What is it like to have taught at Oberlin for 50 years? It’s quite an accomplishment.
Well I don’t regard it as an accomplishment. It’s just one day after the next, and I’ve been away on sabbaticals and things like that from time to time and on leave, so it didn’t seem to be something that was piling up, as it were.
Looking back at your time here, is the student body the same as it was 50 years ago, or is it the same as when you started teaching here in 1963?
It’s pretty much the same feel. I think students these days like a little more feedback than they used to. [Students today have] a little more concern about if they’re doing the right thing. A little less independent-minded than they were before. … But in terms of cleverness and brightness and dedication and interest, they’re every bit as good, if not better, than the students that I recall earlier.
Do you know what percentage of students taking your courses are generally majoring in economics? I assume it depends on what level course you are teaching.
I don’t. I think in the introductory classes, a lot of students think they may be interested in economic policy and there are a good number of students who have been told by their parents, “You’re a senior. For goodness sake, take an economics course before you graduate!” So the introductory course is kind of made up of those two groups of students.
You’re currently studying market conditions and the relationship to welfare caseloads. Can you talk about why that’s important research to be doing and how you go about doing that?
One of the things [I study] is how well society is supporting people who are poorly off and [whether] it makes a difference as to why they’re poorly off. Is there an issue with the greater the support, the less likely [people] are to get a job and become self-supporting? … The welfare system changed in 1996 under Clinton. Before, we used to provide income for poor families of a certain amount so long as they were in that condition, and those numbers used to fluctuate with unemployment so that when people had jobs available they got off welfare and took a job. When they lost a job or the plant closed or something like that, then they went on unemployment insurance and still if they couldn’t find any [job] they went on welfare. But in ’96, they changed the whole philosophy of the welfare system and they made it so that there was a limit for how long you could be on [welfare]. … What we saw after ’96 was a big decline in the number of people on welfare in the United States. … And the question was, OK, is that because of the new welfare program or is that because of the strong economy? And what I found is that it was because of the strong economy and not the welfare system. When the economy turned lousy in the 2000s, the people on welfare did not go up, which surprised lots of people. Instead, what happened is that another program that hardly anybody paid any attention to kicked in, which was a subsidy to wages. … So this Earned Income Tax Credit became the largest welfare program in the United States.
What we want out of welfare and what we’re concerned about has changed over time. We still have the same poverty standard that we’ve had since 1960, although it’s gone up with the rate of inflation. But life has changed a lot! There were very few women who went to work in 1960 and now it’s very common and as a result of that people say, “Well, you ought to include in the poverty standard the cost of [a woman] getting to work and the cost of [childcare] if she’s going to work.” It’s a reasonable argument, but we haven’t changed.
Do you think it’s likely in the near future that this will change in the poverty standard?
I can’t imagine that there won’t be. But the problem is generally a political one. That is, the Republicans are willing to change the way we measure poverty so long as there are no more people in poverty and the Democrats are willing to change in order to get more people in poverty. So they’re not looking at what I would call the economics; they’re looking at the consequence of the definition. They’re not really talking about the problems families are having.
That must be a problem with a lot of economic concepts that relate to politics.
It is. It’s true of the minimum wage. … These are tough issues because the theory’s out there but there’s not always widespread agreement about the magnitudes of things. … Income inequality is another one. Inequality in the United States has increased by about a third over the past 30 years but it’s not clear as to what kinds of policies would improve that situation, although it’s not clear as to whether or not it has bad consequences. Obviously there are more very poor people and very rich people. The question is really, who cares? What difference does it make? Did the rich guy take the money from the poor guy? Is that why he’s poor? No, that’s not it, so it has to be something else. So it’s more difficult to fix than just looking at the issue.
Why do think that Oberlin has been such a good fit for you over the last 50 years?
That’s a good question. I’m not quite sure. Certainly, the College has been a terrific fit for my idiosyncratic behavior. They’ve left me alone. They have not bothered me. They allow me to do my work, whether it’s in teaching or research or anything else. If I needed some kind of special dispensation, [the College has] gone along with that.