Petra Persson, Faculty Fellow
This story is part of the Why Econ? series. Our affiliated students and faculty share why econ matters to them, their work, and our world.
A lot in life ties to family.
That’s why Petra Persson centers her economic research on the interplay between family and policies — how family structure and decisions are influenced by government actions, and vice versa.
“We live in a world that has an increasing focus on the individual, but the reality, I think, is that the family matters crucially,” Persson says. “We know, for example, that the socioeconomic circumstances of the family you're born into is strongly correlated with economic well-being and health outcomes.”
At Stanford, in her undergraduate course on family and society, Persson explains how analytical tools in economics can help flesh out a better understanding of problems and point to solutions.
She tells her students about a public health ad, plastered across subways in New York while she did her PhD at Columbia University, which featured a sad baby and the message, “I am twice as likely to not graduate high school because my mom had me when she was a teenager.”
The ad could be viewed two ways, she tells them. One implies teen pregnancy causes problems; the other suggests a symptom of bigger underlying issues, such as opportunity constraints for disadvantaged youths.
“It’s not enough to just learn about a correlation,” Persson says. “We need to know the direction of causality to deliver actionable insights. It’s what matters for policy.”
Persson was born and raised in Sweden by parents who were both middle school teachers. The second-youngest of six siblings, she grew up in a society where government funds healthcare and education. Yet, even with generous public safety nets, she says, disparities exist; the poor die younger and are less healthy than their richer counterpart.
That understanding has driven her research.
One of Persson’s earlier studies — cited in the 2016 Economics Report of the President — showed how stress during pregnancy affects the child’s mental health later in life. A more recent study showed that individuals with informal access to medical expertise through a family member who is a doctor or nurse are healthier and live longer, while another documented that health-related expertise in society is increasingly concentrated to fewer and fewer families – or “medical dynasties” – over time.
“Social issues drew me to study econ, and I was a save-the-world type of person when I started in college,” Persson says. “Then at some point I realized you don't have to look to the developing world to find important social problems and a large gap between the haves and the have-nots.”
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