Faculty Spotlight: Alessandra Voena


Alessandra Voena is an associate professor in the University of Chicago’s Department of Economics. Her research focuses on the economics of family, labor, and development, and she is actively engaged in research in the US and across the globe. Ongoing work includes a labor economics study on post-1996 US welfare reform, as well as a multicultural comparison of the effects of economic shocks on child marriage in developing countries. Voena is traveling around the globe this summer, including stops in Zambia and sites throughout Europe and the United States.

Voena earned both her master’s degree and PhD in economics from Stanford University. She completed her bachelor’s degree at the University of Torino in Italy in 2005, which included time as an exchange student at the Université Lyon III in France in 2003.

Professor Voena, how did you become interested in economics, and can you describe your research interests?

I was born in Italy and completed my undergraduate degree in Italy and France. I was lucky and knew very early on, at only 18, that I wanted to major in economics. I have always had diverse interests in math, humanities, history, and politics, and economics was the best way for me to combine that set of interests. Towards the end of my undergraduate studies, I heard about an opportunity to go to the US for a PhD. I had never stepped foot in the US, but at 23 years old, I moved to California to study Economics at Stanford.

My primary field is labor economics, and I'm specifically interested in how families make their economic decisions, for example about whether or not to work, about how many children to have, about their education, etc. In graduate school, I started doing work in Zambia, and I am continuing that work today.

A common thread throughout your research is family decision-making, particularly how family decisions may affect the next generation. A number of your summer projects reflect this theme. Can you describe your ongoing research on how economic stress influences family decisions on child marriage in different cultures?

Yes. As you said, I’m very interested in how family decisions and family structure affect children as they grow and become young adults. I have a project that spans several countries in which I’m trying to document how cultural practices can cause different consequences for the same economic shocks. Many developing countries have the deeply ingrained custom of marrying their young daughters to sometimes much older men in exchange for food or money. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, commonly have this tradition. We are looking at the effect of economic shock on a family’s decision to marry their daughters. We are merging information on childhood marriage with rainfall data as a proxy for drought stress and the resulting food shortages and economic difficulties. We are asking, “What is the relationship between the hazard of becoming a child bride and whether the family of origin experiences an economic shock, like a drought?” What we are finding is that, when parents experience the economic hardship of a drought, their teen daughters are much more likely to be sold into marriage in exchange for necessary food or money. It’s a widespread and dramatic phenomenon.

In some other countries, like India, we are observing the opposite trend. Drought has very similar effects on household income, so why then, do childhood marriages decrease in the face of economic hardship in India, but increase in Africa? In India, the bride’s family must pay a dowry to the groom’s family – a financial payment when they get married. Her parents must produce this payment, so in economically hard times, they often need to delay marriage, as they need the dowry money to survive.

These types of family decisions have powerful effects on young women, including the age they are married, when they have children, how many children they have, and also perhaps what happens to their children. For example, are children different if their mother was married later? Do they have access to better schooling? Are they healthier? We are trying to document these differences in marriage tradition (i.e., the direction of payment) across many cultures and how they affect childhood marriage. We must account for cultural context in order to design effective policies that reduce or eliminate childhood marriage.   

Along the same lines of family decision-making, you have a very different project in the US in which you are investigating the effects of the 1996 welfare reforms on women’s decisions to marry. Can you explain your research in this area and why it is important?

This work is in the realm of labor economics, specifically thinking about the 1996 welfare reform during the Clinton administration. Prior to 1996, low-income mothers would be supplied, through federal government welfare, financial support to ensure that their children would have adequate resources. In 1996, the welfare system radically changed. Regardless of whether she has children, a woman can now only claim welfare for five years. The two primary goals of the time limit were to encourage women to work more and to encourage marriage or, in other words, to discourage single parent households.

A lot of research has been completed on the outcomes of the first objective; almost no one has researched the results of the second objective. Its success or failure is important to understand because the availability of welfare differs for married couples versus single parents. So my question with regard to objective two is, what were the consequences, both intended and unintended of the 1996 welfare reform? Specifically, to what extent did the reform affect poor women’s decisions to get (or stay) married? This question is extremely challenging because we need complicated modeling tools to capture the margins – there are a lot of competing effects, and modeling all of them together is complex.

For instance, as a single woman, do I go on welfare now, or save my five years of eligibility for some time in the future when I might be poorer? Or, I met a man I really like – do I get married? I’m having marital problems – do I get divorced or stay married, and how does that affect welfare eligibility and payments? How much money should I save? Should I work?

In this ongoing research, we are hoping to document and explain these types of family decisions and whether the reforms had a measurable effect on family structure.

In light of the upcoming presidential election and the contentious issue of immigration, one of your past papers recently had some press. Can you describe your paper on German-Jewish immigration to the US and the affect it had on American innovation?

Sure. My collaborators and I were interested in the impact of the arrival of a number of accomplished Jewish scholars from Nazi Germany who were banished by Hitler. There were a lot of refugees coming into the United States, and a few of them were stellar scientists. We collected data on the immigration of extremely talented German-Jewish scientists to the US, where they continued their groundbreaking research and interacted well with American scholars. As a result, patents by American scientists increased by 31% after 1933, following their arrival. Some of their research was instrumental in developing American science, including their work in chemistry and genetics on the structure of proteins and amino acids. We concluded what had already been suspected, but not systematically studied: Refugees and immigrants were an inspiring source of intellectual wealth and had a large impact on the course of American innovation.

Voena’s work is part of a host of summer research activities highlighted in this series. To learn more, please visit our summer research hub.

—Tina Cormier