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Faculty News February 20, 2024

Ellora Derenoncourt awarded 2024 Sloan Research Fellowship for early career researchers

Ellora Derenoncourt, assistant professor of economics at Princeton University and director of the Economics Department’s Program for Research on Inequality, has been named a 2024 recipient of the prestigious Sloan Research Fellowship for early career researchers. 

Sloan Research Fellows are selected annually by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to represent the next generation of scientific leaders in the United States and Canada. Derenoncourt is one of five Princeton faculty to receive the fellowship this year. 

Derenoncourt’s research examines issues in labor economics, economic history, and inequality, often with a focus on racial inequities that continue to pervade American society.

“It’s wonderful to see the Sloan Foundation recognize Ellora’s important work,” said Leah Boustan, professor of economics at Princeton University and director of the economics department’s Industrial Relations Section. “Her research breaks new ground in our understanding of racial disparity in the United States, exploring both its long historical roots and the set of policies that might promote more equitable outcomes. She combines the meticulous data collection of an economic historian with the empirical rigor of the best of labor economics.”

In a study of the Great Migration–the period from 1940-1970 when many Black families migrated from southern to northern states–Derenoncourt illustrated how a backlash to racial integration in several northern cities threatened the promise of “moving to opportunity” and resulted in lower economic mobility for Black families in those cities even today. 

In another groundbreaking study on the Black-white racial wealth gap in the United States, made possible by a new dataset the authors constructed that includes data on Black wealth from the time immediately after Emancipation until now, Derenoncourt and her fellow researchers showed that progress on closing the racial wealth gap has all but stalled since the 1950s and that inequality is on track to grow moving forward.

Economics as a tool for social justice

For Derenoncourt, one of the most powerful aspects of economics is also its most underappreciated: that it can be used as a tool for social justice. Derenoncourt says she was “late” to this realization, but hopes her research can show students today that if they care about issues in social justice, economics might be a good field for them to pursue. 

“I didn’t study economics in undergrad,” she said. “I was interested in gender studies and in questions of power and inequality, and I thought economics was the last thing I’d want to major in if I care about these things.”

“It was only through meeting very good mentors in the field that I learned social justice questions can be studied with economics, and that what you get exposed to in introductory microeconomics isn’t actually what it’s like to be an economist.”

One of those influential mentors was Derenoncourt’s dissertation advisor at Harvard, the 2024 Nobel laureate Claudia Goldin. 

“Claudia has been so influential for me for multiple reasons, but especially because she instilled in me an interest in looking at things historically. The idea that we may only understand something if we take the long-run view–that’s something I got from her.”

Like so much other research in the field of economics, Goldin’s work on female labor force participation has been hugely informative for policy–another benefit of economics Derenoncourt is quick to point out.

“In the current policy-making power structure, economists are super influential. But ironically, the people who are driven by questions of social justice end up steered away from economics.”

Because her interest in economics didn’t blossom until after her undergraduate studies were completed, Derenoncourt says she had to do a lot of “retooling” in order to enter the field. That’s one reason she hopes to show more undergraduate students the impact they can have with an economics education.

“If you like a scientific approach and you like data and math but are choosing to do something else because you don’t think economics can address social problems or reduce inequality, I hope my work can show you what’s possible with economics.”

Ongoing work on inequality in the United States

With the support of the Sloan Foundation, Derenoncourt will continue to investigate inequality through several ongoing projects. 

As an extension of her earlier work on the Great Migration, she’s currently taking a closer look at how local criminal justice systems responded to an increase in the Black population in several U.S. cities like Detroit, Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago. To do so, she and her fellow researchers are hand-collecting archived municipal code books and working with dozens of U.S. states to access modern criminal court records. 

Derenoncourt is also working on a study of the U.S. unemployment insurance (UI) system from its founding in 1937 to the present, with a particular focus on what groups of people have been excluded from receiving UI benefits as a result of state rules that beneficiaries meet certain requirements, for example minimum earnings requirements. 

Finally, the fellowship will support her investigation of regional patterns in the Black-white racial wealth gap and the role of minimum wages in reducing wage inequalities, particularly in the informal labor sector where workers are paid under the table and employers aren’t beholden to the minimum wage.

To learn more about Derenoncourt and her work, visit the website for the Program for Research on Inequality.


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