Category Archives: Interview

Raising the Minimum Retirement Age: How Do Workers Respond?

As populations are aging, governments around the world are looking for ways to stretch pension programs to accommodate large numbers of retirees. One option is to raise the minimum retirement age, as Germany did in 1999, upping the retirement age for women from 60 to 63. Economists Johannes Geyer and Clara Welteke analyze the impacts of this policy shift in a Journal of Human Resources preprint article. They wanted to know whether women over 60 changed their labor market status as a result of the reform. Did employed women stay in their jobs longer or use unemployment or disability benefits as a way to exit the labor market? Geyer and Welteke joined us to discuss their findings.


Why did you decide to pursue this topic?

Population aging is an enormous challenge for the financial sustainability of public pension systems of many OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. Germany is facing a rapid increase in the old-age dependency ratio in the coming years. Already every second person in Germany is over 45 years old and every fifth person is over 66 years old. One way to increase the financial sustainability of the pay-as-you-go pension system is to increase the legal retirement age, thereby extending contribution periods whilst simultaneously decreasing pension expenditures. However, legal retirement age increases often have undesired distributional effects. Furthermore, workers may not be able or willing to work longer and may choose other exit routes from employment. Thus, it is of great importance to gain empirical evidence on the effects of pension reforms that increase retirement age thresholds. Our goal is to gain insights into the effects of this important question and inform policy makers.

What is one takeaway from this research that you’d like to communicate to policy makers?

The increase in the early retirement age for women in Germany resulted in a large employment increase in the affected age group (60- to 63-year-olds). One could conclude that the reform was a success and recommend similar measures for other countries and groups. However, the reform was successful in increasing employment because the labor market was in a good state and women were able to continue their employment. We also find that inactive and unemployed women remain longer in their respective status due to the reform. Another factor was the early announcement of the reform, which gave enough time to adjust career plans.

As a main takeaway, we recommend early retirement age increases as an effective tool to increase employment of the affected group, if labor market perspectives and the health of workers enable such an extension of their working life. Retirement age increases should be announced well in advance and those who are not able to work longer should be offered appropriate support, such as disability pension schemes.

What’s one question that emerged from your research that you’d like to follow up on, or that you hope someone else will explore in the future?

One of our results was that non-working women affected by the pension reform did not return to the labor market while employed women stayed in employment. In a follow-up project, we look at the distributional effects of the pension reform at the household level. More specifically, we wanted to know if the pension led to increased income inequality. Our results suggest that the distribution of available household income is not affected by the reform. One reason for this result is program substitution. The study is forthcoming in Labor Economics. In a current project, we look at health effects of the reform. We use administrative data from German health insurance that contain detailed information about individual diagnoses from medical practitioners’ records. Preliminary results suggest that the reform led to an increase of psychological symptoms.

What are some of the ways in which raising the retirement age could theoretically backfire on governments? Did you find any evidence that this is happening in the case of Germany?

The reform can be considered a success in retrospect. It did not lead to an increase in unemployment or large increases in disability pensions. However, the positive employment effect is strongly related to the good labor market performance at the time. Our results also show that women at this pre-retirement age do not react very flexibly to changing conditions. The results would have been different if Germany had experienced a large recession. Interestingly, this result is also found in other countries, like Australia and Austria. Therefore, governments should also invest more in labor market opportunities for older workers and develop better strategies to bring the older unemployed back to work.


Johannes Geyer is deputy head of the department of public economics at DIW Berlin. He earned his PhD in Economics in 2012. Between 2012 and 2016 he was a visiting professor at Humboldt-Universität Berlin, in addition to his work at the DIW Berlin. His research focuses on issues of social protection and demographic change. For this he uses empirical methods of microeconometrics and microsimulation.

Clara Welteke is an economist at the German Federal Ministry of Finance since April 2019. Her work focuses on pension provision and the sustainability of public finances. Previously, Clara was a researcher at the Public Economics Department and the Gender Economics Research Group at the DIW Berlin. Clara received her PhD from the Free University Berlin and the DIW Graduate Center in 2017. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy & Economics from the University of Bayreuth and a Master’s degree in Econometrics and Mathematical Economics from the University of Amsterdam. After completing her Master’s degree, Clara worked as a consultant for the World Bank. During her doctoral studies, she worked for the OECD in Paris and the European Commission in Brussels.

Reimagining Ecosystems through Science Fiction

Science fiction readers may be familiar with the giant sandworms of Frank Herbert’s Dune, or the pequeninos, small pig-like aliens from Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card. These species and their surrounding ecosystems puzzle the human explorers that encounter them. In the article “Islands in the Aether Ocean: Speculative Ecosystems in Science Fiction” from Contemporary Literature, Elizabeth Callaway examines these two novels and their strange species, arguing that the authors propose a different way of relating to biodiversity. In this interview, Callaway explains how science fiction can help us question the conceptual frameworks that define our understanding of biodiversity on Earth.


How did you end up looking at science fiction through the lens of biodiversity?

