Rebecca Dizon-Ross

Results Driven: Economist Looks at Policy, Behavior, and the Drivers of Change in Developming Economies

Assistant Professor of Economics Rebecca Dizon-Ross admits that her role as a development economist often leaves people perplexed.

“When people hear that I’m a development economist, they’re like, ‘oh, you must know about the economy or financial things’ and I’m like ‘no, I know zero about those things,’” she says. “I look at health, education, and labor markets.”

More specifically, Dizon-Ross is tasked with understanding how to improve health and education for disadvantaged people by creating policies and building social structures to promote better outcomes.  

To collect data, Dizon-Ross, like many other development economists, conducts field experiments or randomized controlled trials in developing countries, and within the United States. “We also throw in this academic twist, which is, ‘are we learning something fundamental about human behavior beyond the policy?’” she says. “That’s always the goal.”

Currently, Dizon-Ross is gathering data for a project on diabetes in India, an epidemic that’s affected roughly 69.1 million Indians in 2015, according to the International Diabetes Federation. Nearly 52 percent of Indians aren’t aware they are suffering from the disease and by 2030, India’s diabetics are expected to surpass the 100 million mark. 

Although testing has occurred for many individuals who now realize they’re diabetic or pre-diabetic, and medicine has been subsidized through local clinics, people simply aren’t taking advantage of the help. “People hear the diagnosis and think they’re fine for now,” says Dizon-Ross. “It’s the same problem in the U.S. How do you get people to actually do the day-to-day work of embracing a good diet and exercise?”

To help with this issue, Dizon-Ross is working with two other researchers, Shilpa Aggarwal at the Indian School of Business, and Ariel Zucker at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to conduct a randomized controlled trial to evaluate a few different variations on a program to encourage people to exercise on a daily basis. The trial involves an incentive that will offer credit for people’s prepaid cell phones—a common phone option there—each time they walk a certain number of steps.

“The policy goal is can we get people to start exercising and eating right?” she asks. “And the academic goal is structuring the incentive in a way to learn something more broadly about incentive contract design.”

While diabetes rates are increasing in rural areas, urban areas are also affected due to more sedentary lifestyles and the availability of more junk food, she notes. “There’s lot of disadvantaged people and many are in cities as opposed to rural areas so to some extent, the problems and solutions are specific to urban environments,” Dizon-Ross says. “This ends up planting me in a lot of cities looking at very urban issues.”

In addition to the India project, Dizon-Ross is also working with another University of Chicago researcher, Manasi Deshpande from the economics department, on tackling another area within the U.S. that examines how much the availability of government benefits affects people’s decision to invest in their own education. 

“The idea is if you think you’re going to be getting a steady stream of income your whole life, do you invest less in your education?” she asks. “The setting we’re looking at is the largest cash welfare program in the United States: Supplemental Security Income (SSI).”

This program covers both adolescents and adults. The conditions for adolescents receiving aid are different and a lot of this population isn’t aware of this, she says. Some adolescents think that if they’re on aid as a child, they’ll receive aid for the rest of their lives. However, adolescents with certain types of conditions, especially mental and behavioral conditions like ADHD, have a very high chance of being removed from the program.

So the experiment is going to alert these adolescents to the fact that there’s a very good chance that they’ll be kicked out of the program. The goal, she continues, is to see if that awareness encourages these young adults to try harder in high school and graduate, or take more difficult classes because there’s an expectation that they will need to support themselves.

“We’re trying to come up with good ways to measure whether people do respond, because in an ideal world, we’re going to increase the high school graduation rate or help people have higher earnings as adults.”

Before joining the University of Chicago, Dizon-Ross was a Prize Fellow in Economics, History, and Politics at Harvard University, and a postdoctoral fellow in the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT. As she advances into her second year, she’s looking forward to launching the diabetes and SSI projects, and continuing the momentum that she’s gained from her first year.

“Everyone is really engaged here,” she notes. “There’s just so much going on, especially in economics. It’s been fun and stimulating.”

By Tanya R. Cochran