Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Thursday, May 15, 2014

Fletcher explores outcomes of environment, relationships, education on health

 Jason Fletcher Jason Fletcher

Understanding the long-term impacts of public policy in Wisconsin and across the United States are at the top of Jason Fletcher's research agenda.

The health economist who joined the La Follette School faculty in 2013 is a nationally recognized expert on the economics of education, and on child and adolescent health policy, In 2012 the William T. Grant Foundation selected him for a five-year career development award that is funding a study of the interplay between genetics and social settings in youth development.

At the University of Wisconsin–Madison Fletcher established the Wisconsin Policy Analysis Lab to integrate knowledge, data, and methods from multiple disciplines to uncover why, when, and on whom policies work. "In addition, we trains students from multiple disciplines to analyze policy effects in new ways and to collaborate across fields," Fletcher says.

One of the lab's projects is looking at the impacts on adult health of individuals' childhood neighborhoods. "The results could help us understand the key early (childhood) determinants of adult health disparities and whether new interventions that shape schools and neighborhoods for children may have longer term impacts on later health," Fletcher says. That project is under consideration for external funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Two projects are looking at policies and state funding levels for higher education. "In one project we are asking how best to extend to students from underserved areas access to flagship higher education institutions like UW–Madison that also help those students succeed academically," Fletcher says.

The second project examines the effects of higher education itself. "I am using Wisconsin data to examine the long-term impacts on later life outcomes, especially health outcomes, from attending high quality colleges," Fletcher says. We are finding evidence that attending a higher quality college is related to lower rates of tobacco use and obesity later in life.

Fletcher just completed a project published in the journal Health Economics that found that taxes on sweetened soda do not necessarily reduce obesity. "Our results cast serious doubt on the assumptions that proponents of large soda taxes make about the effects on population weight," Fletcher says. "Given that people substitute other calories when they give up soda, these new results suggest we need fundamental changes to policies that make large soda taxes a key element in the fight to reduce overall obesity rates."

A 2014 article published in the journal Health Economics won the 2013-2014 prize for the Best Research in Health & Society from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars program at UW–Madison. The article, "The Effects of Childhood ADHD on Adult Labor Market Outcomes," is the first to provide the evidence of links between childhood ADHD symptoms and adult labor market outcomes.

Social networks are another topic of interest — understanding how people's relationships may affect public policy outcomes. Fletcher noted in the spring La Follette Policy Report how policy analyses and program evaluations need to account for people's social networks.

Fletcher's own network brought him back to Wisconsin, where he completed his Ph.D. in agricultural and applied economics at UW–Madison in 2006. Among his mentors he counts La Follette School economists Barbara Wolfe, Andrew Reschovsky and Bob Haveman. He joined the faculty of Yale University's School of Public Health and was a Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholar at Columbia University, then returned to Wisconsin to join the La Follette School's faculty.

He looks forward to applying his expertise to public policy questions that are important to Wisconsin and the nation as a whole.

"To understand our own values and choices, we need to understand how the values and choices of those who are part of our social network think and behave," Fletcher says. "To understand whether policies work, we need to factor in how a program's effect on us influences the values and choices of others in our network. Similarly, we need to understand program impacts on other people so we gain insight into how those effects change our own values and choices."