Actually, the interest in biodiversity came first! I’m writing a book about representations of biodiversity, and a version of the article we’re discussing now appears as a chapter. When I was initially thinking about assembling a group of texts that tackle the challenge of representing species in their multitudes, science fiction seemed like a particularly fertile place to start. Within the genre are novels that describe entire planets of living variety. While other types of books mention hundreds of species (memoirs of competitive birders or the nonfiction of E. O. Wilson, for example) SF is really excellent at portraying entire planets of surprising and lively creatures. In addition, these planets can sometime feature what I call “speculative ecosystems,” or sets of interactions among living creatures that do not function the way Earth’s ecosystems do. They’re built on different, imaginative systems, and because they’re so unusual they model alternative stances toward biodiversity.

When it comes to depicting biodiversity, what makes these two novels different from other works of science fiction?

Their “speculative ecosystems” are a key part of what sets them apart. Unlike many worlds that are simple Earth analogues where the environment doesn’t make much of a difference to the story, and unlike novels which feature a planet seeded with Earth organisms (like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy), these are not systems that are analogous to Earth ecosystems or based on Earth species. They’re totally alien (if imagined) worlds. There are other examples that I would include as speculative ecosystems. The most well-known might be James Cameron’s Avatar. That world features ecosystems that work in ways that are very different from those on Earth. Animals can connect to each other with exposed nerve-type organs, there is a central tree that connects the entire planet in a type of neural net, and there’s abundant terrestrial bioluminescence. That said, Dune and Speaker for the Dead, unlike Avatar, do not make the speculative ecosystem into an object of worship or offer any old-school environmental readings having to do with rootedness, sense of place, or living on the land. Rather they explore the speculative variety of organisms on their planet in new ways.

You say that, while we are used to thinking about science fiction as a genre that shows us possible futures for our own planet, science fiction also works “by imagining things that could never be.” How can the “counterfactual” nature of science fiction help us to think about our own environmental challenges?

On one hand it seems like the science fiction texts that imagine Earth futures might be more useful for thinking through current environmental challenges. You think of stories that include biodiversity decline like Phillip K. Dick’s Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep or Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and it’s clear how they’re interested in what animals mean to individual people and also to different human societies. They explore how these meanings might change as species decline. What is particularly interesting to me about science fiction that doesn’t imagine future Earths of declined species, however, is that they experiment with alternative ways to relate to biodiversity. In particular, I think it’s useful that Dune and Speaker for the Dead present a puzzled stance toward biodiversity where one is continually surprised by the way diverse nonhuman organisms interact with each other. I think the mechanics of science fiction itself—the way it explains how the fictional world works by casually throwing out hints rather than presenting sections of exposition—are fantastic for modeling a puzzled engagement that holds space open for recognizing the agency of nonhumans. In science fiction we’re always ready for that clue that changes what we had assumed to be true about the world, and this is especially true for the impossibly strange ecosystems of counterfactual worlds. If we’re curious about how the world works while aware that we can be surprised, then I think that can cultivate an attitude that more easily recognizes the liveliness of the material world including (but not limited to) nonhuman living creatures.

What are you reading right now? (For fun or for serious.)

Emily Dickinson has become my home quarantine inspiration. Whenever my socially-distanced world feels tiny and diminished, she makes me realize that my back yard is only as small as my mind. (Dickinson and I share the good fortune of having a yard.) After reading a few of her poems I see the details of the world as strange and new. In one of her more famous quotations she describes poetry as writing which makes her “feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off.” This is such a fabulously weird way of defining poetry, and it is how her poems make me feel except it is also as if my entire word has had a lid removed, and there’s more room to experience everything. I’m also reading How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu, which is beautiful, lonely, and a playful mashup of science fiction and narrative theory.

If you had to pick a favorite species from Arrakis or Lusitania, what would it be?

Given our current pandemic, I am more and more fascinated by the descolada virus that “unglues” DNA and wreaks havoc on the human community of Lusitania in Speaker for the Dead. While I wouldn’t want to characterize the descolada as my “favorite,” it has captured my attention anew. This is the virus that sculpted life on Lusitania, initially creating the plant/animal paired species while driving the vast majority of life extinct. Its world-remaking capabilities certainly feel especially real right now as my own world is being remade in different but comparable ways. Also, the way the descolada simplifies the planet (to put it mildly) is more and more striking to me. I now look at my article’s visualization of the stark ecosystem of Lusitania and imagine a similarly simple social network made of my interactions during social distancing. The story of a virus reshaping a world certainly feels increasingly relevant.


Elizabeth Callaway is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Utah and affiliated faculty with the Environmental Humanities Graduate Program. She researches and teaches at the intersections of contemporary literature, environmental humanities, and digital humanities. Some of her most recent publications focus on climate change in Zadie Smith’s NW, diversity and inclusion in definitions digital humanities, and the speculative ecosystems of science fiction. Her current book project, titled Eden’s Endemics: Narratives of Biodiversity on Earth and Beyond, is forthcoming at the University of Virginia Press.

Advanced Placement Classes Improve Skills, Increase Anxiety, Study Finds

Each year, more high schools across the United States are integrating Advanced Placement (AP) classes into their course offerings, providing students with a cost-effective alternative to general college courses. AP scores are seen to indicate college readiness and a student’s ability to succeed in a specific subject. According to a study recently published ahead-of-print in the Journal of Human Resources, more than 70% of US high schools have adopted AP courses into their curriculum, some even requiring students to take them. In the first-ever experimental study of the AP program, authors Dylan Conger, Alec I. Kennedy, Mark C. Long, and Raymond McGhee Jr. found that the classes succeed in improving students’ skills but conversely may also lead to reduced confidence.

