Fall 2018 Journal: A Conversation with Hilary Hoynes

Edited by Tsuyoshi Onda

Hilary Hoynes is a professor of Public Policy and Economics and holds the Haas Distinguished Chair in Economic Disparities at the University of California Berkeley. From 2011 to 2016 she was the co-editor of the leading journal in economics, the American Economic Review. Best known for her work studying poverty, inequality, food and nutrition programs, and the impacts of government tax and transfer programs on low income families, Hoynes was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in April. 

In May, two of Hoynes’ students and graduating Master of Public Policy candidates — Courtney Colburn and Nefara Riesch — conducted an interview on behalf of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal. The below transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. 

BPPJ: So I was hoping you could talk a little bit about the research that you’ve been doing. I know you focus a lot on SNAP in your research. What does that look like? 

H. HOYNES: I study the social safety net broadly. And so I’m interested in SNAP not because it’s a food nutrition program — that’s like one avenue that people get to SNAP — I sort of get to SNAP from ‘what are the programs out there that help families with children from disadvantaged backgrounds?’ so SNAP is obviously a really important part of that. And so the work that I’ve been doing mostly on SNAP — there’s kind of two different sets of studies that I’ve been doing, or maybe three — one of them is looking at trying to evaluate the long run effects of SNAP. And so my kind of like elevator pitch on this is, to what extent does providing more resources to families when kids are young change the life trajectory of where those kids end up? And it seems like kind of an obvious thing to inquire about. It doesn’t seem like a crazy thing to think that a social program would do. But we have remarkably little evidence about that, which is interesting and fascinating. And I think part of that has been challenges around data, and being able to ask a question like this requires three things: It requires data that reaches longitudinally in some way, because if you’re looking at trying to connect people’s childhood experience to where they end up that’s an inevitable dimension; You need some sort of causal identification engine, you need a design as we always do, no matter what we’re doing; But you also need enough time to have elapsed since the policy or the intervention has been in place in order to evaluate its long-run impact. So it demands a lot of the social science, I think, to be able to estimate the long-run impact. 

In the modern era there’s like two big epochs of growth of social safety net programs or restrictions. There is the Great Society period where a lot of the programs we have today started. So there’s a whole set of literature that basically goes all the way back to the Great Society period to say, “O.K., to what extent can we use the variation around that time period to really look at long-term effects of programs?” Because it’s been a long time. And then there was this major period in the mid-1990s where under Clinton we basically saw the decline of the cash welfare system and the expansion of the sort of Earned Income Tax Credit system, and that creates maybe 20 years of long term to look at. And then there’s sort of maybe the growth of Medicaid or the steady expansion of Medicaid from the late ‘80s through the current period that provides opportunity. So for all of these different sort of time periods of policy variation, with the right data, you can go back to those expansions and try to make linkages between that and where people end up. And so my work is sort of about that in one way or another. Right now a lot of my interest is about that.

BPPJ: And what have you found?

H. HOYNES: So what we found with food stamps is that, particularly up until around age five — and we don’t fully understand why that is — we find that providing more food stamps to families with kids when kids are birth to age five, or even conception to age five, the better their health in adulthood. And, in more recent work, the better their human capital and their earnings in adulthood. 

So, you get more food stamps and you’re more likely to graduate high school and have higher earnings in your 30s; and, for African-American men, the less likely you are to be incarcerated and some modest reduction in mortality risk. I mean, these people aren’t very old, so mortality risk isn’t super high for most people in those ages. 

And so that’s what we’re finding. We’re finding these sort of quantifiable long-term benefits of providing more food stamps when kids are young. And it kind of tees up more questions than we have answers, because we don’t really really understand very much. It’s like a black box; it’s like we’ve got this change and we’ve got these outcomes and there’s a whole lot in between that we don’t really know that much about. 

BPPJ: So it sounds like there is obviously a growing amount of evidence that suggests that social safety net programs are an investment and a long-term investment in that. How do you feel that are those findings, or that message, has been received. 

