Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Sydor keeps in mind the people public policy affects

The U.S. tax code is an important tool to address social policy problems, Katherine Sydor came to realize during her first year as a student at the La Follette School of Public Affairs.

Katherine Sydor interned at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2011.


Katherine Sydor joined the U.S. Department of the Treasury as a policy advisor through the prestigious Presidential Management Fellowship program in summer 2012. In 2014 she joined the U.S. Department of Education as a senior policy advisor. Read more

Public Service

Katherine Sydor gave a seminar on the Wisconsin Idea at the La Follette School in February 2012 and lectured on it in February 2012 for the School of Human Ecology course "Entrepreneurship in Society."

"From my volunteer activities and organizational involvement in college, the issues that affect the lives of everyday people and disadvantaged populations seem to touch me much more than anything else," Sydor says. "Those issues are still most important to me, but through my experience in Washington and in professor Andrew Reschovsky's tax policy class, I learned how important it is to know what you are talking about with regard to the budget and taxes. Much of social policy is administered through the tax code."

Sydor returned to Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2011 to intern with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which works at the federal and state levels on fiscal policy and public programs that affect low- and moderate-income families and individuals. Sydor researched the impact of the recession on state budgets, cataloging and categorizing the cuts and revenue-raising measures states are using to fill budget gaps. "Unfortunately, the vast majority of states have chosen to close those gaps by simply cutting funding for important social programs — programs that are likely to be in the greatest demand during times of economic hardship," Sydor says. "Some states have even gone so far as to cut taxes — decreasing revenues for their fiscal year 2012 budgets — and to require further program cuts. While raising taxes is difficult right now for political and economic reasons, I would much rather see a mix of spending cuts and revenue-raising measures to fill budget gaps instead of simply cutting funding from education and services for our country's most vulnerable people."

Sydor got a close view of the policymaking process during the four years she spent in Washington, D.C., first working for U.S. House member David Obey of Wisconsin, then freshman Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon. She returned to Obey's office in the summer of 2010 to help with archiving his records after he announced his retirement. She enrolled at La Follette that fall.

While she went through 40 years of Obey's materials, Sydor came across countless reports from the University of Wisconsin–Madison's Institute for Research on Poverty, which has a long history of collaborating with the La Follette School. "In my mind, finding those documents that influenced legislation at the federal level going back 20 years really solidified the importance of places like IRP and the University of Wisconsin and drew me to campus," Sydor says. "The other big factor was that Madison isn't Washington, D.C. Having lived and worked in D.C. for four years, I wanted a different perspective on politics and policy. On top of being able to be closer to my family in Wisconsin for at least a couple of years, Madison was the best fit."

On campus, Sydor has a project assistantship with the University of Wisconsin–Madison Center for Nonprofits where she assists the director in planning events, maintaining a database and anything else that needs to get done. She is also serving as president of the La Follette School Student Association for 2011-12. "Public service is important to me because in order to have a civil society, at least some of us have to focus on making sure that happens," she says. "I'm not sure if I'd agree that it is a responsibility for all citizens; people are of course free to do what they want, but for me the idea of giving back and contributing in a small way to something much greater than myself is deeply satisfying."

Pursuing a Master of Public Affairs degree is giving Sydor expertise to complement her experience in D.C. in Obey's and Merkley's offices, where she worked with databases, organized legislative correspondence and managed appropriations requests. "The knowledge and ways of thinking I gained in the first year through courses like statistics, microeconomics and policy analysis have honestly changed my perspective on how to go about solving public policy problems," she says.

A graduate of the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, Sydor appreciates the small size of the La Follette program. "I feel like I've gotten to know a lot of my fellow students really well, and 50 percent of what I'm learning and experiencing here — my growth as a person — is thanks to them," she says.

After graduating, Sydor hopes to return to D.C. and work for the federal government outside of Congress. "I'd like to be able to have experience working for each part of the policymaking process someday and then take all of those perspectives together to help me fight for an organization advocating for an issue I believe in," she says.

Another experience Sydor carries with her comprises the Friday afternoons she spent in Milwaukee in the elementary school class taught by a best friend from high school. Sydor used her "Summer Reads" training as an AmeriCorps volunteer at the Minnesota Literacy Council to help students with reading. "I thought it might be a good idea to share those skills where they are needed," Sydor says. "In addition, the budget cuts Milwaukee Public Schools have gone through in recent years mean that my friend is in a classroom with 25 kids by herself most afternoons. Having a couple of the kids read with me can take a lot of pressure off of her and allow her to give attention to other students."

Sydor did not plan to go into the world of public policy, but after earning her bachelor's degree in history and women's studies and working in the community in Minneapolis, she realized there was an important role for politics and policy in the fight for social justice. She is ever conscious, though, of the potential gulf between policy and the policymakers and the people those policies help. "I am seriously grateful to my friend for letting me come to her classroom and see how things are in the real world after a week of classes in Madison where we talk about her exact situation as a teacher in a public school through the lens of statistics and policy analysis," Sydor says. "The connection between policy and real people is very important to me."

Last modified on Wednesday, October 21, 2015