I have always been interested in studying big social issues. Tackling complex questions — how to reduce poverty or how to improve the education system — can’t be done from a single perspective or discipline.
When the opportunity arose to come to Northwestern in 2010, my friend David Figlio (now dean of the School of Education and Social Policy) told me that Northwestern’s interdisciplinarity would improve my work and push me in new research directions. He couldn’t have been more right.
The Institute for Policy Research, which has been my primary intellectual community here at Northwestern, brings together social scientists from all across campus. Learning about others’ cutting-edge policy research and hearing the range of questions and comments raised from these diverse perspectives have changed how I approach my research.
In many places, commitment to interdisciplinary work is shallow. Frankly, it’s hard work to foster the trust and respect that it takes to really collaborate across silos. But at Northwestern we have been building these connections for decades — IPR recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. It’s fundamentally who we are.
Being at Northwestern has sharpened my research on how policies that impact early-life conditions can significantly affect later-life outcomes. For example, I found that children who had access to the food stamp program were more likely to graduate from high school and now as adults are healthier and more economically successful. Input from anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists helped me understand the potential biological and social mechanisms behind these results, and political scientists helped me identify other concurrent policies and trends that could potentially influence the outcomes as well.
More recently, I’ve been trying to understand how the social safety net has (and has not) worked in the past few years and during COVID-19. Over the past few decades we have shifted toward providing more safety net support that is dependent on employment. During the COVID-19 recession, a lot of families who lost their jobs or saw their hours cut did not receive enough relief to keep food on their table. My research has kicked into overdrive as I try to understand the impact of the recession on the poor by tracking their rates of hunger and tracing the effects of new policies aimed at helping them. I partnered with Natalie Tomeh ’21, whose data science expertise allowed us to create a tool for data visualization that has been used widely by federal and state policymakers.
My Northwestern story also includes a two-year leave of absence to temporarily direct the Hamilton Project, an economic policy think tank in Washington, D.C. (I’m grateful to the University for giving me the opportunity, and, of course, to my husband, Pritzker Northwestern School of Law professor Max Schanzenbach, for holding down the fort with our three kids while I jetted off to Washington on the weekdays.) During my time there, I learned about how data and research get used in policymaking — lessons that I have used to help IPR increase the impact of our cutting-edge research.
I often think of my first time on Northwestern’s campus, in fall 1991, on a visit to see my high school best friend who was an undergraduate at the time. We walked down Orrington Avenue beneath the changing leaves, and it took my breath away. I thought it must be a dream job to be a professor here. All these years later, driving or biking down Orrington still takes my breath away. And it has been a dream job to find such a productive and fruitful intellectual home here at Northwestern.
Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach is the Margaret Walker Alexander Professor of Human Development and Social Policy in the School of Education and Social Policy and director of Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research.