H. HOYNES: You know it’s interesting. Like, Paul Ryan’s people know about this work, not necessarily because I’m the best at reaching out, because that’s not my comparative advantage, but you know there are intermediary organizations in Washington that I sort of team up with in informal ways. They try to find research that is relevant for their cause that’s high quality, and then they amplify it and bring it to the Washington community. And so through that, the work that we’ve done on the long run effects of SNAP has been very widely used — like you see it coming up even in congressional testimony. So we’ll kind of throw out there that it increases education in the long run. And I sort of thought that maybe that was — in some perhaps overly optimistic way, as someone who still lives at a university and not in the real world — I sort of thought that maybe that was — like the policy side of me, not the scientist side of me, reckons with the fact that what seems to be at the cleavage in discussing social safety net programs is the side that says that families need this and the other side that says that it makes people lazy. And I feel that is really at the core of what creates problems for advancing good policy, because you know inherently when you’re providing assistance you are providing protection. And when you provide protection at some level you may disincentivize more labor activity, theoretically. And so it seems that it’s very hard for us to get beyond that, because those two views are so divergent. So my thinking was that this science that shows that there are long-term impacts maybe could help find another way between that.

I’m probably overgeneralizing to kind of make it simple, and I’m just sort of wondering and hoping, I guess, that by kind of doing this work of showing that regardless of what’s happening in the families, we can point to the fact that these change long-run impacts that that would help advance something. And honestly I don’t see that right now. Obviously, when you know opportunities change and Republicans are controlling all branches of government we see just a full steam ahead dismantling of the social safety net that has not been successful yet, but it’s clear that that’s what what is desired. So I guess I should say it’s a long game and you just do the work and hope that it gets out there. And, you know, people trained like you guys [at Goldman] are going to be much more able to get it out there, because I think it’s important. 

BPPJ: Well it’s kind of interesting because it disincentivizes work in the parents, but some research shows that it might help the kids in later years have more labor market activity by increasing their human capital. So it’s a weird tension between disincentivizing labor now but incentivizing it more years later — even if it doesn’t really disincentivize it that much now, either. 

H. HOYNES: I mean, I think in some like grand cost benefit analysis, at least based on what we know now — there’s so much we haven’t quantified — those long-run impacts are not so large that you’re going to be able to say, “oh, this program is just paid for by the future.” That is, that we can justify all the $70 million, or billion, costs of SNAP today by the benefits it generates in the long run. My instinct is we’re not going to get there. But that seems like a pretty high bar, you know what I mean? And it’s like we haven’t quantified any of it. So if [the future benefit] counts for a quarter of [the cost], that seems important to bring into the conversation, but it’s so early that I think we have a very incomplete quantification of what the potential benefits might be. 

BPPJ: Are you going to keep researching the long-run impacts?

H. HOYNES: I think so. Yeah. I mean, any opportunity, sure. When they get to the Medicare age, then they get into this administrative data where you observe everybody, that’s a pretty exciting thing. 

So anyway, that’s like one big bucket of my work, is on that. Another thing that I’ve been doing that’s about SNAP but also about the broader safety net is, I’m very interested in asking how we’re doing. Like, where are we doing a good job? Forget about the long-run impact, just think about like basic protection impacts of what the first order thing that we think the social safety net should do. And the question is where are we doing well and where are we not doing well. And the way that I have sort of tried to get into that, like the door into that, has been to use the Great Recession as a kind of laboratory. So here we have this incredibly large labor market shock that has widespread affected low-income folks and moderate-income folks and higher-income folks: it affected everybody. But we know that any recession affects low-skilled individuals more severely than moderate- and higher-skilled individuals; it is a longtime pattern that we’ve seen in the data. And so my thought was, could we look at the Great Recession to evaluate where the social safety net is doing good job and where it isn’t. And what comes out of that work is very clear good news and bad news. The good news is that for people with incomes around poverty, the expansions that we’ve done — like the Earned Income Tax Credit — and the real success of SNAP reaching more and more families through increases and take up rates, and a little bit more flexibility in SNAP like being able to — not in California, but in many states — apply online versus in person, you know really trying to lower the barriers to accessing the program, those things have led to much higher take up of SNAP. So the combination of some explicit policy expansions along with just trying to improve on the ground what the program is doing led to people with incomes around poverty being protected about as well in the Great Recession as they have been in earlier downturns. So it’s a little bit of a relative statement. It’s not like compared to France how did we do. It’s like compared to ourselves in earlier times. 

