Congratulations to the La Follette School’s newest full professor, Sarah Halpern-Meekin!
Her research on social poverty emphasizes the human side of public policy, demonstrating the profound importance of factoring in emotions and relationships when devising policy solutions to pressing social problems. She is a lead researcher on the groundbreaking Baby’s First Years study, which looks at the effects of monthly cash payments on family life and the cognitive, emotional, and brain development of infants and toddlers. Her books—It’s Not Like I’m Poor (University of California Press) and Social Poverty (NYU Press)—present a compelling picture of how American families actually live in the face of socioeconomic disadvantage.
Halpern-Meekin started her career at UW–Madison in the School of Human Ecology in 2013 and now splits her time with the La Follette School via a joint appointment. In this Q&A, she shares insights about her work at the La Follette School.
What have you most enjoyed about being a La Follette School professor?
I really value the school’s approach to public scholarship and ensuring that research findings reach the public. In addition, I have enjoyed getting to know students through being a faculty mentor. The two years of the master’s program goes so quickly, and students develop and learn a lot in that short period of time.
How has your research focus changed since you were first hired as a UW professor?
My research has continued to focus on instability in family relationships and family finances and the role of government policy in intervening in those areas. What has changed in the policy environment? We saw a brief policy change this past year with families receiving a monthly child tax credit, and we have seen growing attention to unconditional cash transfers as a policy tool. (For an example, see Mayors for a Guaranteed Income.) This means that the policies with which families interact, and the policy conversation in general, have evolved since I started at UW nine years ago.
What are some things you learned that surprised you in the course of your research so far?
If you had told me prior to graduate school that I would be excited to study tax policy, I wouldn’t have believed you. But I’ve come to see how much of our policy decisions run through tax laws and how consequential the details of those laws are for families. Those laws are a place in which we express our priorities as a nation, where we define who gets to count as a family, and how we distribute and redistribute resources for individuals up and down the income spectrum.
What courses do you most enjoy teaching?
Recently, I have been teaching the capstone courses for the master’s degree students in the La Follette School and the School of Human Ecology. Getting to support students as they apply what they have learned in graduate school to real-world projects is exciting!