CSMGEP Profiles: Philip N. Jefferson, Swarthmore College

Walter Cronkite Made Me Do it

Philip N. Jefferson, Professor of Economics, Swarthmore College

Portrait of Philip JeffersonEvery evening growing up, Philip Jefferson watched the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. “It was a ritual in our house. My dad would come home, tired from a day of work and turn on the t.v. No noise, no fighting. We all had to be quiet and watch the news.” It was the late 1970s and the economy, inflation, and financial news filled the screen. Jefferson was beginning to think about the future, and there were two things he knew. He didn’t want to be a civil servant and he didn’t want to be a manual laborer. However, “whenever I saw bankers on t.v., they were very well dressed, so I decided to become a banker.”

A banker was a world apart from his working class neighborhood in Washington, DC, but Jefferson thought it would give him the security he’d need in life. He knew too well just how quickly life could derail when you lacked the luxury of second chance. “I understood early on that it’s a very thin line between coming out ok and slipping down a slope. On my block as a kid, there were good outcomes and there were examples of people who ended up in prisons. It really can be as minute as making a bad decision one weekend and getting caught up in the legal system or staying in that night and waking up in your own bed.”

It is the fickleness of fate that still fascinates Jefferson today in his research on poverty.  “We live in a society where the individual and household are on their own. When simple bad luck hits—job loss, a health problem—there’s little to fall back on in terms of wealth or social connections. These type of shocks happen everywhere, but the difference is when you’ve accumulated wealth and a rich social and economic network, you can weather the storm.”

Jefferson learned first-hand how those networks and supports can make all the difference.  “A counselor in high school pushed me to apply to Vassar College, which I’d never heard of at that time. If not for that, I would have gone to a commuter state college, and my life would have been different.

Vassar, however, offered no banking and business courses, but an economics course seemed close enough. It was all it took to hook him. “I’ve been studying economics ever since,” he says.  Vassar also provided him with the opportunity to study at the London School of Economics (LSE) for his junior year.

Another turning point in his early career was his participation in the AEA Pipeline Program at Yale University after his year at the LSE.  He had toyed with the idea of going on for the Ph.D. However, the experience of seeing Don Brown and Gerald Jaynes strengthened his resolve.

“Just the fact that I saw two African American men standing in front of the classroom opened my mind to the possibilities. Until then I’d never been taught economics by an African American, either at Vassar and or the London School of Economics. That is also one of the reasons why I’ve chosen to teach at predominantly white institutions. I know the impact of seeing minorities at the front of the classroom, not only for the minority students, but the majority students as well. It’s maybe even more important for them to know that intelligence comes in all packages. That exposure is crucial. Otherwise, they’re left to believe what they see on t.v.”

After finishing graduate school at the University of Virginia in 1990, Jefferson took a job as an Assistant Professor at Columbia University.  He later visited for two years at the University of California at Berkeley before returning to Columbia.  “By this time, moving was a habit, so I left Columbia for a second time to work as an economist at the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.” He returned to the academy in 1997, moving to Swarthmore College, where he teaches today. In 2004, he was elected to president of the National Economic Association, whose mission is to promote the professional lives of minorities in economics.

Jefferson’s current research interests are in macroeconomics, poverty, and applied econometrics. “I’m willing to work on almost any topic if it’s interesting and if I have something novel to say about it.”

He also loves the fact that economics gives him the set of tools to answer questions on almost any topic, even one as seemingly remote to the field as hate groups. An article in the newsletter of the Southern Law Poverty Center on the location of known hate groups in the United States piqued he and a coauthor’s interest. They wondered whether poverty and other economic conditions in those counties where hate groups are located could explain the presence of those groups. Turns out, they don’t. What was more important was whether the county had been a member of the Confederate States of America. Amazingly, he says, “here we are more than 100 years after the Civil War and that factor is still playing out.”

Although Jefferson may not be the banker he envisioned as he watched the CBS Evening News, he’s found his niche where he can combine what his neighborhood taught him with a set of tools to figure out why, as Walter Cronkite used to say, “that’s the way it is.”