So that’s the good news. But the bad news is at the very bottom of the income distribution, for people with incomes say at half the poverty level or below, it’s very clear that our social safety net is failing and that there’s a pretty tight connection of that to welfare reform and the sort of dismantling of more assistance for people who can’t work for shorter or longer periods of time. And so, you know, the Great Recession happens and some of the people who are affected are folks at the bottom of the income distribution. In other time periods, some of them would have gone on TANF or AFDC, and this time that didn’t happen. And you see the hardship playing out. I’m not an expert on long or very granular hardship, but you see higher rates of income loss compared to what the counterfactual — which is sort of what would have been if welfare reform hadn’t happened. So in thinking about where we need to do more, I think we need to shore up that out-of-work social safety net for families with children. And I think people without children, as well, but my expertise is families with children.

BPPJ: And that seems to go against a lot of the discussions around the social safety net happening currently, because they’re all about like adding in work requirements for everything and making it harder to access services. 

H. HOYNES: Well I think some people look at welfare reform and, basically, if your only metric is let’s reduce the caseload, then welfare reform was very successful. There’s a lot fewer people receiving cash assistance now than there was in 1996. And so I think some people take that and say, “well those work requirements really worked, so we should do that to other programs.” But you need to measure what’s happening to the people who aren’t on welfare in order to get the full picture of how it’s going. So I think it might have helped some, it might have helped most people make the transition from welfare to work. I think what we’ve learned in welfare reform is that some share of the population transitioned from welfare to work more quickly than they would have in the absence of welfare reform. But there’s another group that I think is experiencing a lot of hardship and, for one reason or another, is not able to keep stable employment. I think that’s the group that is really much more harmed by what we saw play out in the Great Recession. But you’re right. It completely goes against the view that we should just put work supports in every program, which is a very uniquely American thing. I mean, if you compare us to our peers, that’s not a common criteria for receiving social support.

BPPJ: You served as a co-editor for the American Economic Review until 2016, and have held several other editorial positions on various economic journals. How do you think about a journal’s role in academic and policy discussions, and how did you think of your role as an editor during that time?

H. HOYNES: Right. So I was a co-editor of the American Economic Review for six years, and the AER is one of the top journals in economics so it was a really exciting job because as an academic, my bread and butter is writing papers and trying to get them placed in top journals, that’s what I do. And so to be able to sit on the other side of the table, and spend a lot of time reading a lot of papers that are submitted to the journal was both exciting and really time consuming. But if one is into power it’s a pretty powerful position! That’s not really what excites me, but the idea of shaping the discipline is a little bit more exciting, or maybe that’s just power but putting it a different way. I got to elevate a lot of work that I thought was really important. Everybody has a different kind of take on what’s important, so you’ve got to do this job and you get to decide. Because at the end of the day at top journals, the work has to be done well but that’s not enough. It also has to be important. So really what often makes the difference between what a paper gets into a journal like the AER or not is a bit less about “how well is it done?” — because most of the work is pretty well done — but “does it contribute enough to science and the knowledge to profile it?” That’s inherently, as you can imagine, a quite subjective kind of thing and of course I have referees that help contribute to making these decisions. But at the end of the day you’re the one who’s making the call on things, and that’s really exciting to do. And I found that I learned a lot. One of the things that my junior colleagues here at Goldman and other people that I just mentor in the profession have told me, I know better about how to pitch a paper in order to try to make it [into a journal]. You could have the same results but how do you turn the results, as I call the “window dressing”. How do you wrap the package to try to pitch it to a general audience, and I think I’ve learned a lot about that and that’s kind of a good set of skills. 

So the actual process was that I handled, at the peak, 270 papers a year, so it was an enormous job. We have so many jobs as academics — I teach, I do research, I do service, this and that — and this was one other job on top of that which was a very big job. It was challenging just to figure out what I going to do less of, because this was a really big thing to do. I had to think about that. 

It’s one of those things, you have to pick and choose what you do. Like many of us here at Goldman, I’m in the great position of being asked to do far more things than I can or should do. So you have to pick and choose what it is that you’re going to spend your time on. Mostly it’s professional service stuff that I get asked to do, especially being a woman in a very male-dominated field you get asked to do a lot of things. Maybe for good reason, they want diversity on various panels, but you can’t do it all, you have to pick. So this was a good one to pick, being at the AER. I learned a lot from it. I think it’s a very prestigious job and so a lot of people who don’t know you automatically upweight their view of you, which might be a screwed up thing in the world but it was good for me. When I went to conferences or gave talks at places, everybody wants to talk to you. They suddenly are very interested in you. 

