HCEO recently spoke with IP network leader Tim Kautz about his path to economics and how useful the field is for studying inequality.
Kautz was not initially an economics student, but a summer spent doing HIV/AIDS education in Tanzania got him interested in looking at social issues through an economics lens. At the time, few people in the areas he taught were getting tested for HIV. One day, a student asked him, "What is the point of getting tested when the treatment is really really expensive?" He took this question back to school, becoming interested in health economics, and eventually pursuing a Ph.D.
During his studies at the University of Chicago, he started working with Professor James Heckman on issues around education and skill development. In particular, Kautz says he was interested in thinking about "how we can start thinking about using education as a way to reduce inequality by teaching a broad set of skills to children." He later co-authored a book on the GED and what achievement tests measure, with Professor Heckman and MIP network member John Eric Humphries.
More recently, Kautz' research has focused on non-cognitive skills. "The focus on these skills has been understanding the extent to which they matter for success in life and how they help determine that success," he says.
A crucial aspect of this research is finding reliable ways to measure these skills. "While any measure of a skill is actually a behavior, the inverse is also true," Kautz says. "Any behavior could actually be a measure of a skill, as long as you account for other things that affect those skills." As an example, Kautz notes that measuring high school attendance is actually more predictive of graduation rates than test scores.
While Kautz' research has expanded from his initial interest in health economics, his focus still relates to the study of inequality. "In the back of my mind there's still this real interest in social issues and how to use tools like economics to basically improve the world and reduce inequality," he says.
Kautz is a researcher at Mathematica Policy Research.