CSMGEP Profile: Francisca Antman

Understanding the World Through Economics

Francisca AntmanAs an undergraduate student, Francisca Antman arrived at Harvard with the intent to study political science. Her family had been politically active, and growing up she saw how politics could have profound impacts on the world. She took an economics class to better understand political forces, but what she learned was that economics — and econometrics in particular — is the key to understanding just about anything.

“What I really wanted was to understand the world,” Antman says, “and economics was teaching the tools to do that.”

Now Antman herself is teaching, as an associate professor in the economics department at the University of Colorado Boulder. A development and labor economist, she also works with the University of Colorado’s Population Center and is a research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Labor.

When she was an undergrad at the turn of the millennium, economics was expanding, both in terms of what questions the field addressed and who was addressing them.

“I was very lucky to realize very soon that I could analyze any questions that I wanted with an economics degree,” Antman says. “Now that I'm a professor, I really want to share that message with every student out there, because unfortunately we have significant underrepresentation of women and historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups in economics. And some research suggests that may be, in part, because there are many students out there who don't realize how expansive economics is and how much you can do with an economics degree.”

Antman encountered a core economic question frequently as a child who was born and raised in the United States but often crossed the border to visit family in Mexico. She wondered why the poverty she saw in Mexico was so different from the abundance she saw in the U.S. Later, econometrics gave her a way to investigate “many of the disparities that I've seen over my life,” she reflects: “Why some people are rich and some people are poor. Why we see so many disparities across racial and ethnic groups, across gender, in so many areas.”

For her dissertation at Stanford University, she knew she wanted to use the tools of economics to learn more about the cross-border disparities she’d seen. For that project and in much of her research in the years since, she focused on the effects of family separation — why people leave their home country to live and work elsewhere and the effects on families when they do. The financial gains were well studied, but Antman was also interested in the costs, which she’d seen take a toll within her own extended family. Econometrics helped her see a clearer picture of how the migration of one family member can affect the health, education, and feelings of connection of those still in their home country.

“It is costly in a way that you can't always measure and that you may not even internalize if you are a migrant yourself,” she says. “You might not really even see the long-term impacts that might have on your children, for instance, or your parents.”

As a development economist, Antman has similarly found some untold economic stories by looking into history. In a paper published in 2022, she studied the rise in tea drinking in England in the 18th century, which led to more consumption of boiled water and thus lower mortality rates. It wasn’t a planned sanitation program or any kind of health initiative, but rather a social custom with an unintended consequence that helped bolster England’s economy going into the Industrial Revolution.

“It is surprising how different innovations have had such big impacts on the course of history or economic development that were not necessarily realized at the time,” Antman says.

The next revolution on the horizon for economics, as Antman sees it, might be identity. Long assumed to be fixed, recent research points to identity, including race, as a more fluid concept, changing over time and in response to incentives, government policies, and more.

“I think that poses significant challenges for economics, which kind of tries to control for identity and assume it is fixed,” Antman says. “And it also opens up many new avenues of inquiry into how we form that identity. How does it change over time? And what are the implications if people can change their identities — for government policies, for researchers trying to estimate disparities?”

In her research and even in her choices of podcasts she listens to while running in her free time, Antman says, “I just love interesting questions,” and she hopes to encourage more people to ask and answer questions that interest them through economics. That’s at the core of her work as co-director of the American Economic Association’s Mentoring Program and as a member of its Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession and ex-officio member of CSMGEP. And it’s the focus of her current, National Science Foundation-funded research that examines diversity in the economics field and how increased diversity is changing what’s studied, what’s published, and what questions are being asked.

“I really want everyone who has an interest in any of these questions, or really any questions about the world, to see themselves as an economist,” Antman says. “I think I was very fortunate to see that was possible for me at a formative age, when I was picking college majors. And I really want that for everyone.”

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 book that puts me right to sleep.

What job would you like to have if you weren’t an economist?
Civil rights lawyer.

What is an ideal day?
Submit a paper, go for a long run, and spend the rest of the day with my family.

What trait do you deplore in other people?
A sense of entitlement.  

What trait do you most admire in people?

What historical figure do you most admire?
Thurgood Marshall.

What is your favorite extravagance?
My children.

What is your worst habit?

Which talent would you most like to have?
Ability to play a musical instrument really well.

Maynard Keynes or Milton Friedman?

What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?