The study offered enrollment in AP biology or chemistry courses to randomly selected students from twenty-three US high schools. At the end of the semester, researchers measured AP- and non-AP students’ ability to analyze and develop arguments about science and participants were surveyed to assess their confidence in the subject, their interest in a future STEM degree, and their levels of stress. As many high schoolers could attest, students in AP science classes were found to have increased stress levels and lower grades due to pressure and rigor. Additionally, taking AP classes decreased students’ confidence that they could succeed in STEM courses in college. But despite the negative impacts, the study found that these classes do successfully increase students’ scientific skill levels and prepare them for college-level coursework, as well as increasing high schoolers’ interest in majoring in STEM in college.

Study author Dylan Conger discussed with us these surprising findings, as well as the origins of tracking AP performance effects. To learn more, read the full Journal of Human Resources preprint article, “The Effect of Advanced Placement Science on Students’ Skills, Confidence and Stress.”


How did you decide to pursue this topic?

My collaborator, Mark Long, and I had been studying advanced high school courses for a few years and we were struck by the lack of causal evidence in support of the AP program despite its near-ubiquitous presence in US schools. Determining how the AP program affects students is difficult because students self-select into the program and teachers often decide which students are allowed entry. We started to brainstorm about how we might successfully randomize access to AP courses. We landed on a research design that was ethical and that would minimize concerns among parents, students, and educators. We decided to focus on AP science courses in particular because these courses were being promoted by policymakers and educators as a key tool for improving the STEM workforce in the US.

Though AP courses are often seen as a tool for college preparedness, how would you explain the low confidence that AP science students have for achieving success college STEM courses?

We spent some time reading the literature from psychology and learned, perhaps somewhat intuitively, that reduced confidence doesn’t necessarily have a negative effect on student performance. In fact, some of the literature suggests that overconfidence can lead to academic failure. AP courses are very challenging and they cause some students to lower their estimation of their own ability. In our study, we found suggestive evidence that this loss of confidence did not interfere with their learning in the AP class itself.  We found that the AP students gained more knowledge in science than the students in other honors and regular courses. How that affects learning in college is an open question.

What is one takeaway from your article that you’d like to communicate to a non-specialist?

The schools that participated in our study tend to have above-average shares of low-income students. Many of the students in our study were eligible for subsidized school meals. For these types of schools and students, our findings suggest that the AP program has both benefits and costs. For instance, we find that students appear to have learned more about science in the AP course than they would have learned in other regular and honors courses. At the same time, the AP courses led to worse grades, losses in confidence, and higher levels of stress.

Why did it make sense to publish in the Journal of Human Resources?

As one of the leading journals focusing on policies that promote human capital, the JHR was a natural fit for our paper. The JHR has also been intentional about disseminating the research to a broad audience.  

What’s one question that emerged from your research that you’d like to follow up on, or that you hope someone else looks into in the future?

This paper focuses on the short-run impacts of the AP program on students’ cognitive and socioemotional outcomes. Ultimately, everyone wants to know how the AP program influences students’ college-going, and in particular, college-going at selective institutions. We are currently working on a follow-up paper that estimates the effect of AP science on these important life outcomes. We also plan to follow our cohorts for a few more years to determine whether and how the AP science program influences their college graduation.


Dylan Conger is a Professor of Public Policy at the George Washington University and a research affiliate at New York University’s Institute for Education and Social Policy. Conger’s research focuses on explaining disparities in achievement between social groups and evaluating policies aimed at reducing those disparities. 

Postnationalism in the Street Carnival of Rio de Janeiro

Pre-carnival parade of Céu na Terra. Photo by Andrew Snyder.

For the next five days, the streets of Rio de Janeiro will fill with the sounds of diverse musical traditions. The music of carnival has traditionally played an important role in Brazilian national identity, explains Andrew Snyder in “From Nationalist Rescue to Internationalist Cannibalism: The Alternative Carnivalesque, Brass, and the Revival of Street Carnival in Rio de Janeiro,” from the Luso-Brazilian Review. Snyder shows, however, how new movements are expanding Rio’s street carnival repertoires, creating diverse new affinities and identities. In the following interview, he describes the ethnographic fieldwork that led him to write the article, including his experience playing trumpet among the four hundred musicians of Orquesta Voadora (the Flying Orchestra) in Rio’s street carnival.


How did you decide to pursue this topic?

This Luso-Brazilian Review article was part of my dissertation research for my PhD in ethnomusicology, and it examines the national and international repertoires of the brass movement known as neofanfarrismo (“new brass band-ismo”) that emerged from Rio de Janeiro’s street carnival. I came very haphazardly to write my dissertation on this musical community and its engagements in local activism. Though I had always loved and played Brazilian music and had majored in music and Romance languages, my earliest graduate studies were focused elsewhere. In 2011, Occupy Wall Street exploded, and I found at those protests the Brass Liberation Orchestra (BLO), a brass band in the Bay Area that emerged to play solely for protests during the 2003 Iraq War and is still going strong. Though I was also a music major focused on guitar and piano, I hadn’t been playing trumpet much, but I was quickly swept up into playing in the BLO during those exciting political times. Now trumpet is my main performing instrument!

