Notre Dame Economist Takes Expertise to White House

Author: Kate Garry

Abigail Wozniak

Notre Dame Associate Professor Abigail Wozniak has been appointed to a one-year term as a senior economist on the Council of Economic Advisors (CEA), the board that advises President Barack Obama and his staff on domestic and international economic policy.

“It’s a chance to answer questions that people need answered,” said Wozniak, who will start at the White House in July. “I’m looking forward to being able to use the training that I have in a way that helps the public interest.”

The CEA’s mission is to provide unbiased advice to the president and his staff. “This was something that came about after the Great Depression and World War II to make sure the executive branch has the best advice for dealing with questions about the economy and policy making,” Wozniak said.

Advisors are selected for one-year terms on the basis of their body of work and the specific policy needs of the council. “It’s a bit of a mysterious process,” said Wozniak. She didn’t even know the council was considering her until the CEA’s chief of staff invited her to interview in March.

“I wasn’t expecting it at all,” she said. “It’s exciting to find out that people sit down and say, ‘Who could really tell us about this big field?’ and my name comes up.”

Tackling Labor Issues

Wozniak, who is also a research associate for the National Bureau of Economic Research, specializes in labor economics. “It’s everything that has to do with why people earn what they earn and why they have the jobs they have, and even questions of why they are or aren’t in the labor force,” she said. This includes everything from early childhood education and home life to immigration status, union presence, and race or gender.

Most recently, Wozniak has focused on migration within the United States. “I look a lot at why workers choose to locate in one area versus another, what drives them to change locations.” Migration has actually declined in the U.S., she says. “We think it’s related to some fundamental shifts in the labor market. People change jobs less often and they move around for jobs less often.”

Wozniak can’t say exactly what policy projects she’ll work on in the White House. “There are a couple things that are clearly leading policy issues right now,” she says. “The federal minimum wage has been a big project for this administration, as well as concerns about the gender pay gap. I’ll be working on a mixture of small things and big things related to a wide range of topics.”

While the appointment will put a temporary hold on Wozniak’s current projects, it offers an opportunity to grow in a way that will benefit her research and teaching when she returns to Notre Dame.

“It’s a completely different cycle than academic work,” she said. “It’s very fast and things have to happen by the end of the day, within hours, sometimes. That’s really not something that faculty are used to doing. I think the experience of thinking in a different way and working in a different speed will be useful later on.”

Taking on New Challenges

Wozniak’s year in the White House will capitalize on her broad knowledge of labor in America while nurturing a whole new set of skills. She said she felt well prepared for the challenge, thanks to her experiences in Notre Dame’s Department of Economics.

“Notre Dame has been a really great place to do research,” Wozniak said. “The resources Notre Dame has devoted to research and to building up the economics department, that has really paid off. The best preparation is being in this type of academic environment and having a big view of what is going on in the world and being up to date with the latest research.”

The CEA recruits from the very best research universities, she said, such as Cornell, Harvard, and Northwestern. “It’s definitely nice for Notre Dame that they are thinking about us when they staff these positions.”

William Evans, Keough-Hesburgh Professor of Economics at Notre Dame and incoming chair of the Department of Economics, says the appointment is quite an honor. “These positions are typically staffed by exceptional economists, so it indicates that the CEA has the same high opinion of Abbie’s work as we do. This is a great opportunity for her.”

Wozniak said she is excited about heading to the White House, but, at the end of the day, her heart lies in academia. “Ultimately I’ll be really glad to come back to teaching. It will be fun to have these completely new experiences to use in the classroom.”

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