22 Volume
1-2 Number
2009 Year
Cornell University
222 Day Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853-2801
P (607) 255-7200
F (607) 255-9030
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At Cornell

From Bilingual Education to the Low-Wage Labor Market

A Conversation with Jordan D. Matsudaira, Policy Analysis and Management Matsudaira
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What Can the U.S. Government Do to Help Low-Income People?

You grew up with Cornell at your back door. Did you dream of coming to school here, or did you want to go elsewhere because you grew up here?

Growing up here, I definitely wanted to get a bit farther away, so I did not apply to Cornell. I went to Union College, a small liberal arts and engineering school in Schenectady, New York.

Upon coming to Cornell as a faculty member, what distinguished Cornell from other places you have been: Harvard, Berkeley, and Michigan, for example?

These universities and places all have a similar feel, but only Ithaca is home. When I interviewed on campus, I stayed at the Statler Hotel above the room where I stayed for my senior prom. It felt good to come back. I have many fond memories here.

But what truly distinguishes Cornell for me is the combination of strengths in my different areas of research. We have a great group of labor and education economists in Industrial and Labor Relations and in my department along with the health economists. Our department also has a lot of energy that stands out when compared to other places. We have a dynamic group of young faculty. However, I had incredible mentors while at the other places.

Let’s talk about your research.

I work in three areas: education reform, health policy, and welfare policy. The organizing theme of these three paths of research revolves around low-income people. I am interested in what government policies can do to improve the well-being of low-income people in the United States.

My education research covers numerous education reforms. I study education policies aimed at urban schools. Some of these policies relate to bilingual education. For example, what is the best way to educate immigrant youth when they come to the United States in order to prepare them to succeed in the labor market, so they do not end up poor? In general, what is the best way to keep people from ending up poor?

Welfare policy has a direct connection with the well-being of low-income families. I explore how changes in the welfare policies after the 1990s have affected both labor force participation rates and the income of single mothers with children.

My current research in the health field is more theoretical and relates to a fundamental question in labor economics. It investigates the empirical relevance of the main model that labor economists use to think about the low-wage labor market. A lot of economic theory is built on the premise that employers do not have a lot of leeway in setting workers’ wages. Rather, they need to pay them whatever the market commands or they will find all their workers leaving for jobs that pay them what they are worth. The basic assumption of this model is that low-income workers have many other employment options and, so, find it easy to switch jobs if their wages fall below what other firms are paying. For example, if one particular fast food restaurant tries to lower their wages, these workers find it easy to switch to a competitor of that employer.

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