In 2012, we played at the HONK! Festival of Activist Street Bands in the Boston area, where alternative and activist brass bands play on the streets for free in support of social and political causes. Through that festival network, I learned of a vibrant musical world in Rio de Janeiro where brass ensembles historically connected to the street carnival were experimenting with diverse global repertoires and playing on the front lines of protest. In search of a dissertation topic, I first visited Rio de Janeiro for a preliminary fieldwork trip during the momentous 2013 June protests, which these bands were musically supporting. Still, I couldn’t grasp the full, massive scope of what goes on in the neofanfarrismo community until undertaking fieldwork in Rio de Janeiro between 2014 and 2016 spanning two carnival seasons. This was a fascinating eighteen months between the World Cup and the Olympics and, in retrospect, it was the beginning of the end of the Workers’ Party and the Pink Tide, which had helped set the conditions for the street carnival revival to explode in the early twenty-first century.

What is one part of your research that surprised you, and why?

It would be quite an understatement to say that the neofanfarrismo community “surprised me”—more that it stunned me—but I would say that the biggest thing that stuck with me is the difference between a musical scene and musical movement, the street carnival and neofanfarrismo communities most certainly being the latter. I had no concept of the level of dedication and organization that could be put into community-led mass street music events. The scale of carnival beyond the samba schools, which I also participated in and are also amazing, is bafflingly awe-inspiring. The main group I worked with, Orquestra Voadora, the band that really pushed the neofanfarrismo community beyond traditional repertoires like the marchinha (traditional carnival songs), is a band of about 15 people who organize around 400 people to play for over 100,000 people on carnival day. That’s not even a really big bloco (carnival music ensemble). The more traditional brass bloco Bola Preta brings two million to the streets!

Despite, or because of, this enormity, the neofanfarrismo community is incredibly close-knit and collaborative, with musicians actively working through oficinas (classes or workshops) to teach music to other people. The “-ismo” suffix really underlines the fact that the bands are not just a loosely-connected scene but a social movement. Though the Bay Area also has a vibrant musical scene, I can’t say that there is anything that comes close to neofanfarrismo in the United States; though the international HONK! movement and New Orleans come to mind as related phenomena, they seem quite small in comparison. I certainly believe that this difference between the countries is especially due to the availability of playing in, and yes also drinking in, public space. I have come to see the ways public space is regulated as being a crucial part of the abilities of social movements, especially culturally defined ones, to thrive. Scenes are what evolve in a more splintered cultural worlds like the Bay Area where we are bound to celebrate most often in private clubs.

How did your role as a musician combine with your role as an ethnomusicologist to guide the direction of your research?

As a professional trumpet player, I was immediately “dentro do cordão,” or inside the cords that separate bloco musicians from the crammed audiences that would follow the musicians. It would certainly be possible to study street carnival and neofanfarrismo from alternative perspectives (which some are doing), focusing, for example, on the experiences of the audience or what it is like to be a new musician learning in the movement’s oficinas. But certainly playing trumpet was an asset in accessing “key informants,” getting the insider perspectives, and being a “participant-observer.” That research methodology language really does not capture my experience with the community, however, which could be summed up, with all due respect to more “sober” disciplines, by what I would tell people at the time: if you can’t do academic research while playing music and drinking in the street, is it really worth doing?

As a trumpeter, I was able to play in almost all of the bands and blocos I wrote about. I taught trumpet in the oficinas and participated in their movement of mass musical education. In 2016, I went on tour with the Carioca band Bagunço for five weeks in France. I helped organize the very first HONK! Rio Festival de Fanfarras Ativistas, which Mission Delirium, a band I co-founded, attended in 2015. The HONK! festivals are grass-roots international street/brass band festivals that originated in the US in 2006 and are spreading around the world. There are now five HONK! Festivals in Brazil alone! During preparations for that first festival, I and some co-organizers were robbed at gunpoint in Santa Teresa, and I lost my trumpet, my most crucial “fieldwork tool.” The local community took it upon themselves to organize busking events to help me, an American researcher, with the finances of my loss. I can’t speak for my informants, but I felt known first and foremost as a musician who was firmly part of the movement, rather than a researcher. I wouldn’t want to have done it any other way.


Andrew Snyder’s research explores the political and social impacts of mass public festivity, especially focused on brass and percussion ensembles in diverse locations including Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans, San Francisco, and beyond. He completed a PhD in Ethnomusicology at UC Berkeley in 2018 with a dissertation focused on the carnival brass band community in Rio de Janeiro, the basis for his current book project with Wesleyan University Press. Beyond his article in the Luso-Brazilian Review, his research appears in Journal of Popular Music Studies, Latin American Review, Yearbook for Traditional Music, and Ethnomusicology, and he is co-editor of HONK! A Street Band Renaissance of Music and Activism (Routledge 2020). An avid trumpet player in diverse musical groups, he is co-founder of San Francisco’s Mission Delirium Brass Band, which has toured to Brazil and throughout Europe. Currently a Research Associate at UC Santa Cruz, he has taught at UC Berkeley, University of the Pacific, and UC Davis.

