Yale Daily News

Today, Yale finds itself on the front lines of the national economic response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Tobin Center for Economic Policy, housed within the Department of Economics, is at the forefront of the economic research that is informing state and federal governments’ economic response to COVID-19 and the subsequent recession. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the center has been conducting research on how the economy can come away from the pandemic healthier and stronger. The expressed goal of the center is to address the most pressing domestic economic concerns and provide policymakers with the research necessary to make the most informed decision.

“We made something of a pivot to COVID-focused research as the pandemic started as part of addressing urgent issues,” said Steven Berry, the head of the Tobin Center, in a conversation with the News. “We would like to see our research connect better to economic policymakers.”

He added that the Center is helping connect researchers to policymakers amidst the pandemic.

The Tobin Center was established in 2018 and is the third research center within the Economics Department, alongside the Economic Growth Center and the Cowles Foundation for Research in Economics. Unlike the other two groups, the Tobin Center focuses explicitly on domestic economic policy research. Additionally, the Tobin Center directly funds research and has a pre-doctoral research assistant program which brings recent college graduates from around the world to work with Yale faculty on economic research. Finally, as Berry explained, the center attempts to share its findings with current policymakers on the most pressing issues.

Berry described how the center’s approach to the COVID-19 crisis falls into “two buckets.” The first role of the center is to “synthesize any broad economic consensus that exists and get that to policy makers.” In doing this, the center is bringing together work from researchers both within and outside of Yale. One such consensus that the center has shared with policymakers is that the best way to fight the economic fallout of the pandemic is to fight the pandemic itself. Berry said that their research was presented to the House, the Senate and the White House, but that the White House was “not fully convinced by this approach.”

The other way the center is approaching the COVID-19 recession is through “more direct research” on the economic impact of the pandemic. Berry described how they are focused both on how “the economy affects the progress of the disease, and how the disease affects the progress of the economy.”

David Wilkinson, the executive director of the Tobin Center, described one example of a project the center released that directly informed the policy debate surrounding the pandemic. Toward the end of the summer, when Congress was convened to debate the extension of the $600 stimulus check package, the center released a report showing that the checks have not deterred Americans from returning to work and have not had an adverse impact on employment levels.

This report was featured in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, NPR and CNN. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also released a statement specific to the report, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was questioned on it. For Wilkinson, this was a prime example of the reach and impact that good research can have on the policy debate. Congress ultimately decided not to extend the $600 stimulus check package.

“[The Tobin Center presents a] unique opportunity … to contribute to this really important empirical project and also pitch my own ideas for something that we could do with the data [and] work on the unemployment insurance question in a way that nobody else working on any COVID papers had done yet,” said Dana Scott, the project’s lead researcher and a first-year doctoral candidate in the Economics Department.

Economics professor Judith Chevalier’s research, supported in part by the Tobin Center, focuses on understanding the high rates of COVID infections and deaths in nursing homes, which she has partly attributed to the worker-sharing programs that nursing homes use. By using geolocation technology, she has been able to determine that cross contamination occurring as a result of nurses working in multiple homes is one of the reasons we have seen such high death rates in those communities.

In a conversation with the News, Wilkinson said that one of the goals of the Tobin Center is to reduce the time between research being conducted and the research having a policy impact.

“Our biggest hope for moving the needle for vulnerable populations is by using data and evidence to understand what works and to bring it to more people,” Wilkinson said.
“What we have here is the beginning of an untapped new resource to inform policy in America.”

The center is also currently beginning work with other universities to uncover what they think the most pressing economic issues of the future will be, once the pandemic is over and the economy has fully recovered.

Among those being considered, Berry said, were inequality, education, healthcare and climate change.

The Economic Growth Center and the Cowles Foundation for Research in Economics was established at Yale in 1961 and 1955, respectively.


Philip Mousavizadeh | philip.mousavizadeh@yale.edu