Tim Smeeding reflects on his career upon retirement

Profile photo of Tim Smeeding

The 2022-23 academic year capped off an illustrious career for Professor Tim Smeeding, who retired after five decades in academia. Professor Smeeding’s work has contributed to understanding poverty and inequality, and how to design more effective programs to reduce them. In his career he has written or edited 24 books, 271 peer-reviewed scholarly articles, and numerous policy reports that have helped inform public policy. He also co-founded the Luxembourg Income Study (LIS) in 1983 and served as its founding director through 2006. Professor Smeeding joined the La Follette School in 2008, returning to UW–Madison where he received his master’s and doctoral degrees in economics in the early 1970s. An accomplished and award-winning teacher who impacted the lives of countless students during his career, he helped to design and teach the initial gateway course in the La Follette School’s popular undergraduate certificate program in public policy. The La Follette School is grateful to Professor Smeeding for his incredible contributions to students, scholarship, and the school’s development. Learn more about Professor Smeeding’s career in this Q&A:

What sparked your academic interest in studying poverty and inequality?

I grew up a Catholic and I had a strong Jesuit education. The Jesuits believed that there was a moral case for addressing poverty. Not knowing what field I wanted to study, I started out as a math major in college, but discovered that I really wasn’t interested in math so much as numbers. In my junior year, I took my first economics course, and the math and the numbers just fit well for me. I started out at Connecticut in a doctoral program in economics where there were two professors who saw my potential and encouraged me to think bigger.

And so, I went to look at Madison. In one day, I met Gene Smolensky, Jeffrey Williamson, and Art Goldberger – people whose work I was reading. They were very supportive, and so that was it, that’s where I wanted to go. But I needed support. Halfway through my final math econ exam at Connecticut, I got a phone call. UW–Madison wanted to offer me a research assistantship starting in the summer at the Institute for Research on Poverty. And I said, “Great, I’m coming. I’ll take it.”

By the time of my dissertation, I was looking at something to do with poverty. And I finally ended up, at Bob Haveman’s urging, to become the first person to look at the effect of in-kind transfers on poverty. Food stamps, Medicaid, and public housing were the three things I worked most on. Much of what I did on those topics became Census Bureau policy in the 1980s, but the topics are still being debated. It was through this area of study that I met Rebecca Blank, who became a lifelong friend and colleague.

What are some ways that research focused on poverty and inequality has changed since you entered the field?

Research has changed in a lot of ways as inequality has increased and poverty proved hard to remedy. There weren’t big changes in inequality in the ’70s because incomes rose more uniformly across the distribution during post-World War II America. But in the early 1980s inequality really took off.

For me personally, 1982-83 were both big years. The Census Bureau published my study of in-kind transfers (pdf) and poverty. There was a conference at Clark University about international comparisons of poverty. Everybody came from their country with their own paper, but they all measured poverty using different methods and concepts. In the end, no one could compare outcomes. And so, two colleagues said, “We could do better, but it would be a lot of work to harmonize this data. Who’d be crazy enough to do something like that?” And they said, “Tim.”

Rebecca Blank standing at a podium next to a laughing Tim Smeeding
Smeeding was a lifelong friend and colleague of Chancellor Emerita Rebecca Blank who also studied the measurement of poverty.

And in February ’83, I met Lee Rainwater, a sociology professor at Harvard, for the first time in Washington. We had dinner and he became convinced that I could do this. And we started the LIS in April 1983.

Then in 1984, economist-turned-demographer Sam Preston wrote an important paper comparing children and the elderly in America. It turned out the elderly were doing great, and children were doing terribly. I really took that to heart and decided to look at children and the elderly across countries using LIS. And it turns out other countries treated their children much better than we did. That turned into a book, The Vulnerable. But it took until 2003 for Lee Rainwater and I to really make the case for it in Poor Kids in a Rich Country.

I also examined income and wealth inequality cross-nationally. We had more inequality in both measures than any other rich country. We still do. And the LIS research which allowed greater comparability is still the gold standard today for comparative policy outcome work.

Much of my success is because my work appealed to public policy scholars, policymakers, and those in other social sciences. Most economists were more theoretical or more interested in methods than results; they wanted to speak to other economists. But I wanted to convince policymakers and non-economists about policies that worked. As I matured, I found that the people closest to me were sociologists like Lee Rainwater or applied economists like Anthony (Tony) Atkinson. And so, from then on, I was writing for and in public policy, political science, sociology, demography, and statistical journals, as well as in applied economics journals.

What will you remember most about your time at the La Follette School?

Terrifically talented colleagues working in an amazingly congenial place. It was a small department, and I arrived in fall 2008 while Barbara (Bobbi) Wolfe was director. Maria Cancian, who had hired me to direct the Institute for Research on Poverty, was a colleague, as was Dave Weimer, who I knew for a long time. Susan Yackee, who I had tried to hire twice at Syracuse, was here. It was home to my mentor Bob Haveman, who had recently retired, along with my former student Pam Herd, her husband Don Moynihan and Carolyn Heinrich.

I was always amazed at how prolific my colleagues were and how hard they worked. LFS was, and is, a high-quality environment full of highly productive faculty. And I had wonderful students, too. Many of my students here and at the Maxwell School at Syracuse, where I spent 17 years, went on to become great professors and researchers.

I’ll also remember things I helped start here. In 2013 Pam Herd and I wrote about how we needed an undergrad program as well as an accelerated MPA. And we thought we’d start out with a certificate program, which we have now, and then get an academic major, which we’re working on.

What do you hope your students and colleagues will remember most about their time working with you?

Three things: first, work hard, play hard; that’s always been my motto; then be very frank with people and have a straightforward approach. You know where I stand on something in five minutes because I’m not afraid to tell you. And then finally, the lessons I learned about managing people in research centers and large projects like LIS using the 3 R’s: reward, recognition, and reinforcement.

Recognizing people for what they’ve done goes a long way. Same for reinforcement of people who are doing things well. And I’ve done that my whole life in many managerial roles. It was great for me to learn those principles early on.

What are you looking forward to in retirement?

Slowing down a little. But I’ll keep working on the child allowance to fight child poverty that we really need in this country. Children are expensive, but the child allowance helps parents afford and support their kids while giving kids a better chance at upward mobility. That’s pretty much what I’ve been all about for the last 15 to 20 years. And I’ll continue with projects measuring economic well-being more broadly with income, consumption and wealth.

As Liam Neeson said, “I’m retired, not dead.” And so, I will be phasing down and not having to prepare classes, but I’ll continue doing policy research. And I’m still writing letters for former students. I’ll never give that up. I had a great time in my 49 years in academe. I got very lucky in my career, had great mentors and have been fortunate to meet wonderful people all over the place who became good friends and colleagues.

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