BPPJ: You become so popular!

H. HOYNES: You get very popular and it’s kind of transparent and sort of humorous because that’s not how I …  I don’t need to be adored, that’s not that important, but it’s funny. Now I’m observing the backside because I’m not the co-editor, so I’m no longer quite as popular. [laughter]

But anyways.

BPPJ: How do you make that decision? You brought up what you want to do personally, but then you also brought up these ideas of being a woman, economics, and hoping to elevate research that has very clear policy implications. How do you manage your time or how do you make those decisions? 

H. HOYNES: I’m not sure I’m that great at it but what I’m trying to do, let me put it that way, is to be mindful about it. First of all, I keep a list. I have an evernote list, it’s basically what I’ve said yes to and I have organized into buckets. And it’s actually just a really good thing to be accountable. Sometimes you might be asked to do something but you don’t have to do it for six months and it’s just discounting and all the rest, you just don’t think about it. But I write it down, like “O.K., I agreed to do this.” So I try to first be mindful about it and aware, but second of all, be a little bit more deliberate: to not just react to opportunities that come my way but to think about what are the kinds of things that I might want to do. And it’s not like I really know what those are so that’s part of the problem. But I’ve found that in my career when I’ve really struggled with feeling overwhelmed by commitments that I feel like I don’t have enough time to do well or at the end of the day what I really want to be doing is research and this other stuff sort of crowds it out, I realize what happens is you get more high profile so the things you get asked to do get more exciting. We should all have reservation wages for what we say yes to, just like in labor supply, right? But the problem is, the offers get better over time and you need to up your reservation wage, otherwise you get busy again. If I can look back on my time when I’ve struggled, it’s when I didn’t quite realize that I was getting better offers because I was more high profile and then I said yes to 10 things and then realize, “oh my god, I’m overwhelmed. Oh, I better up my reservation wage,” to speak econ-speak. 

It’s realizing what you’re committing to and trying to figure out which things matter and trying to figure out what you say yes to. I don’t know, there’s been a little bit of learning-by-doing for me. Some things I said yes to that I realized, “you know what, this is not really how I want to spend my time. Maybe it’s not really my comparative advantage so I’m going to turn that down.” 

And, learning to say no and how to say no. I’ve definitely gotten so much better with that, and part of it is: be decisive, make your decisions quickly, and respectfully say no without having to give a backstory. I think many of us feel the need to explain why we’re saying no. “Oh gosh, you know I’ve got this and that and the other thing, I can’t do it.” That’s not necessary. All you need to say is, “this is a wonderful opportunity, so nice of you to think of me. Unfortunately, at this time, I’m not able to take this on and I wish you the best with this important pursuit.” Or if you’ve got someone that you want to suggest alternatively and elevate someone else, throw out a few names and you just make the decision quickly. Because I think what happens to me is if I hedge, “do I do this, do I do this?” and then it just sits in my inbox and then a month or two months later you get an e-mail from someone and at that point you feel like you have to say yes because you left it there. And that is the problem. So I’m trying to be more deliberate and be a quicker decider and just turn things down so that I don’t get in that position where I just feel I have to do it because time has elapsed. I don’t know, it’s helped. But it’s a pretty awesome situation to be in where you have more things asked of you than you have time to do. I can’t complain about that. Ultimately I don’t want to work 24 hours a day.

BPPJ: It’s not sustainable. 

H. HOYNES: Yes. And for me, that big boost in my career was the time when my kids left home. So, I have one daughter who’s graduated from college and one daughter who’s almost graduated from college. So they retreat and suddenly there’s time without even being aware of it and suddenly I was just working more. And three or four years pass, I’m like, “wow, this is what I want? To be working half the weekend and four nights a week just because I have more time?” Just trying to not get into that pattern just working, or working too much — even if it’s fun stuff.

BPPJ: And when you were in undergrad did you see yourself becoming a professor and getting a PhD in Economics and going off to do all this incredible research?

H. HOYNES: Uh … well, confession. My father is an academic economist and my father’s father was an academic economist. 

BPPJ: So you’re a third-generation academic economist! 

