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Student News May 24, 2023

Questions on economic policy lead senior Amichai Feit to thesis fieldwork in rural India

Amichai Feit (’23) walks with his advisor, Professor Seema Jayachandran. Photo Credit: Denise Applewhite, University Communications.

Before Professor Seema Jayachandran became Amichai Feit’s senior thesis advisor, Feit knew her as a famous development economist he followed on Twitter.

“I remember seeing a news story that she was hired at Princeton, and thought it was a really big deal,” he said. “So, I shot her a follow on Twitter.”

Flash forward several months later, and Feit was working closely with Jayachandran — who joined Princeton’s faculty from Northwestern in the summer of 2022 — on an ambitious senior thesis project that included economic field research in India.

The idea for Feit’s thesis grew from a capstone project Feit conducted the summer before his senior year. The capstone, which focused on policy changes in India, spoke to Feit’s interest in policy analysis, and in particular how economics research can generate insights that improve people’s lives.

“For someone who’s interested in research that has real policy implications, I became super fascinated by the idea that there are policies being designed that affect hundreds of millions of people,” Feit said. He decided to build his senior thesis around some of these policy changes, with the aim of uncovering their impact on economic wellbeing.

Later that summer, with a thesis topic in-hand, Feit was searching for an advisor when one of his teachers, Assistant Professor Ellora Derenoncourt, suggested he reach out in real life to Jayachandran, a professor of economics and international affairs in the Department of Economics and the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA).

After a few emails and a meeting on campus, Feit and Jayachandran agreed on a path forward for the project. Feit got to work.

“Amichai had a good research question, and he was smart about finding a good research design to answer it,” Jayachandran said. “The question had a lot of economics in it, and he understood all that really well.”

“But above and beyond that, he did something quite novel, which is to do some field work. He took the time to go and talk to the people who are affected by the policies, as well as the people who are responsible for implementing them.”

A trip of a lifetime

Feit’s thesis examined the economic welfare effects of two major policies in India. The first is a political reservation policy, which sets aside legislative seats in some Assembly Constituencies for individuals from marginalized groups, specifically India’s Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The second policy, called the National Rural Employment Guarantee Schemes (NREGS) program, guarantees participating households 100 paid days of work a year and is the largest job guarantee program in the world.

The main question Feit was interested in was whether there was a way to quantify, from a welfare perspective, the costs and benefits of the reservation system. That is: Does the system of reserving political seats for members of historically disadvantaged groups impact the earnings, wage, and employment outcomes for participants in the NREGS program?

Unsurprisingly, classic tools in economic analysis went a long way in helping Feit uncover an answer. Using experimental data from what is now the state of Telangana (which was split off from the state of Andhra Pradesh in 2014), Feit conducted a series of linear regressions that ultimately suggested the reserved seats had limited impact, at least via the NREGS program.

Amichai Feit stands in front of a board that conveys statistics and information about the National Rural Employment Guarantee Schemes (NREGS) program. Photo courtesy of Amichai Feit.
Amichai Feit stands in front of a board that conveys statistics and information about the National Rural Employment Guarantee Schemes (NREGS) program. Photo courtesy of Amichai Feit.

However, it was a trip to Telangana that helped him understand why that might be the case.

With the bulk of his data analysis completed in the fall semester, Feit approached Jayachandran about the possibility of strengthening his project by conducting field work.

“Amichai had already made a lot of progress, so I knew he could really benefit from doing this,” Jayachandran said. She put Feit in touch with her research manager, Meghana Mungikar, and together the three of them started the process of arranging a trip for Feit to conduct in-person surveys that would enhance his research.

The process was complex, to say the least.

Logistical challenges

First, Feit’s survey questions had to be developed in advance and approved by Princeton’s Institutional Review Board, which oversees research policies like informed consent. Second, there was the issue of logistics and how to overcome language barriers. To tackle these challenges, Mungikar connected Feit with on-the-ground support, including a logistics coordinator, a translator, a driver, and a professional surveyor who would help Feit conduct his interviews.

Feit (right), takes a selfie with the project's translator, Naresh (center), and Madhu (left), a research surveyor that helped conduct interviews. Photo courtesy of Amichai Feit.

