CSMGEP Profiles: Steve Trejo, University of Texas at Austin

Economics is a Social Science

Stephen J. Trejo, Associate Professor of Economics, Associate Director of the Population Research Center, University of Texas at Austin

Portrait of Stephen J. TrejoLet’s say the time has come to choose the university you want to attend after High School. How do you decide? For Steve Trejo, native Californian, the choice was based on a friend’s recommendation—a college in Southern California, on the beach, and pretty—UC Santa Barbara! When it came time to choose a program of study, Trejo looked to another friend, a stockbroker who, because the markets are on the east coast, could end his work day at 1:00, go to the beach, get a tan, and play tennis. Believing economics was all about markets, and being one to enjoy the beach and tennis, Trejo decided economics was the right field for him.

“Luckily I found out that economics is about human behavior, not money,” says a wiser Trejo today.

Dr. Stephen J. Trejo, Associate Professor of Economics at The University of Texas at Austin, did pursue economics and earned his B.A. from UC Santa Barbara in 1981, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in economics at the University of Chicago. During his undergraduate years, Trejo studied under George Borjas who, along with Barry Chiswick and David Card, resurrected the study of immigration within labor economics. With Borjas as his mentor, Trejo began to take an interest in immigration.

While his dissertation was on overtime pay regulations, and he was generally drawn toward labor economics, Trejo decided to delve deeper into Hispanic issues when he was asked to review the book,Inequality at Work: Hispanics in the U.S. Labor Force, by Gregory DeFreitas. Trejo says it grabbed his attention, and he could see a niche for researching labor market outcomes for Hispanics, as so little was being done at the time.

He was curious about other ways research could be done. He would often read others’ work and think, “I would do this differently.” For example, in 1993 when he reviewed DeFreitas’ book, most research on Hispanics still used models that were created to study African American economic issues. Trejo knew the study of Hispanics required a different approach. Questions needed to be asked about where respondents’ parents and grandparents were born, how well they spoke English or other languages, where their education was obtained, how recently they came to the United States, and so on.

Trejo muses, “It’s interesting to see now how many economics dissertations are being written on immigration and Hispanics.”

After receiving his Ph.D., Trejo’s first job was teaching economics at UC Santa Barbara alongside Borjas. Eleven years later he joined the economics department at the University of Texas at Austin. Trejo is also the Associate Director of the Population Research Center at the University of Texas. He is a Research Fellow at the IZA Institute for the Study of Labor and at the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration, University College London. Trejo was an Associate Director of the AEA Summer Training Program at UC Santa Barbara, and he is a mentor in the Diversity Initiative for Tenure in Economics (DITE) at Duke University. He has published numerous papers and presented his methods and findings at conferences across the globe.

Trejo’s current research agenda focuses on three interrelated questions:  1) How do immigrants perform in the U.S. labor market, especially those immigrants who arrive with very low levels of schooling, English proficiency, and other skills that have become increasingly important determinants of success?  2) How much socioeconomic mobility is experienced by the U.S.-born descendants of immigrants, including the third and later generations, and what factors shape this mobility?  3) How does intermarriage complicate immigrant generations and weaken ethnic identification, and to what extent does the ensuing “ethnic attrition” distort assessments of the socioeconomic attainment and integration of later-generation descendants of U.S. immigrants?

He is an advocate for applying economics to non-market subjects—people, communities, and social identification. Indeed, when asked what economics means to him, Trejo states, “For me, it's easiest to start by describing what economics is NOT. Despite popular opinion to the contrary, economics is not solely, or even primarily, about financial markets or transactions involving money.” He considers economics to be a social science which “seeks to understand and predict how people behave in all facets of their lives.”

According to Trejo, economics differs from the other social sciences because it provides a “technical rigor” in the research which makes theories clear, precise, and internally consistent. In fact, Trejo believes economics is the ideal social science for this kind of study. He challenges, “When seeking expertise on social policy, which types of social scientists do governments, think tanks, businesses, and other organizations hire or consult with most? Economists, by far.”

Trejo has come a long way from basing decisions on proximity to the beach and a shorter work day. His path led him to the right university, the right mentor, and the right career as a labor economist and mentor to others. He fills a vital role in a field that changes and becomes more complex with each new generation—a field that needs economists who look beyond markets, think outside the fiscal box, and explore the human interaction that lies beneath it all.

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 is your idea of a perfect day?
Tennis in the morning, spending the day at the beach, Italian food for dinner, and live music afterward.

What’s on your nightstand?
Back issues of Sports Illustrated that I haven't had time to read.

What’s your favorite indulgence?
Ice cream and beer, but not together.

What could the world do without?
Texting while driving.

What will you never forget?
The night I met my wife.

Which is your favorite city?
Chicago (where I met my wife).

What was the last book you read?
"The Last Picture Show" by Larry McMurtry.

What’s your favorite sport?

For a vacation, beach or mountains?

What do you most value in your friends?