The Impact of Pollution Exposure on Educational Outcomes and Inequality

Upcoming Journal of Human Resources article uncovers the hidden effects of pollutants on cognitive development and academic performance in adolescents

Journal of Human Resources Fall 2019 current issue cover

Increasing environmental consciousness means that more people are reaching for metal straws, but we may not be aware of a much larger issue: the hidden toxins in the air. New research set to appear in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Human Resources suggests that pollutants from local Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) sites may impact the productivity and educational development of students in nearby schools.

Over the past four years, Claudia Persico, an assistant professor at American University, evaluated over one million elementary, middle, and high school students in Florida using their Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) scores, their level of academic success, and general wellness. With over 30% of schools in Florida existing within one mile of a TRI site, exposure to air pollution was found to be associated with lower test scores and a greater chance that students will be suspended from school, have greater numbers of absences from school and perform lower on their FCAT exams. Persico expanded on these results to determine if different proximities to TRI sites affected grade repetition, behavior, and health over time. When students’ records were examined, it was revealed that those who had been exposed to the pollution for a greater cumulative time had lower attendance records and more health concerns.

Persico joined us to discuss the genesis of her interest in this topic and the larger implications of the study. To learn more, read the full Journal of Human Resources preprint article, “The Effects of Local Industrial Pollution on Students and Schools.”


1. How did you decide to pursue this topic? What spurred this study?

I used to study the neurobiology of autism at the Boston University School of Medicine, but I became interested in why low-income children perform so much worse in school and are more likely to have disabilities. Because the developing brain is so vulnerable to the environment, this got me interested in studying pollution.

It turns out that in 2014 alone, Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) sites in America (which represent only one type of industrial plant) released 3.95 billion pounds of (untreated) toxic chemicals into the air, land, and water, out of 25.45 billion total pounds of toxic chemicals created in production-related wastes. Although we do not currently have comprehensive evidence on which pollutants are most harmful, the evidence we do have is worrisome and suggests a source of inequality that has not yet been explored in depth. Namely, since African American, Hispanic, and low-income families are more likely to live and attend school in close proximity to sources of pollution like toxic waste and TRI sites, where housing is less expensive, it is possible that exposure to pollution—which more affluent families can avoid because they can afford more costly housing—is one mechanism through which poverty produces negative cognitive and health outcomes over time.

2. You note that about 30 percent of children in Florida live within one mile of a TRI site. Is Florida an extreme case? How are the effects of pollutants on cognitive development applicable to other areas of the United States and the world?

There are currently about 21,800 TRI sites operating across the United States and the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 59 million people (about 19 percent of the population) live within one mile of a TRI site (EPA 2014). We find that nearly 22 percent of all public schools were within one mile of a TRI facility in 2016 serving more than 11 million public school students.

While other countries don’t call their factories TRI sites, it is likely that my findings could generalize to power plants, pharmaceutical industry, chemical, metal, and concrete manufacturers, as well as other factories that produce pollution containing carcinogens or known developmental toxicants worldwide. It is difficult to know how many people this would affect given that there isn’t a central database for international pollution, but my guess is that many people are affected. 

3. What is one takeaway from your article that you’d like to communicate to non-scholars (or policymakers)?

These findings have strong implications for where we locate schools, playgrounds, public housing and places children or pregnant women congregate. For a long time, we have known that neighborhoods matter to children’s long-term outcomes. We are starting to realize that pollution is one major reason why this is the case, that pollution might drive more inequality than we are comfortable with, and that the true costs of pollution are only beginning to be understood.

4. To what extent do you feel that your research could inspire change in policy?

I think policymakers are starting to be interested in these findings, and I am optimistic about the future. While the land near TRI sites is cheaper to build a school on in the short run, the truth is that these sites might jeopardize the very mission of the schools located there. This also says nothing of the long-run costs on the children exposed to this type of pollution. In the back of the envelope calculation, we find that being exposed to TRI pollution in school leads to a US$4,361 decrease in lifetime income per person (in present value terms). With 436,088 children in Florida ever attending school within one mile of an operating TRI site during this sample period, this result implies US$1,875,178,400 in lost lifetime earnings.

5. Will you continue to pursue similar questions or will you take your research in another direction?

Yes, I am pursuing several new projects about the true costs of pollution. For example, I have another new working paper (along with David Simon and Jenni Heissel) in which we compare students who have to switch from elementary to middle school or from middle school to high school as they progress through the school system. We compare children who switch from a school that is upwind from a highway to a school that is downwind of a highway, and again find that highway pollution affects students’ test scores, behavior, and absences. Children who attend school near a major highway are again more likely to be low income or minority than children attending school elsewhere.

Figure 1. Locations of Toxic Release Inventory and Superfund sites in the United States in 2015.

Note: Toxic Release Inventory facilities are shown in blue and sites on the Superfund National Priorities List are shown in red.

