University News

Paxson’s economics cover broad range of disciplines

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, March 5, 2012

Throughout her career, President-elect Christina Paxson’s research has spanned a wide range of economics-related issues, often bridging the social sciences and the sciences, friends and colleagues said. Much of her scholarship has examined matters of health, development and labor from an economic perspective, often with an eye toward how academic research might translate into real-world applications.

Among Paxson’s achievements is the 2000 founding of the Center for Health and Wellbeing, a research center at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs that examines a cross-section of public health and development-related issues. Paxson served as the center’s director until 2009.

She also helped to found the Future of Children, a joint effort between the Woodrow Wilson School and the Brookings Institution that produces publications focusing on the effects of community health issues on children. The idea for the project arose when Paxson and other leaders at Princeton wanted to begin a discussion about community health, which they felt had been hampered by Princeton’s lack of a medical school, said Cecilia Rouse, professor of economic and public affairs at Princeton and senior editor of the Future of Children.

Ron Haskins, senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, said Princeton won a national competition to work on the Future of Children largely due to Paxson, who wrote a proposal that appealed to the institute. In the crowded field of economics, Paxson has often stood out for her strong interest in issues of children’s health, Haskins added.

“She’s just so smart, talented — a calm leader with vision,” Rouse said. “It was just a matter of time until someone saw that, and she moved on.”

Paxson also led the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a study funded by the National Institutes of Health that has followed children born in urban areas at the end of the twentieth century, often to unmarried parents. The project tracks how the parents raise their children, assessing the children’s development and the influence of other environmental factors. 

Sara McLanahan, a Princeton professor of sociology and public affairs who worked with Paxson on the Fragile Families project and the Future of Children, said Paxson’s research elucidates the long-term negative effects of poor childhood health and the way health disparities at early stages continue to widen. She added that Paxson’s determination and humility made her an effective collaborator.

“She just has this can-do attitude. She’s a problem-solver,” McLanahan said. “A lot of it is because she’s very selfless.”

In her research, Paxson has also shown a propensity for expanding her scholarly focus beyond domestic issues. As an economics professor and leader of the Woodrow Wilson School, Paxson often applied “high-end statistical methods” to analyze trends and data in novel ways, said Jane Waldfogel, a Columbia professor of social work and public affairs who co-authored several papers on child neglect and abuse with Paxson.

“She’s very well-known for her path-breaking work in economics and usually both within the U.S. and internationally,” said Waldfogel, adding that their work together looked at how children’s living arrangements affected their chances of being abused or neglected. “This is something that people within the social work and child welfare field obviously had thought about a lot over the years, but Chris was the first person to really nail this in a causal fashion,” Waldfogel said. “On every topic that she’s worked on, she’s made that kind of original contribution.”

Some of Paxson’s recent research has focused on the effects of Hurricane Katrina, particularly investigating the impact of the natural disaster on the health of low-income families. Much of this work has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, according to a University press release.

Though her initial work was in the field of development economics, Paxson later explored issues in health and labor economics, contributing research to a variety of subfields. That same proclivity for interdisciplinary work surfaced in her stewardship of the Woodrow Wilson School and her work on various large projects, peer researchers said.

Anna Aizer, associate professor of economics and public policy at Brown whose work has often focused on child wellbeing, described Paxson as “a very well-known, well-respected economist” whose experience in research and interacting with students would serve her well at the University.

“As she was director for the Center for Health and Wellbeing, she really embraced an interdisciplinary approach for looking at some incredibly important problems, social problems, specifically with respect to health,” Aizer said.

Among Paxson’s most publicity-generating research was a 2008 paper she co-authored in the Journal of Political Economy that examined the reasons for the widely-known correlation between height and higher status and earnings. In the paper, which she co-authored with Anne Case, a Princeton professor of economics and public affairs, Paxson found that height was correlated with intelligence and traced the connection all the way to early childhood. 

Paxson is currently serving as vice president of the American Economic Association, a year-long position, and she is a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.


— With additional reporting by Mathias Heller, Sona Mkrttchian and Margaret Nickens