Evaluating Family Change and Childhood Investments

Shuqiao Sun is the inaugural winner of the James Morgan Innovation in the Analysis of Economic Behavior Fund Award.

When 27-year-old Shuqiao Sun decided to pursue economics and statistics degrees in his native China, he never imagined that he would be completing his PhD at the University of Michigan (U-M). “But, as my studies unfolded, I came to realize that U-M is one of the best places to study social issues. I thought the school had a very unique quality of combining innovative research methods and data collection. So I decided to make a move after I graduated from Peking University,” says Sun, currently a doctoral student in U-M’s Department of Economics.

PSID - Panel Study of Income DynamicsBy a strange coincidence or perhaps even curious foreshadowing, Sun, while working as a research assistant in China, often found himself using data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID). Directed by a dedicated group of U-M faculty, PSID is the world’s longest-running household panel survey and is now celebrating its 50th year. The longitudinal survey of a nationally representative sample of American individuals and families boasts continuous data collection since 1968. “I was amazed by PSID’s comprehensive collection of various information,” Sun says. He had read in the PSID user guide how Dr. James Morgan, the study’s founding director, fought to conduct this important national survey. “I was awestruck,” Sun recalls. Today, Sun is again in a state of astonishment, because five years after leaving China, serendipity struck and his life has intersected with the late Dr. Morgan’s in the most marvelous way. In March, he became the inaugural winner of the James Morgan Innovation in the Analysis of Economic Behavior Fund Award.

Shuqiao Sun (left) with Janet Morgan at the PSID 50th Anniversary Celebration. Photo by Michael McIntyre/ISR.

Although Sun was unable to personally thank Dr. Morgan, he attended PSID’s 50th anniversary dinner and Dr. Morgan’s memorial service in April. “I met Dr. Morgan’s children and expressed my sincere gratitude to his daughter Janet. I told her that I was deeply humbled and honored,” he says. Sun also recalls that the event was very emotional and that he was moved by the stories of Dr. Morgan’s life as a loving father and a pioneering scholar. Dr. Morgan arrived at U-M in 1949 as a postdoctoral fellow in economics and was one of the founding members of the Institute for Social Research (ISR). In addition to PSID, he is famed for starting SEARCH, the first data mining program. After an illustrious 38-year career at U-M, during which Dr. Morgan was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, he retired with distinction as research scientist emeritus and professor emeritus of economics. With the help of his family, Dr. Morgan, who passed in January at age 99, established the award as a way to help young scholars and encourage further use of PSID. “After he retired, he stayed engaged with the institute and argued economics until he died,” Janet Morgan says. “My father never bragged about his work, so I’m glad that he is being honored.”

During the course of the memorial and celebration, Sun also had the opportunity to get better acquainted with PSID director Dr. David Johnson. Johnson, who served on the award’s selection committee, first met with Sun after it was announced that he had won the $10,000 fund. “I’m honored that Sun is our first winner. I also believe that Jim would be pleased with Sun’s research. Jim always wanted the PSID to evaluate family change,” Johnson says. “And Sun’s investigations will link children’s experience with childhood interventions like Head Start, the places where they grew up, their family’s background, and then examine their well-being when they become adults,” he adds.

Research in education and health has been Sun’s passion since he first entered the field of economics. “I find it fascinating that one can use economics to study various family behaviors,” he says. “I grew up in Beijing, China, as an only child. My parents always strongly believed that education is very important, but so is love and support in a warm home environment.” Despite the geographic distance and a 12-hour time difference, Sun gratefully still receives support from his parents–he phones them every weekend without fail. He is also lucky to have his wife, Jingyuan Zhai, with him in Michigan. At U-M, Sun is thankful for the help of his advisor, Professor Martha Bailey. “She initially encouraged me to pursue the award and has been a continuous source of great advice as I formulated a specific research plan,” Sun says.

As it stands, Sun intends to examine evidence of dynamic complementarities between early stages of childhood. “I’ll use PSID to study the complementarities between early childhood family resources and preschool education,” Sun says. He explains that there is extensive literature documenting the benefits of investing in children. Researchers are trying to understand why the early childhood years are particularly instrumental. One theoretical account is dynamic complementarities. This explanation argues early childhood investment is important because it is not only beneficial on its own, but also increases the productivity of subsequent investments.

That there are complementarities between investments undertaken at various times is theoretically sound, but empirically hard to test, Sun says. He recognizes the importance of this research area largely because of his work with economists Martha Bailey and Brenden Timpe on a paper that evaluates the long-run impacts of Head Start, America’s public preschool program for disadvantaged children.

There are many disadvantages associated with poverty–Sun points to children from poor families often having deficient reading skills prior to elementary school. “This could cause early school dropouts and future unemployment and is why providing school readiness could be instrumental in preventing, rather than curing, poverty,” Sun says. He adds that there is, however, an ongoing political debate about whether public programs for disadvantaged children are wasteful, since some previous research has been imprecise and inconclusive. Sun intends to apply a more credible research method, based on better data. “It might help policy makers understand how to break the cycle of poverty by facilitating good, evidence-based, policy-making,” Sun says.

When asked what research hurdles may lie before him, Sun speaks to the challenge of studying the combined impact of more than one childhood intervention. He reports that it requires a very clean identification strategy to disentangle the effects of exposure to different environments, and a detailed picture of children’s childhood development and human capital outcomes in the long-run. “Statistical power is also a great challenge,” he says. Furthermore, he adds that “the long-term effects of things that happened in childhood can be subtle. It really requires getting the most out of the data.”

Luckily, Sun will be in bright, caring company should he run into any roadblocks as his research takes shape. Confident in Sun’s abilities, Johnson advises him to work to understand the PSID and the methods to evaluate intergenerational impacts. “And it will serve Sun well to approach notable economists and try to interact with researchers from other disciplines–this is what is great at U-M and ISR–the cross-disciplinary research and collaboration,” says Johnson. Dr. Morgan’s daughter agrees. “My father valued most the creative and integrative work environment at ISR, with all the diverse disciplines coming together to solve real problems,” she says. She recalls how truly concerned her father was of global problems and that he had a remarkable talent for getting along with people from all walks of life. That said, she advises Sun “to keep future research interdisciplinary and to be socially engaged in helping the world.”

Morgan’s and Johnson’s guidance is something that Sun doesn’t take lightly. “I feel encouraged by their support and the support of so many other people at U-M. The generous award will be career-changing not only to me, but to many other young scholars who share Dr. Morgan’s passion and vision,” he says. “I really hope that when I finish the project, the paper I write will be worthy of Dr. Morgan’s name and the legacy he left behind at U-M.”

Evaluating Family Change and Childhood Investments