Source: National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services. https://toxmap.nlm.nih.gov/toxmap


Claudia Persico is an applied policy scholar whose research focuses on environmental policy, inequality, health and education policy using causal inference methods. Persico is also an IZA Research Affiliate, and a Research Affiliate with the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. Her research has recently been featured in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, the Journal of Labor Economics, and the Journal of Human Resources. Her current work examines the social and biological mechanisms underlying the relationships between poverty, the environment, and children’s cognitive development and health. In particular, much of her current research focuses on how early exposure to environmental pollution can cause inequality by affecting child health, development, behavior, and academic achievement. She has also studied how school funding affects long term outcomes, how school segregation impacts racial disproportionalities in special education, and how childhood exposure to pollution affects academic outcomes. Her research has been covered by the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, the Atlantic, and many other major media outlets. She was formerly an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Ghana Studies Publishes Special Forum on First Ghanaian Archaeologist

Ghana Studies

The latest volume of Ghana Studies features a special forum in memory of James Kwesi Anquandah, who was a pioneer in the field of archaeology in Ghana. Forum editor Ebony Coletu chatted with the editors of Ghana Studies to describe Anquandah’s legacy and support for interdisciplinary research.


Ghana Studies Editors: For readers who may be new to Ghana Studies or to the field of archaeology, can you tell us why James Anquandah was such a towering figure in the field? 

Ebony Coletu: Professor Anquandah was the first student of archaeology at the University of Ghana in the sixties—and he went on to mentor five generations of archaeology students as a faculty member, along with countless others who were not working in archaeology or even students at the university. Because his research practice was deeply interdisciplinary, he attracted scholars beyond the department, many like myself just dropping in to his office to ask a few questions, but leaving with an exciting mandate to develop new approaches. You hear this in Kwasi Ampene’s article too, how conversations with Anquandah animated a speculative approach to researching musical practices in the Akan Stone Age and Early Iron Age. So Anquandah did not prescribe a method, he inspired methods, really from his energetic curiosity and commitment to telling new stories about the distant past. Also in this forum, Mohammed Mustapha and Wazi Apoh describe his “eclectic method”—which is a multi-disciplinary research protocol Anquandah used to answer complex questions. For him, it was not enough to write from a single discipline, or apply a single method consistently. Instead he wanted to synthesize history, policy, sociology, and art, to help reformulate and deepen the significance of a question and tell a better story about research findings, particularly for publics beyond the academy. 

GS Editors: What distinguishes this special forum commemorating the work and legacy of James Kwesi Anquandah (1938-2017)? 

EC: Soon after he passed, I circulated a call for papers that focused on mentorship as a way to map his influence across fields, thus “reframing the reach of archaeology.” The responses affirmed the call by capturing Anquandah’s marathon commitment to mentoring  (training five generations of archaeologists in Ghana) as well as the ongoing work of decolonizing disciplines. Rachel Ama Asaa Engmann addresses this directly in her essay, when she writes about autoarchaeology, a research practice that foregrounds direct descendants as researchers whose families have lived in or around the excavation site. She enlisted Danish-Ga descendants as researchers at Christiansborg Castle, unearthing artifacts and posing questions collaboratively. As a consequence of centering community-based knowledge production, the project inspires new pipelines for training in archaeology aimed at multilingual researchers who are gaining experience on site. She reframes the reach of archaeology by asking who can do this work and why? For Kwasi Ampene, Anquandah inspired a deep-time approach to Akan ethnomusicology, and in the process he challenges our dependence on sixteenth-century European traveler sketches typically used as evidence of musical practices. Questioning the explanatory power and the historical limits of these images, Ampene goes on to suggest a deep-time alternative: using archaeological research to speculate on the multipurpose use of agricultural instruments to make ancient music, inspired by those used for both purposes today.

GS Editors: You not only guest edited this special forum, you also contributed an essay to it in which you introduce the idea of “descendent epistemology.” Can you tell readers how your conversations with Anquandah helped you formulate this innovative methodology? 

EC: I was fortunate to meet Anquandah in the early stages of my research on Chief Sam, an Akyem merchant who led a diasporic return movement that recruited support from thousands of African Americans to purchase a ship that set sail from Texas, arriving in the Gold Coast in 1915. I had narrow interests in that first conversation. I wanted to reconstruct a fuller version of Sam’s family tree and identify a plausible link to the Sams of Anomabo, who are part of my family. Chief Sam’s life was far from conventional, leaving traces and descendants in multiple countries, including multiple wives and stepchildren. I sought Anquandah’s help to make sense of a more complex family tree. But after reading his interview notes with descendants and talking with him over several years, he began to reflect my questions back to me, noting that my concern with kinship had widened to include the technical matter of diasporic return: what was the status of African Americans who pledged to live, work, and die in African communities? Were they also, in some sense, part of Sam’s family? Sam had proposed to adopt them en masse to facilitate the process of landownership and repair a spiritual wound from separation by slavery. While mass adoption was unsuccessful, those who remained quickly integrated into indigenous communities through other means. I found Sam’s proposal, and colonial attempts to block it, an important antecedent to contemporary debates about diasporic right of return, evidence of kinship, and different routes to Ghanaian citizenship. 

GS Editors: Taken together, what does this collection of special forum essays tell us about the next generation of archaeological research coming out of Ghana? 

