A Pioneering Economist Wants to Level the Playing Field

Sandra Black works on research to help society understand how to make the United States the land of opportunity for everyone, not just some.

Caroline Harting
July 12, 2022

Birth order’s influence on future success. How inheritances make long-lasting differences on children’s socio-economic status. Gender discrimination in the workforce. Sandra Black, professor of economics and international and public affairs, has contributed significant research on all of these topics.

However, Black might not have made this impact on economic research had it not been for two women who were teaching assistants at the University of California, Berkeley, where she was an undergraduate. According to Black, the women opened her eyes to the possibility of a career in economics.

“They were really cool, and I wanted to be like them.”

These mentors made a difference in her life, and she has since made a difference in the field of economics with her choices in research and her role as a mentor to junior faculty.

In a recent interview with Columbia News, Black talked about the importance of gender equity in the field of economics, why we need to create better socio-economic outcomes for all Americans, and what it was like to work with President Obama and his team in the White House.

How did you decide to pursue economics?

I was an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley, and I thought I was going to be a math major. I was always good at math, but I didn't quite understand what you could actually use math for. Then I took an intro to economics course where I learned about supply and demand. Suddenly, everything made sense to me. It was also interesting to me because I just had two women grad student teaching assistants who helped me envision myself as an economist. When people talk about mentors and the importance of role models, that resonates with me.

When I got to Harvard for my PhD, I initially didn't know what I wanted to research. Eventually, I discovered labor economics and public finance, which are focused on people and the decisions that they make, particularly things like education, jobs, and parents investing in children.

After I got my PhD, I worked at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Eventually, I moved on to academia at UCLA and then University of Texas, Austin in 2010. I was the first woman ever to be a full professor in their economics department. UT was eager to change the climate in terms of gender parity, so it was an exciting time to be on faculty there.

In 2015, while in Texas, I was approached to be a member of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers (CEA). I went to D.C. for two years, and worked as a CEA member in his last year and a half in office.

What was it like to work in the White House?

It was scary and exciting. I was so busy!  President Obama knew who I was. I really liked the people I worked with, and I was surprised by how everyone truly cared about making things better. And it was definitely one of the nicest and most interesting groups of people I've worked with.

What did you hope to achieve there?

I arrived at the end of the administration, so there weren’t a lot of things to be done legislatively, as Congress wasn't willing to do anything at that time. But the president was open to using executive orders to try to accomplish some goals. We were able to implement paid sick leave, minimum wage, and overtime for contractors. Several of the projects our team pursued related to helping workers.

As an economist, one of our goals was to write reports to highlight the research that we deemed important. For example, when I first got there, our team wrote a report on the benefits of SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps, which described research showing that children who had access to SNAP have benefits not only in the short-run, in terms of performance in schools and obviously hunger, but huge long-run benefits as well.

Another report we did was on criminal justice, describing the research on the short- and long-run economic effects of policies such as bail and incarceration to help guide policymakers in reforming the system.

Going back to your work in academia, what issues do you focus on?

One major issue that I try to think about in my work is how parents influence their children’s lives. Right now, I’m focusing on the issue of wealth. Some of my recent work examines why children whose parents are wealthier are themselves wealthier later in life, and whether this relationship is driven primarily by nature or nurture. (It is mostly nurture!) I am now looking at the mechanisms through which wealth affects children, and how the timing of when your parents get money impacts outcomes. In other words, if your parents get money when you're five, is that much better than if they get it when you’re 10.

My other related work examines the role of the government in helping equalize opportunities, focusing the role of student loans and student debt to provide access to higher education, and how that affects our students' outcomes.

What do you think connects your areas of research?

I would say I focus on the importance of equality of opportunity: how do different opportunities affect an individual’s outcomes, and how can the government develop policies to equalize these opportunities.

Your teaching assistants played a role in helping you see yourself as an economist. Have you had a chance to mentor your female students and junior faculty?

I feel like it's part of my responsibility to work on issues of gender equity in economics. I do try to get involved in mentoring activities; it’s really important because I know how significant it was for me. For many years, I was on the board of the Committee on the Status of Women in Economics Professions, and I’m currently on the executive committee for the American Economic Association. I'm also involved in less official ways. I try to mentor junior faculty, thinking about what would have been helpful to me as an assistant professor and what people told me that was useful.

What do you hope to achieve through your research?

Oh, that is a big question. I hope that my work might make people think a little bit more about the importance of economic opportunity in terms of children's outcomes. Different policies are often treated as alternatives: should we invest in early childhood or in college education? But the research shows that both of these things are important and have high payoffs, so they aren’t substitutes but complements. That often gets lost. It’s interesting that the United States has this image of being the land of opportunity. That makes sense if everyone starts on a level playing field, but we're so far from that. As a society, we need to understand that, and then we can find ways to compensate for those differences.

As for leveling the playing field, how do you think the recent pandemic is going to affect families and inequality in our society? 

This is really important, as the pandemic has highlighted the existing inequities in our society. The wealthy have done fine and, in some cases, prospered, while lower-income families have struggled. The absence of public health insurance, affordable childcare, and paid leave all worsened the effects of the pandemic on lower-income families. That, combined with school closures having disproportionate effects on children from lower-income families, suggests that we need to seriously think about how we can remedy this going forward.