Schwandt Promoted to Associate Professor

Schwandt Promoted to Associate Professor

Hannes SchwandtNorthwestern University’s Hannes Schwandt, an economist who studies the relationships between health, wealth, and overall well-being, has been promoted to associate professor of human development and social policy at the School of Education and Social Policy.

Schwandt’s work is part of a growing movement in economics sometimes called the “credibility” or “empirical revolution in economics.” Economists typically use theory and logic to make predictions. Empirical researchers like Schwandt also crunch numbers and comb through large data sets to answer important policy questions.

“I was thrilled when I found out about this new focus on empirical research; it entirely changed the way I was able to approach economic and social science questions,” Schwandt said. “It was almost as if lightening had struck, helping me see cleaner, more causal interpretations of data in a sea of confusing correlations."

While some economists in that research field look at dramatic shocks such as famines, wars, or natural disasters, Schwandt focuses on moderate but common threats to health, including air pollution, a pregnant woman’s exposure to influenza, gun violence, and addiction.

Schwandt is known for spotlighting important societal trends. His research looks at every period of life, from prenatal to death and every stage in between. Health, he says, is a key variable to study because it is both a prerequisite for a productive and fulfilled life as well as the outcomes social and environmental factors. As such, health strongly exacerbates economic and social inequalities.

Health, however, is difficult to study; it can take years or generations to see effects and one typically cannot conduct randomized controlled trials. In fact, even though it seems plausible that lower incomes cause a deterioration in physical or mental health, economists are often skeptical about this causal relationship because it is so difficult to identify in observational data.

So Schwandt uses natural or quasi-experimental methods, an approach used by researchers who won the 2021 Noble Prize in Economics. While similar to a randomized control trial which are set up by the researcher, natural trials exploit naturally occurring treatment variation and often use large population-level data sets.   

The method allows Schwandt to exploit small changes in average conditions across large groups. He uses population-wide surveys and administrative data such as the U.S. Census, the American Community Survey, the U.S. Vital Statistics data, and links administrative educational and labor market data.  “These data sets cover a long time horizon, allowing me to track factors that drive and are driven by health as they evolve,” he says 

Schwandt has looked at everything from the impact of air pollution on fetal development to the mental health effects of school shootings and the effects of unemployment on fertility. Among his findings:

  • In “The Impact of Car Pollution on Infant and Child Health: Evidence from Emissions Cheating” he used the Volkswagen scandal to explore the health impacts of car companies’ cheating on emissions tests. “Policies inducing moderate reductions in car pollution have the potential to improve in-utero development across the entire socio-economic spectrum,” he said.
  • School shootings with at least one fatality increase antidepressant use among students by about 20 percent, according to research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. These impacts are persistent, lasting for at least six years, Schwandt and his coauthors found.
  • The bad luck of leaving school during hard economic times can lead to higher rates of early death and permanent differences in life circumstances. In particular, recession graduates have higher death rates in midlife, including a significantly greater risk of drug overdoses and other so-called ‘deaths of despair,’” according to the study “Unlucky Cohorts: Estimating the Long-term Effects of Entering the Labor Market in a Recession in Large Cross-Sectional
  • Inequalities in life expectancy are starker in the U.S. than in Europe. Americans have shorter lives than similarly situated Europeans, even in the richest areas. At the same time, longevity of Black Americans has been catching up, and the life expectancy gap between Black and white Americans fell by 48 percent, according to “Inequality in Mortality between Black and White Americans by Age, Place and Cause, and in Comparison to Europe, 1990-2018.
  • The Covid-19 pandemic dramatically increased pre-existing income and race/ethnicity disparities in longevity, according to a recent study published in

Originally from Hamburg, Germany, Schwandt earned his doctorate in economics from Pompeu Fabra University in Spain, a joint program with the London School of Economics. He received his bachelor’s in economics from the University of Munich in Germany.

Prior to arriving at Northwestern, he was a visiting assistant professor at Stanford University’s Institute for Economic Policy. From 2015 through 2018, he was assistant professor of economics at the University of Zurich.

While in London, Schwandt met Steve Pischke a labor economist who introduced him to new ways of analyzing data. During his postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton University, he worked with Janet Currie, the Henry Putnam Professor of Economics and Public Affairs and director of the Center for Health and Wellbeing.

“During my PhD, people had told me not to work on life satisfaction, health trends, well-being, and inequality. They said this is not economics and not serious research," Schwandt said. "But I found these topics so interesting and later at Princeton I found highly renown scholars with the same interests,” he said. “I was very lucky and am full of enthusiasm about the research ever since."

Schwandt was named to the "Young Elite -- the Top 40 under 40" list  last year in the society and science category by Capital magazine, a monthly German business magazine.

Future projects include studying how contracting an infectious disease as an infant or child affects people as adults. He plans to expand his work on trauma in school by exploring the role of access to health care resources, in particular for mental health. He’s also collecting data to study the COVID-19 pandemic impacts on fertility with a particular focus on those socio-demographic groups that were hardest hit by the pandemic.

“One of the best things about the School of Education and Social Policy is that it’s a place where social impact is appreciated and where innovative research brings together people from different groups,” he said.

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 9/27/22