HCEO recently met with MIP network member Robert Moffitt to discuss his research on the design and impact of welfare programs in the U.S.

"I’ve done quite a bit of work tracking the history of welfare programs in the United States: their expenditures, caseloads, their changing structure, as well as more strictly economic, econometric examinations," Moffitt says.

Related to this research focus, one of his major papers looks at why many families who are eligible for welfare programs do not participate in them. He notes that among some programs, only 10 or 15 percent of eligible participants enroll. There are varying factors that contribute to this, from the stigma associated with welfare programs to families not realizing they are eligible or not wanting to take on the costs of applying. "It’s an ongoing issue and a very important one, because I think policymakers want all the eligible to participate," he says. "They’re designing these programs to get people to receive benefits and be better off because of them."

Moffitt is also interested in the optimal design of welfare programs - an area with many complexities, from balancing work incentives to designing program phase out. He notes that the U.S. welfare system has changed a lot in the past 20 years. "It’s not widely realized that we have these tremendous work incentives in the U.S. welfare system, much more than we had 20 or 30 years ago," Moffitt says. "Its a myth that our programs are just overwhelmingly anti-work. It's just the opposite in fact."

Reflecting on this research area, Moffitt shares that there are many benefits to studying social policies designed to reduce inequality. "It’s a really rich agenda," he says. "Economists have a lot to contribute to this, and it’s a wide social policy interest. Working in this area has been very rewarding and fulfilling to me, to combine my economics expertise and my statistical methods with something that’s socially useful and worthwhile."

Moffitt is the Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Economics at Johns Hopkins University.