H. HOYNES: I’m a third-generation professor of economics, which is really kind of weird. My grandfather taught at a liberal arts college, at Wesleyan, where actually my older daughter went to college, and he actually worked in the Roosevelt administration during the Depression, so he’s a pretty “applied guy.” My dad is a very famous economic historian who spent the last 20 years of his career at Harvard. I mean, he’s really big time. [Grabs framed picture] That’s my dad and my mom in that picture when I got this award. So you know, honestly I think I was running from it rather than running to it. But I grew up in a college town in Madison, Wisconsin, and most everybody I knew worked at the university so it was a very familiar thing. But I was very interested in the real world, so when I went to grad school I thought that what I wanted to do was to end up at some place like MDRC [the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation], which I still think would have been great and I probably would have had a very wonderful life there. But somehow I did really well, went to Stanford, came out top of my class, and here I am. 

My first job out of college was in Washington. It was a consulting firm but I worked for a PhD economist at this consulting firm doing contract work, but he wasn’t a very good consultant. That is, he was too academic, but it was great for me. Good consultants minimize their time effort and make more margins on their work. He was a really good economist but probably didn’t earn that much money for the firm, but I got to work for this guy for four years so I learned a lot about policy, data, coding, writing, and I loved it. It was very applied. You’d be asked to analyze some tax policy change, we’d code it up and build a micro-simulation model. It was really fun, so that’s what I thought I wanted to do more of because I liked  being a little bit closer to the “real world”, whatever that is.

I guess that’s not surprising where I ended up, that my research is quite applied. I wasn’t certain that a PhD in Economics could get me there, and actually when I finished my PhD in the early ‘90s, the economists that were getting all the prizes and were the most prized in any department were the most theoretical. Theorists, econometricians, those were the top of the pecking order and they looked down on applied people as being less … smart. But I feel like that’s really changed. 

BPPJ: What do you think it takes for research to actually be translated into policy?

H. HOYNES: Oh god. I don’t know, what do you think? I don’t know. I feel like in some settings it seems to happen more quickly. I think it happens in developing countries more quickly than it does in places like the United States that are so complicated. Let’s go to Raj Chetty, take the most famous economist in America right now. On the margin, Obama was certainly pushing more spending by HUD for housing-related programs. I see that the Gates Foundation is now expanding from not just studying global poverty but studying American poverty, and they’ve been doing a couple of years worth of trying to figure out what it is that they want to focus on. I think one of the five focus areas they have is your ZIP code shouldn’t be your destiny, so that’s a very direct line from Raj and all his colleagues’ work for sure, but that’s still just at the Gates Foundation. 

So I don’t know, I’m not sure what it takes, to be honest. I know what it takes to be talked about. I don’t know what it takes to actually break through partisan gridlock to get things to happen. Maybe at the city level is another place. If you think about what is different about cities in the developing world compared to the U.S. Congress. I guess there’s just more “executive,” maybe less “you have to go through 100 stages to get there.” I’m not sure.

BPPJ: And it seems like with the push to evidence-based policy, if research isn’t making it into actual policy, then what does that even look like? And what does that mean?

H. HOYNES: Right, exactly. And are we fooling ourselves to be saying we’re doing evidence-based policy? This evidence-based policy commission that I had the great honor of spending a lot of time on, for a year and a half, that was this Ryan-Murray Commission. 

We sent our final report out last September and it’s terribly ironic that it is [Paul] Ryan who is really shepherding this evidence-based policy commission, who got real money to do its work, but I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence that’s being used it under his leadership. So it seems a little bit discouraging. I still think it’s where we’re going in the long run, I just don’t know exactly how we’re going to get there. More MPPs, that’s the solution.

BPPJ: I agree. [laughter] Do you have any parting thoughts or words?

H. HOYNES: I guess what I should sa is that, just looking back on things, there is no doubt that for me being here in this place, at the Goldman School of Public Policy, was a huge win for my work. First of all, in most Economics departments, people just don’t think about this very much. You just do your work and you go on to the next thing, so being somewhere where it’s just in the air I think has had a profound impact on me and thinking about how I shouldn’t just write the paper and go onto the next paper, but should be thinking about how to get ideas out there and to get people thinking about them. 

So my parting thought is how lucky I am to be here and to be able to spend my time engaged with people like you guys and as well as my colleagues here is a pretty awesome privilege. So, thank you.