EC: The last essay says much on this point. Mustapha and Apoh tell a story about Anquandah’s decolonial legacy, which has shaped their own research itineraries instead of resting on a citational model that preserves what previous generations of Africanist archaeologists prioritized. For example, Apoh’s research builds new sources for the understudied topic of German missionionization and colonization in historical archaeology. While Mustapha pushes back against an exogenous theory of social complexity in the Mamprugu Traditional Area in Northern Ghana by investigating indigenous innovations that led to large scale ancient ironworking. Engmann’s work also sharpens this point by challenging value assessments in the literature, which can determine which places are considered critical to research while marginalizing others. Her work at Christiansborg Castle is groundbreaking for the sheer number of artifacts excavated in a short period of time on a site previously considered marginal. This despite the fact that it served as the seat of several administrations, from Danish governors to Flight Lieutenant John Jerry Rawlings. Though this forum began in a memorial spirit, it was exciting to edit because it features forthcoming interdisciplinary work in Ghana Studies encouraged by Professor Anquandah’s pathbreaking example.


Ghana Studies Volume 22 is available on Project MUSE. Browse the table of contents, which includes the special forum along with other articles and reviews. And if you’re attending the African Studies Association Conference this week, stop by the University of Wisconsin Press booth (#314), where you’ll find Ghana Studies alongside many of our other titles in African Studies.

An Interview with Poet Rae Armantrout

As National Poetry Month draws to a close, we present three interviews with living poets, originally published in Contemporary Literature journal. The interviews are freely available to access until May 1.

Our final poet is Rae Armantrout, a central figure of the Language poetry movement of the 1970s and 1980s who was nevertheless somewhat separate from that collectivity, crafting her own flavor of poetry that over time has remained “distinctive and distinctively fresh, particularly in its allegiance to a honed version of lyric that brings to mind the poetry of Emily Dickinson or George Oppen, and in its attention to the degradations—and the surprises—of American speech that permeate our consciousness and infiltrate even our dreams,” according to interviewer Lynn Keller. The conversation presented here touches on everything from physics to religion to ghosts to feminism. Armantrout discusses her cancer diagnosis and how it has impacted the practice and content of her writing, leading her to write poems more quickly and to dwell on mortality (though she says, “I’ve always had an attraction to the dark stuff anyway. I used to say I was channeling Kali. (Not so funny now.)”). When Keller asks Armantrout about the religious imagery in her recent work, she replies that though she’s not religious, she sees a parallel between religious practice and the act of creating a poem or other artwork:

Who are we talking to when we write? I don’t really think, in my case, that I’m talking to a specific audience; I think I’m talking to myself, but when I’m talking to myself, who am I talking to? It feels very much like when I was a child and I prayed, so it’s not that I actually believe there is an entity called God who hears what I say, but there is this desire to somehow perfect utterance. But make it perfect for whom, you know? I think in a way we are making something for the gods that we don’t believe in.

Read the full interview here, and then go read Armantrout’s poems!


And check out our other poetry month offerings:

An interview with Marge Piercy

An interview with Myung Mi Kim

An Interview with Poet Myung Mi Kim

As National Poetry Month draws to a close, we’re presenting three interviews with living poets, originally published in Contemporary Literature journal. The interviews are freely available to access until May 1.

Our second poet is Myung Mi Kim, in conversation with Lynn Keller. Kim, a Korean-American, refers to herself as “as a poet arrived at an uncanny familiarity with another language—or more precisely, as a poet transcribing the interstices of the abbreviated, the oddly conjoined, the amalgamated—recognizing that language occurs under continual construction.” As Keller puts it, in Kim’s hands, language

is subject to fracture and disruption, excision and rearrangement. It functions not as a means of gaining an illusory stability but rather as a register of the often jarring instability of human experience in time, and of the stumblings, the incoherencies, the polyphonic complexity of the immigrant’s experience in and between several cultures.

The wide-ranging discussion presented here touches on the poet’s process, childbirth and family, documentary poetry, poetic forms that privilege visual impact, the pastoral, geological time, the slipperiness of nostalgia, the generative power of silence, migration, and loss and mourning. Kim and Keller’s conversation bounces among so many different topics in part because Kim’s vision of poetry is so expansive and all-encompassing. As she describes it, “Poetry invites a practice of language/perception that embraces mutability, undecidability, the motion underneath and around what’s codified in conventions of language, grammar, syntax, semantics, and so forth. Poetry produces new ways of participating in perception, thinking, historical being and becoming.”

Read the full interview here, and then go read Kim’s poems!


And if you missed yesterday’s post, check out an interview with poet Marge Piercy.

An Interview with Poet Marge Piercy

As National Poetry Month draws to a close, we will be presenting three interviews with living poets, originally published in Contemporary Literature journal. The interviews are freely available to access until May 1.

Our first offering features poet, novelist, and memoirist Marge Piercy. Interviewer Bonnie Lyons describes Piercy’s poetry in this way:

Valuing usefulness highly, Piercy writes poems that are accessible to ordinary readers without sacrificing rich imagery and subtle sound effects. Her poetry embodies her belief in the importance of attention in her precise word choice and acute perception. Tikkun olam, Hebrew for “healing the world,” is central to her poetry, which works to awaken her readers’ passionate recognition of all that could and should be changed through human effort.

