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