CSMGEP Profiles: Sheldon Danziger, University of Michigan and National Poverty Center

Building the Next Generation of Poverty Scholars

Sheldon Danziger, Henry J. Meyer Distinguished University Professor of Public Policy, University of Michigan, Co-director, National Poverty Center

Portrait of Sheldon DanzigerThe 1960s had just come to a close when Sheldon Danziger arrived at MIT fresh from Columbia to study economics. Race riots, Vietnam war protests, and another war, the War on Poverty, had left cities, and the country, forever changed. The field of economics was expanding to analyze the effects of income inequality and urban economics, and Danziger enrolled in courses at MIT taught by Lester Thurow and Sam Bowles (at Harvard)—an interest that would last more than 40 years.

In 1974, Danziger would follow his interests to a postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute for Research on Poverty at University of Wisconsin, Madison—a pivotal career move. “At IRP, I had the opportunity to work with the leading poverty researchers of the day, including Robert Lampman, Robert Haveman, and Eugene Smolensky. They treated me both as a colleague and an apprentice. I quickly learned that my graduate studies had taught me how to complete my dissertation, but not how to launch a coherent research agenda—a common experience I find for many who move immediately from graduate school to an assistant professorship.”

Shaped by excellent mentors at Wisconsin, Danziger has since returned the favor. In 1989, he launched the Research and Training Program on Poverty and Public Policy at the University of Michigan, where he is currently the Henry J. Meyer Distinguished University Professor of Public Policy, and co-director of the National Poverty Center.

The program offers underrepresented scholars in poverty research—largely women and minorities—the opportunity for up to two years of interdisciplinary research and extensive training. (For more information, visit here). As Danziger found so invaluable at Madison, the Michigan program emphasizes strong mentorship and collaborative research.

“The level of support that Sheldon is willing and able to provide as a mentor is truly amazing,” says Ngina Chiteji, a post-doctoral fellow in 1995-1997 and currently a tenured associate professor of economics at Skidmore. “If you talk to any one of the former students, I am sure they will tell the same story. We were all amazed at how much Sheldon was willing to help each of us, all while managing a team of graduate students at the same time.”

“It’s hard,” says Danziger, “for young scholars, including minorities and women, to break through. All young researchers need strong mentorship. It’s a minority of doctoral students—white, black, male, female—who have the opportunity to apprentice with a faculty member who is interested in promoting students’ careers.” At Michigan, he says, “students work on their own projects and have access to leading scholars in their specialties. It is a true partnership.”

Danziger also volunteers his time in CSMGEP’s Mentoring Program, created in the mid-1990s for students in a Ph.D. program in economics as well as new doctorates. The program matches participants with a mentor who sees them through the critical junctures of their graduate program or early careers, including the transition from course work to research. “CSMGEP’s pipeline program was one of the most important undergrad experiences I had,” says Rucker Johnson, Assistant Professor in the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. “The program itself is a huge catalyst for minorities to apply for doctoral programs in economics.”

Rodney Andrews, a Robert Wood Johnson fellow in Health Policy Program at Harvard University, was on his way to the University of Michigan for his graduate studies, and the CSMGEP program had lined up Danziger as his mentor.

“Sheldon brought me into the National Poverty Center and gave me the opportunity to develop as a scholar. More than any other senior scholar I know, he takes the mentorship aspect very seriously. He believes strongly that there is a place for minority scholars and for women in economics. I’m at Harvard due in no small part to Sheldon’s influence.”

And the legacy of those efforts is evident today. “You see the influence,” says Andrews. “At APPAM meetings, you run into those who are making it because of people like Sheldon, and they’re smiling, there’s talk of work. And you feel you’re part of something.”

Proust Questionnaire

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

What’s on your nightstand?
The New Yorker magazine. I read so much at work that I don’t have time to read anything but the New Yorker.

How do you treat yourself? What’s your favorite indulgence?
I’m a foodie—so a fancy meal and good bottle of wine. At the moment, anything syrah.

What trait do you most deplore in others?

Whom do you most admire?
President Johnson for launching the War on Poverty because it was unexpected of him.

What’s your favorite sport?

What’s your most annoying/bad habit?
Sarcasm—it can get me in trouble. 

What’s your favorite movie/TV?
The Wire, especially the next to last season, and for movies, The Godfather I.