To date, Marge Piercy has written nineteen volumes of poetry, seventeen novels, and a memoir. When asked how she navigates multiple genres, she characterizes herself as “a poet who also writes novels.” She describes the benefits of her chosen genre:

You can write poetry when you are dying. The Plains Indians would try to have a final utterance. You can write poetry in a prison cell—you can scrawl it on the walls. You can memorize your poems. You can carry them around with you. A novel is a far more artificial construction, and it takes huge amounts of time to write one. If you were fighting as a guerrilla, you couldn’t write a novel, but you could write poetry. A novel is far less portable.

Lyons and Piercy discuss the writer’s long history of social and political activism. Piercy articulates how she has created a balance between activism and writing—two fields of activity that are often felt to be in conflict with one another. Piercy explains,

When I was a full-time organizer, I basically gave up sleeping to write. In my life since then, because I have been able to reach people through my writing, I feel much less of a conflict. In fact, it’s all of a piece with me. I don’t divide things up that way. I don’t make a value judgment that one type of poetry is more important than another—neither my poems about Judaism, or poems about love, or poems about the war in Iraq or the environment.

The interview also touches on the usefulness of poetry, the importance of reading in order to write, poetry as an act of attention similar to a religious practice, making a living as a writer, Piercy’s reputation as an “anti-academic” poet and how poetry can thrive outside of academe, and writing about sex, aging, and the body.

Read the full interview here, and then go read Piercy’s poems!

Employers Look Closely at Your Address, Study Finds

Journal of Human Resources cover imageForthcoming Journal of Human Resources article finds evidence of distance-based discrimination in the hiring process

It’s a vicious cycle: those living in poverty are often unable to afford housing in city centers, putting them far from jobs. And, according to new research set to appear in The Journal of Human Resources, employers may discriminate against job seekers who have longer commutes. This could be one factor making it difficult for many Americans to escape poverty, posits David Phillips, the study’s author.

Phillips had a hunch that a person’s address might impact their chances of getting hired. To measure the effects of distance on an applicant’s performance, Phillips’s team sent 2,260 resumes in response to low-wage position openings (requiring only a high school education) in Washington, DC. The findings were clear: the farther away an applicant lived from the job location, the less likely they were to receive a callback from the employer. To clarify these results, Phillips wanted to determine whether employers looked more favorably on addresses from wealthier neighborhoods, even if they were far from the place of work. When resumes were sent from neighborhoods with similar levels of affluence but different commute lengths, Phillips found that applicants from the more distant neighborhoods received 14 percent fewer callbacks than applicants who lived closer to the job site, even though both applicants could be presumed to have the same socioeconomic status. Overall, Phillips determined that employers weigh an applicant’s distance from the job more heavily than their neighborhood’s affluence.

Phillips, a researcher at the University of Notre Dame, joined us to discuss the genesis of his interest in this topic and the larger implications of this study. To learn more, read the full Journal of Human Resources preprint article, listen to Phillips’s interview with NPR, and check out some of the press that this study has been receiving, here, here, and here.

How did you decide to pursue this topic?

During my dissertation, I spent some time working with a non-profit employment agency in Washington, DC. Most of their clients lived in less affluent neighborhoods in Southeast DC and transportation was a common question. I helped them run a pilot testing whether public transit subsidies could facilitate the job search process for people looking for low-wage jobs. It became clear that their clients were working with major transportation issues. At some point in that project, the idea came up that employers were probably aware of the transportation difficulties that people face and might respond to the address listed on the job application.

Why did it make sense to publish in The Journal of Human Resources?

The JHR has a great reputation for publishing rigorous work on the most important questions in empirical economics. As a result, it reaches a broad audience of applied economists. I thought the paper’s topic would be a good fit for that audience given increased attention to neighborhood effects and urban geography in the literature lately. The JHR also has a track record of publishing correspondence experiments. This paper fits with earlier work by David Neumark and Joanna Lahey that has shown up in the pages of The JHR.

How does the distance bias interact with other discrimination applicants might face—due to class, race, or gender, for example?

Discrimination based on commute distance could compound existing inequity. Other things equal, remote places are cheaper and thus attract people with other disadvantages. For example, on average a black person in DC lives one mile farther from jobs than a white person. Even if employers have a clear, rational, unbiased reason for avoiding people with long commutes, that penalty disproportionately falls on people who face other barriers.

What part of your findings surprised you the most, and why?

An interesting topic is one where you suspect an effect exists where other people think it doesn’t. So, I went into this betting employers care about addresses, and the response to distance was not a surprise to me. I was more surprised that employers do not respond much to neighborhood affluence. I expected employers to really penalize distant, poor neighborhoods both because of their remoteness and because of poverty. And I don’t find evidence of the latter despite the fact that the fake applicants come from very, very different neighborhoods in terms of affluence.


David Phillips

Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

David Phillips, PhD, works in the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO) within the Department of Economics at the University of Notre Dame. His research focuses on poverty, particularly as it relates to low-wage labor markets, crime, housing, and transportation. His research has been published in high quality economics field journals and presented widely for policy audiences. Prior to coming to Notre Dame, David received a Bachelor’s degree from Butler University, earned a PhD in Economics from Georgetown University, and worked for 4 years at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.