Brian Jacob Takes Home the David Kershaw Prize

Congratulations to my co-author and former student Brian Jacob, who just won the David Kershaw Prize for being the most distinguished researcher under the age of 40 in the field of public policy.

The prize is given every other year by the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management. Past winners include David Ellwood, John Dilulio, Alan Krueger, David Cutler, and my colleague Jens Ludwig.

I still remember the first time Brian showed up at my office. He was a graduate student in the public policy program at the University of Chicago, and he had asked for an appointment.

I was certain it would be a complete waste of time.

He described some of the projects he had done so far; they were straightforward, sensible things — more than I had hoped for, but nothing exciting. Then I asked him what he was thinking about doing next, and he described what became his job-market paper.

He was interested in studying the impact of being relocated out of high-rise housing projects. It turned out that the timing of high-rise housing projects getting demolished in Chicago was essentially random. Brian was able to follow the families by using city records and Chicago Public Schools data.

As soon as he told me this idea, I knew it was going to be important research. There were two important findings: 1) families that moved out of the buildings that were being demolished didn’t move far, and the neighborhoods they moved into were not much better than the ones they left; 2) at least in the short run, the children who were forced to move suffered in school.

He did this work at a time when there was great excitement over the prospects for a program called Moving to Opportunity, which would subsidize moving inner-city families to middle-class neighborhoods. What was so important about Brian’s research was that if Moving to Opportunity would have ever been rolled out as a large-scale program, it would have gotten watered down to look a lot like the programs in place for those leaving housing projects; so it was extremely relevant to public policy.

By the time Brian got his Ph.D., he had done enough good work that I wrote in my letters of recommendation for him that as soon as these papers worked their way through the publication process, he would have enough for tenure at a top department — even if he never wrote another paper.

We will never know for sure if that would have been true because he kept on writing more and more great papers, but I think it was an accurate statement; I’ve never been able to write that about any other student I have had, before or since.

At a time when technical prowess and fancy techniques are increasingly fancied in this profession, Brian gives hope to all the budding economists out there who have great ideas, common sense, and the patience to do careful empirical research. His papers are not very technical or complicated; they just find credible answers to questions that people care about.

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  1. john says:

    Why were you certain it would be a complete waste of time?

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  2. Caliphilosopher says:

    Like #1, I’m supremely bothered by your pre-judgment of the recipient of the award. It seems like you’re an opportunist when you heard about his “next big thing”.

    Brian may give hope to budding economists, but people in your position who pre-judge graduate students without first hearing what they have to say send shudders to those of us who aspire to become the next wave of the professoriate.

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  3. Mike M says:

    #1 and #2, quit being so critical. Levitt took the meeting, heard the idea and it turned out to be good. I don’t see the problem here. Everyone makes evaluations, the wiser ones seek more information and reacess their positions.

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  4. Another Mike says:

    #1 and #2, you’d be surprised the amount of bad ideas that grad students think are interesting. I’m sure Levitt was playing base rates and expecting yet-another-bad idea.

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  5. Jason Freeman says:

    As a former student of Dr. Jacob at the Kennedy School, I’ll second the congrats and add that Brian is also a good teacher as well. He helped me with my thesis and supported the formation of a student group on education policy. The award is well deserved!

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  6. Josh says:

    Prof. Jacob’s research reminds me of a recent article in the July/August Atlantic Magazine–”American Murder Mystery” by Hannah Rosin– that looks into the (murderous) effects of housing projects residents relocating into new suburban territory in Memphis. It also examines this new academic thread, without mention of Jacob, that questions the efficacy of the relocation policy in changing economic outcomes.

    Worth a look anyway.

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  7. Caliphilosopher says:

    #3 – You’re exactly right about the wiser ones actually reassess their positions. What about us who don’t have a “wiser one” in the department? I don’t have a problem with him turning down bad ideas; it’s more about expecting a bad idea before he even hears it.

    #4 – You’re probably correct in Levitt’s thinking. Again, I worry about prejudging this grad student before he even opened his mouth. That to me is a sign of worry.

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  8. Matt says:

    (Sorry to get slightly off-topic here, but…)

    #6: Hope you did buy too much into the shoddy “analysis” that Hannah Rosin vomited forth in that article in The Atlantic. For insight into why it was so wrong on so many levels, see a short response from The American Prospect (http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=false_accusation) and/or a longer response from over 25 of the nation’s leading housing experts (http://www.shelterforce.org/article/print/1043/).

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