Katherine Magnuson, Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal: Collaborators on Child Poverty Research


by Clare Curley


For two SESP alumnae, co-authoring a book chapter while managing faculty positions and families is more than a lesson in discipline. "This has given us a chance to reconnect in a way that is often difficult to do when you're a working mom," says Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal (PhD04), an assistant professor of psychology at University of Pittsburgh.

For two SESP alumnae, co-authoring a book chapter while managing faculty positions and families is more than a lesson in discipline

She and Katherine Magnuson (PhD02), an assistant professor of social work at University of Wisconsin-Madison, recently penned "Enduring Influences of Childhood Poverty" as part of Changing Poverty, to be published in 2009. Edited by Maria Cancian and Sheldon Danziger, the book is a compilation by the country's leading poverty researchers. In it, Magnuson and Votruba-Drzal describe national trends in child poverty, review poverty's influences on development through adulthood and discuss strategies for improving the life chances of poor children, while emphasizing effective policies such as universal preK. "This program is receiving a lot of attention in states across the country," says Votruba-Drzal. "It has shown significant promise."

Katherine Magnuson

Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal
Katherine Magnuson (top) and Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal
Due to the similar interests and complementary research of the two graduates of the Human Development and Social Policy program, Magnuson first posed the idea of collaborating on a chapter over a year ago. Votruba-Drzal had studied the roles of income and welfare on school readiness, while Magnuson had examined the effect of mothers' return to school on children's academic outcomes, both areas serving as springboards for future work. At Northwestern, both women were heavily influenced by professors Greg Duncan, a renowned child poverty expert, and Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, a leading developmental psychologist.

What inspires the duo today is a mutual discovery that the world of policymakers could benefit from a more comprehensive understanding of children's issues.

Before getting her PhD, Magnuson had spent two years studying children of immigrants as a research assistant in Brown University's education department. "When I went to grad school, I had a strong interest in helping disadvantaged children," she says. "I was so struck by the disconnect between policy research, which is often devoid of any understanding of children, and research on children, which is often devoid of any understanding of policy."

Since then, her work has primarily focused on school readiness and early academic success among vulnerable populations. Magnuson recently uncovered new evidence that early education is comparatively more beneficial for disadvantaged children. "Preschool works pretty well for three- and four-year-olds, but also we need to give more attention and support to younger children in poor families," she adds.

Votruba-Drzal started as an aide in the U.S. Senate and a grassroots organizer at the Children's Defense Fund. During her time in Washington, D.C., she worked with coalitions across the country to raise awareness of children's issues and became intimately familiar with the legislative process on Capitol Hill. "I decided I wanted to go back to research because in that environment it occurred to me the small role that research had in policy making," she says. "I wanted a very strong training in family policy issues so I could come back to a more applied policy world." Instead, she fell in love with research and never went back.

Now she observes policies through a different lens. "The salience of early poverty for kids between birth and five is one of the most profound things I've found consistently," she says. In response, she stresses the importance of building on existing measures such as the Family Medical Leave Act, which applies to only a little over half of the work force.

As Magnuson and Votruba-Drzal continue their research aimed at improving the future for young children, their current collaboration won't likely be their last — they're already considering future projects related to the effects of family income on kids. And while their work isn't political, they believe a future administration could strengthen the well-being of children and families through expansions of the Family Medical Leave Act, Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit, as well as by increasing access to preK programs, especially among the country's most disadvantaged children.
By Clare Curley