Twelve scholars from across the United States participated in a week-long intensive workshop in June hosted by UW–Madison’s Center for Financial Security Retirement and Disability Research Center with support from Howard University’s Center on Race and Wealth.
The scholars, representing a variety of academic disciplines, were primarily women and people of color, groups significantly underrepresented in the fields of economics and public policy. And that was the point: to foster and boost the work and professional connections of early-career academics exploring questions of retirement and disability funding.
“The Center for Financial Security is grateful to the Social Security Administration and our partners at Howard University for helping to recruit and support these scholars, both during the week-long intensive and also in ongoing mentoring relationships.” said J. Michael Collins, faculty director of UW–Madison’s Center for Financial Security, Fetzer Family Chair in Consumer and Personal Finance at the School of Human Ecology, and professor at the La Follette School.
“Together, we are building the capacity of the retirement and disability field to address topics that are important to economically vulnerable families, and we are helping to launch a new cohort of valuable contributors to the public dialogue about our nation’s social insurance system,” Collins said.
Last fall, Collins won a highly competitive five-year cooperative agreement from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) to establish a Retirement and Disability Research Center (RDRC) at the Center for Financial Security (CFS) in the School of Human Ecology (SoHE). The CFS RDRC is one of just four in the nation, focusing on questions concerning the financial well-being of financially vulnerable families, older people, people with disabilities, low-wealth households, and children.
Among Collins’ RDRC projects that won funding were ones developed in partnership with Howard University and modeled after some of Howard’s programs in Washington, DC, and after similar efforts at UW–Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty. These initiatives train and mentor a diverse group of scholars and researchers from underrepresented racial and ethnic populations through:
- The Junior Scholars Intensive Training (JSIT), a week-long, residential program for 10 scholars in social policy research, data methods and techniques, and public policy communication tactics to successfully engage with policymakers and the public;
- Ongoing mentoring relationships between JSIT scholars, some of whom are junior faculty, and established academics and researchers; and
- A funding competition for five $5,000 awards to seed research examining questions around retirement and disability policy.
Seventy scholars, many from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), applied to participate in the intensive program. Ten were admitted along with two UW–Madison doctoral students. Their agenda included skills development workshops, expert panels, and visits from SSA officials.
“The Junior Scholars Intensive Training program was extremely beneficial to my career as an economist studying retirement and disability issues,” reflected Enrique A. Lopezlira, assistant professor of economics and finance at Grand Canyon University. “It allowed me to join a network of scholars with similar research interests and potential for future collaboration, and it helped me to be a better researcher, from forming more focused research questions to learning more data sources to improving my grant-writing skills.”
Emily Ellis, an AM/PhD student at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, echoed Lopezlira’s enthusiasm: “The information I learned at JSIT will play a critical role in my dissertation proposal,” she shared. “What’s more, I met a doctoral candidate at the UW School of Social Work with very similar interests to mine, and I’m excited about the potential for future collaboration.”
Dr. Fenaba Addo, a mentor to JSIT scholars and SoHE’s Lorna Jorgensen Wendt Assistant Professor of Money, Relationships, and Equality, said the support for the program from SSA decision-makers reflects a growing understanding of the need to diversify the people undertaking major questions of social policy.
“JSIT is important for creating a community of scholars working in a shared research area,” said Addo. “I believe SSA understands that programs like JSIT are necessary to not only produce a critical mass of underrepresented scholars, but also provide access to the relevant mentoring, information, and opportunities they may need to be successful.”
With its focus on supporting underrepresented junior scholars, JSIT is unique among the four institutions hosting RDRCs – Boston College, the National Bureau of Economic Research, the University of Michigan, and UW–Madison.
Haydar Kurban, Director of Howard University’s Center on Race and Wealth (CRW), hopes the program will inspire other institutions to undertake similar initiatives and ultimately expand the community of people informing high-level policy decisions: “The JSIT collaboration between Howard’s CRW and UW’s CFS is the first step in creating a pipeline of diverse, emerging researchers engaged in disability and retirement topics in the United States.”
In early October, SSA confirmed a second year of funding for UW–Madison’s CFS RDRC, which also announced the five winners of JSIT’s funding competition:
- Adibah Abdulhadi, UW–Madison, The Effect of Opioids on Labor Market Outcomes and Use of Social Security Disability Insurance
- Josefina Flores Morales, UCLA, Financial Security and Immigrants’ Legal Status: An analysis of wealth in the United States
- Jevay Grooms, Howard University, Substance Use Disorders and Disability: What role does race, ethnicity and gender play in having access to treatment.
- Madelaine L’Esperance, University of Alabama, Disability, Disability Programs, and Wealth: Exploring Liquid Wealth Trajectories of Disability Program Applicants and Beneficiaries
- Andria Smythe, Howard University, The Impact of Social Security Eligibility on Transfers to Elderly Parents and Savings among Adult Children