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Junior Scholars in Training Program Preps the Next Generation of Financial Vulnerability Researchers

Photo: Junior Scholars in Training visit Memorial Union Terrace at University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Earlier this summer, 12 scholars representing a variety of academic disciplines, from across the U.S. gathered on the Terrace at UW–Madison’s Memorial Union, nearing the conclusion of a week-long intensive workshop hosted by UW–Madison’s Center for Financial Security Retirement and Disability Research Center with support from Howard University’s Center on Race and Wealth.

The scholars were probably not the typical roomful of economists and policy wonks one would picture. Most were women and people of color, groups significantly underrepresented in the fields of economics and public policy. And that was the point: to foster and boost the work and professional connections of early-career academics exploring questions of retirement and disability funding.

“The Center for Financial Security is grateful to the Social Security Administration and our partners at Howard University for helping to recruit and support these scholars, both during the week-long intensive and also in ongoing mentoring relationships.” said Dr. J. Michael Collins, faculty director of the Center for Financial Security at UW–Madison and Fetzer Family Chair in Consumer and Personal Finance at the School of Human Ecology. “Together, we are building the capacity of the retirement and disability field to address topics that are important to economically vulnerable families, and we are helping to launch a new cohort of valuable contributors to the public dialogue about our nation’s social insurance system.”

Last fall, Collins won a highly competitive five-year cooperative agreement from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) to establish a Retirement and Disability Research Center (RDRC) at UW–Madison’s Center for Financial Security (CFS), which is housed in the School of Human Ecology (SoHE). The CFS RDRC is one of just four in the nation, focusing on questions concerning the financial well-being of financially vulnerable families, older people, people with disabilities, low-wealth households, and children.

Among Collins’ proposed RDRC projects that won funding were ones developed in partnership with Howard University and modeled after some of Howard’s own programs in Washington, DC, and after similar efforts at the Institute for Research on Poverty (IRP). These initiatives would train and mentor a diverse group of scholars and researchers from underrepresented racial and ethnic populations through:

  • The Junior Scholars Intensive Training (JSIT), a week-long, residential intensive program for 10 scholars in social policy research, data methods and techniques, and public policy communication tactics to successfully engage with policymakers and the public;
  • Ongoing mentoring relationships between JSIT scholars, some of whom are junior faculty, and established academics and researchers; and
  • A funding competition for five $5,000 awards to seed research for papers the scholars developed with the CFS RDRC examining questions around retirement and disability policy.

Fully 70 individuals applied to participate in the JSIT week-long intensive program, many from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), of whom just ten were admitted, plus two local scholars who were UW graduate students. Their agenda included skills development workshops, expert panels, and visits from SSA officials.

“The Junior Scholars Intensive Training program was extremely beneficial to my career as an economist studying retirement and disability issues,” reflected Dr. Enrique A. Lopezlira, assistant professor of economics and finance at Grand Canyon University. “It allowed me to join a network of scholars with similar research interests and potential for future collaboration, and it helped me to be a better researcher, from forming more focused research questions to learning more data sources to improving my grant-writing skills.”

Emily Ellis, an AM/PhD student at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, echoed Lopezlira’s enthusiasm: “The information I learned at JSIT will play a critical role in my dissertation proposal,” she shared. “What’s more, I met a doctoral candidate at the UW School of Social Work with very similar interests to mine, and I’m excited about the potential for future collaboration.”

Dr. Fenaba Addo, a mentor to JSIT scholars and SoHE’s Lorna Jorgensen Wendt Assistant Professor of Money, Relationships, and Equality, remarked that the support for the program from top SSA decision-makers reflects a growing understanding of the need to diversify the set of individuals undertaking major questions of social policy.

“JSIT is important for creating a community of scholars working in a shared research area,” said Addo of the program. “I believe SSA understands that programs like JSIT are necessary to not only produce a critical mass of underrepresented scholars, but also provide access to the relevant mentoring, information, and opportunities they may need to be successful.”

With its focus on supporting underrepresented junior scholars, JSIT is unique among the four institutions hosting RDRCs, which also include Boston College, the National Bureau of Economic Research, and the University of Michigan.

Dr. Haydar Kurban, Director of Howard University’s Center on Race and Wealth (CRW), hopes the program will inspire other institutions to undertake similar initiatives, and ultimately to expand the community of people informing high-level policy decisions: “The JSIT collaboration between Howard’s CRW and UW’s CFS is the first step in creating a pipeline of diverse, emerging researchers engaged in disability and retirement topics in the United States.”

Just this week, SSA confirmed a second year of funding support for the CFS RDRC at UW–Madison. CFS RDRC also announced the five winners of JSIT’s funding competition:

  • Adibah Abdulhadi, UW–Madison, The Effect of Opioids on Labor Market Outcomes and Use of Social Security Disability Insurance
  • Josefina Flores Morales, UCLA, Financial Security and Immigrants’ Legal Status: An analysis of wealth in the United States
  • Jevay Grooms, Howard University, Substance Use Disorders and Disability: What role does race, ethnicity and gender play in having access to treatment.
  • Madelaine L’Esperance, University of Alabama, Disability, Disability Programs, and Wealth: Exploring Liquid Wealth Trajectories of Disability Program Applicants and Beneficiaries; 2019 PhD graduate of UW–Madison’s Consumer Behavior and Family Economics program
  • Andria Smythe, Howard University, The Impact of Social Security Eligibility on Transfers to Elderly Parents and Savings among Adult Children

JSIT Scholars and UW–Madison Participants

Janeen Cross, Howard University

Emily Ellis, University of Chicago

Jevay Grooms, Howard University

Kaya Hamer-Small, Broward College

Enrique Lopezlira, Grand Canyon University

Aqueasha Martin-Hammond, Indiana University/Purdue University

Josefina Flores Morales, University of California–Los Angeles

Gemarco Peterson, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University

Andria Smythe, Howard University

Adibah  Abdulhadi, UW–Madison

Madelaine L’Esperance, University of Alabama and UW–Madison

Melody Waring, UW–Madison

JSIT Faculty Mentors

Fenaba Addo, UW–Madison                             

Marah Curtis, UW–Madison                                               

Damon Jones, University of Chicago                               

Victoria Perez, Indiana University                  

Manasi Deshpande, University of Chicago  

Justin Sydnor, UW–Madison                                              

Rourke O’Brien, UW–Madison and Yale University

J. Michael Collins, UW–Madison

JSIT Speakers and Panelists

Lynn Fisher, Social Security Administration

Kristi Scott, Social Security Administration

Jason Fichtner, Johns Hopkins University

Haydar Kurban, Howard University

Tatiana Homonoff, New York University

Marguerite Burns, UW–Madison

Anita Mukherjee, UW–Madison

John Mullahy, UW–Madison

Fenaba Addo, UW–Madison                                               

Marah Curtis, UW–Madison                                               

Damon Jones, University of Chicago                               

Victoria Perez, Indiana University                  

Manasi Deshpande, University of Chicago

Rourke O’Brien, UW–Madison and Yale University

J. Michael Collins, UW–Madison

Marcy Carlson, UW–Madison

Lonnie Berger, UW–Madison