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Faculty Spotlight: Chloe Thurston

IPR political scientist explores the role government and interest groups play in public policy

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We don’t really know that much about the contemporary politics surrounding wealth inequality. It’s important to grapple with considering that we are now 50 years from the passage of the Fair Housing Act.”

Chloe Thurston
Assistant professor of political science and IPR fellow

Chloe Thurston
IPR political scientist Chloe Thurston studies the intersection of politics and the economy through historical analysis. 

Chloe Thurston never intended to study politics. As an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University, she initially majored in economics, but was drawn to the “way politics shapes the contours of the economy.”

“I didn't realize when I came in as an economics major that a lot of the questions that I was interested in might actually be answered better through [a political] lens than through the economy,” Thurston said.

She eventually added political science as a second major. This intersection of politics and economics became the foundation of her research, which largely focuses on the role government and interest groups play in shaping public policy.

“The government ... plays a pretty sizable role in the market,” Thurston said. “It made me think more about the different ways government policy could affect the economy and shape what different actors in the market could do, so it shifted me toward political science.”

Homeownership and the Housing Crisis

Though much of Thurston’s research is rooted in the past, watching the 2008 financial crisis unfold during graduate school led her to investigate the historical connections between the federal government and the housing market. What started off as her dissertation topic ultimately became the focus of her recent book, At the Boundaries of Homeownership (Cambridge University Press, 2018). 

“Those contemporary events shaped my decision to study [the housing market], in the sense that I wanted to know how did we get there? And what can we learn from that?” Thurston said.

The book begins with the modern housing market just before the Great Depression when mortgages became affordable for an increasing number of Americans and explains how the economic recession led to the creation of the Federal Housing Administration as a part of the National Housing Act of 1934.

Thurston shows that through the 20th century, realtors and lenders discriminated against African Americans by denying them access to homeownership and by segregating them to certain neighborhoods, while women experienced credit discrimination. This led both groups to mobilize through organizations like the NAACP, the National Organization for Women, and the Women’s Equality Action League to fight unfair housing practices.

A key finding in Thurston’s book is that the government’s involvement in the housing marketing was hidden, as buyers looking to purchase a home only seemed to only interact with individuals working in the housing industry. African Americans and women’s groups, though, understood that the government also influenced the market.

“It was really clear from the archival records that I was looking at that citizen's groups whose constituents were excluded from this stuff really recognized what was going on,” Thurston said.

The government remains out of sight in other areas of society, she said, pointing to the its involvement in regulating health insurance or our ability to set aside tax-free retirement savings, or the tax advantages employers receive when distributing fringe benefits. People often do not fully recognize many of these benefits as government functions, which can pose a challenge to democracy. 

“If we think about policymaking in a democracy, there's this idea that elected officials will somehow be held accountable by voters,” Thurston explained. “And if voters don't recognize that these policies exist and have an impact in people's lives, and if they don't recognize the stakes for both themselves and the broader economy, it's actually very difficult for us collectively to hold elected officials accountable.”

From Personal to Partisan

Thurston has also been studying the way interest groups influence policy over time.

In a working paper, Thurston examines how politicians in the California State Assembly voted on abortion issues between 1967 and 1996 to show that legislators’ stances on abortion shifted from their personal beliefs to align with their political party’s position.

The study finds that abortion was not a party issue when it was first passed as legislation in 1967 and that religion was a better predictor of a politician’s vote on abortion than party membership. Catholics, including Democratic legislators, were more pro-life than other legislators in the 1960s. By the 1980s, however, Catholic legislators were more supportive of abortion rights than other members of the state assembly.

Her research shows that relationships developed between the feminist group NOW and Democrats and the Christian Right and the GOP during the 1970s helped to sway politicians’ personal beliefs about abortion. The influence of these interest groups polarized the issue over the next two decades and realigned California legislators’ positions on abortion. 

“It does suggest that for new issues, they [politicians] have more leeway and are able to vote as they want,” Thurston said. She offered that this could be a model for understanding how politicians might vote on new policy issues.

The Wealth Gap 

For her next project, Thurston is writing a book about racial and gender wealth inequality as a 2019 fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. The project builds on her research into homeownership discrimination and will specifically focus on the wealth gap in housing, educational, and employment benefits. 

“There’s a pretty sizable wealth gap between black and white households in the U.S.,” Thurston said. “It's one [area] that we theoretically might have expected to decline with civil rights advances in the 1960s and 1970s, but that hasn't happened.”

She plans to look at the historical roots of the wealth gap and explore why it has not leveled off as minorities and women gained equal rights over the last several decades.

“We don’t really know that much about the contemporary politics surrounding wealth inequality,” said Thurston. “It’s important to grapple with considering that we are now 50 years from the passage of the Fair Housing Act.” 

Chloe Thurston is assistant professor of political science and an IPR fellow.

Published: July 11, 2019.