For over 20 years, the National Academy of Social Insurance has bestowed the John Heinz Dissertation Award to exceptional students contributing to the field of social insurance while promoting outstanding doctoral research. In 2016, the award was given to Manasi Deshpande, Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago who received her doctorate in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2015.
Q. Please tell us a little bit about your dissertation and why the topic of disability insurance was important to you.
Deshpande: In my dissertation, I study the effects of removing low-income youth from Supplemental Security Income, a cash welfare program for individuals with disabilities, when they become adults. The program has both positive and negative theoretical effects. On the one hand, this program may be an essential lifeline for those who cannot work. On the other hand, it may discourage those who are work-capable from developing human capital and becoming self-sufficient. Yet there has been very little evidence on the empirical magnitudes of these benefits and costs. Using administrative data and quasi-experimental variation, I find that the vast majority of youth who are removed from the program have very low earnings even well into their 30s and experience almost no earnings growth over time. These findings indicate that the vast majority of youth enrolled in this program would do poorly in the labor market if removed from the program, and the program does not appear to discourage work substantially. These findings on labor market outcomes are just the beginning of understanding how social safety net programs affect young people. They raise the question of why these youth are earning so little in adulthood and what they are doing if not in the labor market. In current work, I’m studying the effects of this program on criminal, financial, and health outcomes to develop a more comprehensive picture of their lives and why so few of them succeed in the labor market.
Q. How did you hear about the John Heinz Award?
Deshpande: The John Heinz Award is highly regarded among researchers who study social insurance, and I heard about it when I was introduced to this community. In addition, two of my MIT classmates had received the award in previous years, and it was an honor to follow in their footsteps.
Q. What did winning the award mean to you?
Deshpande: I have long admired the Academy’s commitment to scholarship and policy on social insurance, so the Academy’s recognition of my research on disability programs meant a great deal to me. To me, the John Heinz Award is more than a research award—it is an indication that this research is also valued from a policy perspective, which is important to me as a researcher who wants to see greater interaction between the research and policy worlds.
Q. How did winning the award assist in launching your career?
Deshpande: The award has afforded me the opportunity to meet more researchers and policymakers who work on social insurance topics. These connections are critical both for improving the quality of research and increasing the interaction between research and policy.
Q. What comments do you have for anyone who is considering applying?
Deshpande: The John Heinz Award is more than a one-time award. It has allowed me to become more integrated into the community of researchers and policymakers working on social insurance issues, which in turn has increased my passion for these issues and the quality of my work. I strongly encourage researchers to apply!
Q. What are you currently working on at the University of Chicago?
Deshpande: I’m continuing to study social insurance and public assistance programs, and in particular how these programs affect individual decisions about work, education, and family formation, as well as the effects of these programs on long-term outcomes of recipients and non-recipients. All of these programs involve tradeoffs: they provide income and other resources to people during times of need, but they also have the potential to discourage achievement or create perverse incentives to qualify. In my research, I seek to quantify these tradeoffs empirically. Most recently, I have a paper with Yue Li of SUNY Albany on the effect of application costs on the take-up and targeting of disability programs. We find that the closings of Social Security field offices, which provide assistance with disability applications, reduce take-up of disability programs substantially. The closings also worsen the targeting of disability programs by disproportionately affecting people with low education levels and fairly severe medical conditions.