, [school districts] switched from thinking about equity to adequacy,” when allocating money, Schanzenbach explained.

“You can imagine that that’s an interesting thing to take to actual policy,” she said, because those arguing for less spending might be reluctant to allocate money to the poorer schools. 

In reflecting on how her education and policy research backgrounds have come together, Schanzenbach distills that the “guiding principle of what I care about is policies that make the lives of low-income kids better.”

In the future, she is looking forward to more work that will merge her research interests with further policy engagement.

Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach is associate professor of human development and social policy, an IPR fellow, and chair of IPR's program on Child, Adolescent, and Family Studies.

Photo credit: Ralph Alwang Photography