His scholarship helped change how social scientists do their work. Here's how.
Maya Rossin-Slater takes an economist’s approach to analyze large-scale data on population health and socioeconomic outcomes to help inform policies targeting families with children, especially those who are disadvantaged or poor.
Rossin-Slater, a faculty fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR), is also an assistant professor at the Department of Health Research and Policy at Stanford Medicine and a core faculty member at Stanford Health Policy.
Her research centers on public policies and their impacts on the health and well-being of families. She asks complex questions, often finding the answers in large administrative databases. Specializing in using “natural experiment” methods, Rossin-Slater tries to separate causation from correlation.
How do child-support mandates impact the relationship between parents and children? Does high-quality preschool compensate for early life health disadvantages? What are the long-term impacts of early childhood exposure to air pollution once they become adults?“ To me, it’s important to do this kind of research that can inform real-world policies, particularly for less advantaged families,” said Rossin-Slater, who is also a faculty research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research.
“We live in a world with limited resources and we need to understand how to best allocate them,” she said. “So I think there is value in providing rigorous causal evidence on the effectiveness of various tools and policies that impact the less advantaged so that we can get the highest return on public spending as well as the highest potential for improving the outcomes of those at the very bottom.”
In a paper published in the Journal of Public Economics, Rossin-Slater talks about the growing body of evidence that suggests in-utero conditions and health at birth make a difference in later-life well-being. She found that the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women,
Infants and Children (WIC) is one of the most cost-effective and successful programs to improve health at birth for children of disadvantaged mothers.
“The estimated effects are the strongest for mothers with a high school education or less, who are most likely eligible for WIC services,” she wrote in the paper, which was cited by the White House blog under President Barack Obama.
When Mark Zuckerberg announced he would take a two-month paternity leave when his daughter was born in 2015, the Facebook co-founder was taking advantage of his own company’s policy, which grants employees up to four months leave for all new parents.
“Studies show that when working parents take time to be with their newborns, outcomes are better for the children and families,” Zuckerberg wrote on his Facebook page.
This prompted many media outlets to turn to a co-authored study with Rossin-Slater, which found that 46 percent more men have taken time off to help take care of their newborns since California made paid family leave (PFL) law in 2004.
“The increase in paternal leave-taking may also have important implications for addressing the gender wage gap,” the authors wrote. “Our results suggest that a gender-neutral PFL policy can increase the amount of time fathers of newborns spend at home—including the time they spend at home while the mothers work—and may therefore be seen as one way to promote gender equality.”
At Stanford, Rossin-Slater is using databases in the United States, Denmark and Sweden to continue her research on public policies (including paid family leave), as well as looking at how prenatal and early childhood factors impact lifelong outcomes. Does inequality and the stress of poverty in pregnancy, for example, get transmitted across generations?
In a forthcoming paper in the American Economic Review, Rossin-Slater and her co-author, Stanford economist Petra Persson, shows that prenatal exposure to maternal stress due to deaths in the family could have lasting consequences for the mental health of the children.
They examined nearly 300,000 births in Sweden between 1973 and 2011, in which a relative of the mother died either before her due date or in her child’s first year of life. They found that children who were in the womb when a relative died were 25 percent more likely to take medication for ADHD than those who were infants when the relative died. And those children were 13 percent more likely to take prescription drugs for anxiety once they became adults.
Take those results and one can imagine that the stress of living in poverty during pregnancy might be compounded over generations in that same disadvantaged family.
“This would imply that policies aiming to alleviate stress associated with economic disadvantage may help break the cycle of poverty,” Rossin-Slater and Persson — who is also a faculty fellow at SIEPR — told The Washington Post for a story on their research.
In new projects, Rossin-Slater is now studying the effects of reforms in the WIC program in California on maternal and child health, as well as the impacts of paternity leave on maternal mental health and child outcomes in Sweden. She continues using research designs that pay careful attention to establishing causality and working with large administrative databases.
“I believe in and enjoy working with data because it provides an opportunity to learn about how real-world policies actually work,” she said. “I have the privilege of being able to set my own research questions and to use my economic training and newly available data to try to find at least some answers. My hope is that these answers can be useful for creating better and more effective policies.”