Feit (right), takes a selfie with the Naresh (center), the project’s translator, and Madhu (left), a research surveyor that helped him conduct field interviews. Photo courtesy of Amichai Feit.

When all that was done, Feit was finally ready to go. Arriving in India about a week before his field work began, he spent some time preparing in Delhi. From there, he flew down to Hyderabad, the capital of Telangana, which would serve as a home base for his trips to different villages throughout the state.

“I was definitely excited,” Feit said. But he had no idea what to expect.

Feit said advice from Professor Jayachandran helped him make the most of his time in India.

“The main advice Professor Jayachandran gave me was to make sure, during the field work, to leave some time to digest what you heard in the interviews, because that process of going around and spending all day in the field can be really exhausting.”

Feit said he quickly learned, after spending a long, 90-degree day conducting interviews, that Professor Jayachandran had given him excellent advice.

“And I was just sitting there doing interviews,” he said. “Of course it’s much more taxing to actually be working in the field. But it was a very tiring process and I found it was important, each night when I got back from the field work, to make sure I had time to write some notes and update my thinking so I could be prepared for the next day.”

Ultimately, Feit says, the trip to India to conduct qualitative research helped him form solid hypotheses about why his quantitative analysis failed to find any major impacts of the system of reserved political seats on economic welfare. 

One potential explanation, he says, is that politicians with both reserved and unreserved seats are similarly motivated to implement NREGS effectively. 

“Something that struck me during the fieldwork is how impactful the [NREGS] program is and how widespread the program is,” Feit said. “It wasn’t hard to find interviewees who worked on the program. There were signs throughout the villages and work sites were clearly labeled.”

Feit’s interviews and observations suggested to him that, given the program’s popularity, you might not expect to see strong benefits or costs associated with reserved seats.

“When a program is so politically impactful, the political preferences might not vary across groups.”

Feit wrote in his paper that while his findings “indicate that political reservation does not always amplify the benefits of government programs that target disadvantaged groups, they also show that improved representation does not necessarily come at the expense of public welfare.”

The appeal of economics

When Feit first came to Princeton, he was strongly considering a major within Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs.

“I’m still not entirely sure what I want to be when I grow up, but I came in thinking I would be a SPIA major,” Feit said. “I was most interested in public policy, and that interest continued through the independent work I’ve done.”

But long before he started that independent work, a few key classes changed his thinking and showed him that majoring in economics — which would also let him explore important public policy questions — might be the best fit for him.

In the fall of his first year, Feit took ECO 100 with Professor Harvey Rosen.

“I thought it was this incredible thing to be taking this class with a former CEA economist,” Feit said, referring to the Council of Economic Advisers at the White House, where Professor Rosen, the John L. Weinberg Professor of Economics and Business Policy, Emeritus, served as chair in 2005.

“It was just a really amazing class and my gut told me that I wanted to major in Econ,” Feit said.

“What’s really interesting about economics, as a way of thinking, is that you’re not meant to come in with any priors or the want to rule out possibilities. That way of thinking and an openness to different possible explanations and looking at what the evidence tells you … that way of thinking really appealed to me.”

“Exactly what Princeton hopes for.”

Despite his ambitious independent work commitments, Feit found time, in his four years at Princeton, to contribute to many aspects of campus life. He was particularly involved with the Center for Jewish Life, most recently serving as president of the center’s student board. He also served as a member of Princeton’s College Fed Challenge team, as treasurer for men’s club basketball, and as president of a student-led group called Envision, where he helped organize a conference about the social impact of emerging technologies.

After graduation, Feit, of Riverdale, New York, will join the Princeton University Investment Company (PRINCO), where he interned last year, as a financial analyst. While he isn’t sure if there will be more development economics fieldwork in his future, he thinks the process of completing his senior thesis — which taught him the benefits of combining quantitative, empirical work with qualitative work in the field — made him a better researcher.

“Amichai’s thesis is exactly what Princeton hopes for with the senior thesis requirement,” said Jayachandran. “It helps students elevate their skill set by exploring, in greater depth, a question they’re interested in.”

“At its best, a thesis is a rewarding experience for the student and makes a valuable contribution to our collective knowledge,” she said. “Amichai succeeded in answering a really policy-relevant question that’s also of interest to professional economists.”


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