Editor’s note: This piece is the first in a new series about faculty in the Economics Department at Princeton.
Though today Princeton Professor Janet Currie is widely recognized as a leading expert on policies related to children’s health and wellbeing, her focus on these issues wasn’t always so well appreciated.
“Deciding to make children the focus of my research, when there was no ‘field’ for it and no one else was doing it, was one of the hardest decisions I made as a researcher,” Currie said. “People told me that it was ‘interesting, but not economics.’ Plus, it was a stereotypically female concern.”
But Currie, who has long believed that children’s health should be a top-order policy concern, was committed to it. In the thirty years since earning her Ph.D., Currie has published well over 100 papers, studies, and book chapters on the economics of children and families and how the U.S healthcare system can better address their needs.
Throughout her career, Currie has studied Head Start, Medicaid, and nutrition and public housing programs designed to improve children’s wellbeing. She’s examined how early life experiences affect children’s educational and employment outcomes. And she’s studied environmental and other factors that can threaten fertility and children’s health and mortality.
Most recently, Currie has focused her work on trying to understand the role of mental health and mental health treatment in children’s human capital development.
“I just think it is a tremendously important question and one that has been largely ignored by economists until recently,” she said.
“People lose more working days to mental illness than physical illness, and many mental illnesses start in childhood or adolescence. It is something that affects millions of people throughout their lives.”
Currie says the growing availability of data from many sources—like ER records, health insurance claims, and prescriptions—means that researchers can start to really investigate causes and approaches to treatment.
In recent work, Currie and Princeton Ph.D. candidate Emily Cuddy show that thousands of children in the U.S. are receiving mental health care that falls outside of accepted guidelines and poses risks to their overall health.
❱ Rules vs. Discretion: Treatment of Mental Illness in U.S. Adolescents
with Emily Cuddy
❱ What Caused Racial Disparities in Particulate Exposure to Fall? New Evidence from the Clean Air Act and Satellite-Based Measures of Air Quality
with John Voorheis and Reed Walker
Currie, who earned her Ph.D. at Princeton in 1988, says she wouldn’t choose to live anywhere else.
“Princeton is so beautiful, with so much going on for a small town. The smallness of Princeton is a real benefit in that it’s easy to get to know people from across the university.”
Currie says students considering Princeton should know that Princeton really cares about teaching and about the quality of student life.
“There is a huge amount of assistance available for any problems students may have, and faculty are very accessible.”
Currie herself regularly advises undergraduate Economics majors on their Senior Thesis projects. Alexandra Rice, one of Currie’s 2020 advisees, was awarded a Senior Thesis Prize for her thesis on how undergraduate student debt affects students’ labor market outcomes. Senior Tilmann Herschenroder, another of Currie’s students, won the Peter W. Stroh 51 Environmental Senior Thesis Prize.
In 2015, after being nominated by her students, Currie was awarded the Carolyn Bell Shaw Award—an honor she says still brings “tears to her eyes”—in recognition of her role as a mentor to women in the field of economics. The award is granted annually by the American Economics Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession.
To students who are just beginning their academic or research careers, Currie has advice based on decades of experience.
“Work on something you find truly important. Believing in what you are doing will sustain you through the rough patches.”