ECI network member Heather D. Hill is an Associate Professor in the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. Hill's research examines how public and workplace policies influence family economic circumstances and child wellbeing in low-income families. In Hill’s work, she integrates theoretical and methodological insights from developmental psychology, economics, and sociology. As a Family Self-Sufficiency and Stability Scholar, funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Hill is examining how state-level safety net rules affect family earnings and income stability. She is also on a team of UW faculty evaluating the Seattle Minimum Wage Ordinance.
Describe your area of study and how it relates to current policy discussions surrounding inequality.
I study poverty, anti-poverty policies, and child well-being. I’m interested in whether and how government-funded programs and regulations can decrease poverty, increase economic stability, and promote inter-generational mobility. Over the years, I’ve studied welfare-to-work, early childhood education, marriage promotion, and minimum wage policies. Currently, I’m part of a team of scholars evaluating the City of Seattle’s Minimum Wage Ordinance, which is increasing the minimum wage for all workers in the city to $15 by 2021. My work has also contributed to our understanding of income instability as a key component of economic disadvantage in the U.S. Most research on inequality focuses on differences in income level and, to a lesser extent, wealth. Low-income families, however, also face much greater income variability across and within years, than do higher-income families. This gap in income stability has been growing since the 1970s, and it is something that our social and educational programs are not currently prepared to address.
What areas in the study of inequality are most in need of new research?
Two things come to mind: First, we need interdisciplinary research on inequality that addresses the connections between racial and economic inequality and that integrates structural and individual explanations. I think that the social sciences have kept the fields of economic and racial inequality artificially separate for too long. To oversimplify, economists focus on the former as a function of differences in education, while sociologists focus on the latter as a function of racist policies and racial discrimination. We need to better understand current inequality as a function of both historical, institutional racial discrimination, and of the differences in human capital that result. Second, we need a new era of social experimentation focuses on how public policies can promote economic stability without hindering mobility. There are innovative ideas circulating right now, such as income or job guarantees, public savings accounts, monthly distributions of tax credits, and reducing the benefit cliffs of means-tested programs.
What advice do you have for emerging scholars in your field?
Be humble about your expertise and recognize how your identity and personal experiences shape the questions you ask and the decisions you make in your research. Particularly if you have always enjoyed economic advantages, seek out ways to learn about the lived experience of inequality, through participating in or reading qualitative research, or through community engagement. Lastly, interact with people in multiple disciplines so that you can speak and understand multiple scientific languages and so that you gain respect for the value of different theories and methods.