CSMGEP Profile: Ebonya Washington

Economics at the Policy Table

On the train home from a fundraiser for a Black political candidate in New York, Ebonya Washington, then a grad student at MIT, wondered something: If a Black candidate is on the ballot, does that increase or decrease voter turnout?

Soon she made a trip to the library to find an article that might shed light on the answer. “I didn’t find such an article,” she says. “So then I wrote such an article. And that’s how I got into political economy.”

Today, Washington is the Laurans A. and Arlene Mendelson Professor of Economics at Columbia University, as well as a professor of international and public affairs. She’s also co-director of the National Bureau of Economic Research’s political economy program. Her work as a public economist focuses on marginalized populations, using data to better understand the intersections of race, gender, and political representation.

In a sense, her preparation for life in academia began early — really early. Her mother, a psychology professor, entered grad school when Washington was a toddler, and the college campus became familiar territory. “I first started going to graduate school when I was one year old,” she quips.

When Washington started her own college career at Brown University, she looked at the bulletin boards, club announcements, and course offerings all around her and noticed that the activities and opportunities that drew her interest all had something in common.

“They talked about real issues,” she says, and most had to do with public policy. “I just thought that these were interesting, practical topics.”

As an undergraduate, she majored in public policy with a focus on welfare and other support programs for low-income people. She thought she’d continue on to get her doctorate in public policy, envisioning a career as a professor who spent sabbaticals in government doing policy work. But her adviser recommended she pursue a doctorate in a traditional discipline for greater employment possibilities. After taking some time to consider social science fields connected to the policy major, including political science, Washington landed on economics. When her adviser, who was a political scientist, asked for her reasoning, she was ready: “Because economists are the most listened-to at the policy table.”

In her research, Washington has listened to what data says about how people and their economic decisions are affected by policy and politics, both historically and today.

The paper “most emblematic” of her work, she says, is a 2014 dive into whether Black communities benefited from the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices including literacy tests in the Jim Crow South. Washington and her co-author found that with enfranchisement, more state funds started flowing into Black communities.

“That’s the kind of thing I'm interested in,” she says. “How are minoritized people using the political system to get economic needs met?”

Recently, Washington has been working with health economist Marcella Alsan to study how people’s views on gun control policies are shaped by media coverage of the issue. They’re looking at “the ground truth” in statistics — i.e., the number of people in a community killed by gunshots — and the media coverage at the local level and beyond, then evaluating how people’s attitudes about gun control are influenced by those factors.

“Do the media reports actually reflect what's happening on the ground, or is it only certain kinds of cases that really get picked up in the media, or are there only certain kind of cases that actually move public opinion” Washington asks. “We're just getting started on that, but it seems important.” 

Washington’s research has looked inside her own profession, too. A 2020 paper she co-authored with Amanda Bayer and Gary A. Hoover, driven by qualitative data gathered in interviews, sought to provide guidance to her colleagues on how they can work to boost minority participation in the study of economics, especially as students consider the profession. She and her co-authors found that students need better information about the profession and opportunities for advancement within it, and they also need better mentoring programs, with participation from established professionals of all races. The profession would benefit, too, from being more actively welcoming to minority students. Instead of cultivating a reputation for classes that weed people out, for example, “invite people in,” she says. And show students that their own experiences within the economy are valid and important — and worthy of study.

Alongside the CV and list of publications on Washington’s website is a page for her drawings, a sampling of her output from weekly lessons she started taking six years ago.

“The reason why I put those up is because in economics, we're very bad at telling students there should be a work-life balance. I think students think they're not even allowed to have a hobby,” she says. “I want students to know not only is it OK to have a hobby, you should have a hobby because you need time to have your brain be absorbed in something that's not economics.”

Washington chose drawing for a hobby because “I was one of these people who said all my life — and I was told — I cannot draw. So I'm learning something that I believed I couldn't learn. I have a very good teacher and I put in the practice and I am learning to actually draw what I see.”

She’s doing something for herself, and that’s important. But it’s a behavior she wants to model for students as well.

“Many people say, ‘I can’t do math, I’m no good with theory. I could never write a paper like this or like that,’” Washington says. “And so I put the drawings up for students, to say, ‘Yeah, I thought that too.’ But I was wrong.  Think positively, surround yourself with helpful people, and apply yourself and then see what you can do.”

Proust Questionnaire

A salon and parlor game of the 19th century made famous by Marcel Proust’s answers, the Proust Questionnaire (adapted here) gets to the heart of things....

What’s on your nightstand?
A novel, a bottle of water, and an analog clock. No electronic devices in the bedroom.

What job would you like to have if you weren’t an economist?

What is an ideal day? 
It includes art, connection with others, and laughter.

What trait do you deplore in other people? 

What trait do you most admire in people?
Grace toward others  

What is your favorite extravagance?
Travel purely for pleasure

What is your worst habit?
Rehashing in my mind things I cannot change

Which talent would you most like to have?
Great dancer

What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done? 
Live with chronic illness