Economics grad student advocates for families with the power of math

by | Nov 22, 2019

Maia Elkana hopes to add her voice to public policy matters and show empirically that society benefits when parents and children receive the support they need.
Maia Elkana

Maia Elkana, an UMSL economics grad student, is studying the impact of family decision making on the health of the economy. She hopes to add her voice to public policy matters and show that society benefits when parents and children receive the support they need.

By trade, Maia Elkana is a social worker, nonprofit founder and doula. To really understand her, though, you need to know that she’s a self-identified math nerd who loves solving problems.

“When I took linear algebra, it was the most fun class I’ve ever taken in my whole college career,” she said. “I say that unironically. I’m so serious. It’s really fun.”

Elkana, an economics graduate student at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, wants to use math – economic and statistical modeling – to rethink how public policy serves children and families. She’s also confident it can help nonprofits aid those in need more effectively.

She started college as an anthropology major at Washington University in St. Louis but quickly realized her job options would be limited to nonexistent when she graduated in 2007. An internship at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, where she worked closely with social workers, convinced her to get a master’s degree in the field.

“What I’m really interested in is parents, pregnancy and parenting, especially young families,” Elkana said. “And the decisions that families make, how they make those choices and how they can be best supported, because I feel deeply in my bones that that’s what drives society.”

Over the last five years, Elkana has put her MSW to work, meeting with hundreds of families while supervising a maternal-infant-home-visiting program and doing evaluation, the social services term for research on service outcomes, with Parents as Teachers, a nonprofit designed to promote early childhood development through supporting parents and caregivers.

She’s seen young families make those difficult decisions firsthand.

They range from debating whether to have a second child to leaving the workforce because of the cost of childcare to deciding between buying diapers and medicine.

“No one’s prepared for that, literally nobody,” Elkana said. “It turns your world upside down in ways that you could not possibly be prepared for. I was supervising a maternal-infant-home-visiting program when I had my first baby, and I was like, ‘I know this…’

“I did not.”

While helping new parents figure out their own educational, vocational and financial goals, Elkana had an epiphany.

“I slowly realized that what I was really good at was math, and that a lot of folks who are in social services are not comfortable with math,” she said.

It’s one of the reasons she started focusing on evaluation, but the idea of going back to school to study economics really started with a professional conference in Washington D.C. James Heckman, the renowned University of Chicago economist and winner of the Nobel Prize, spoke on the value of family and early childhood development.

“He said, ‘Look, the work that you’re doing is the most important work in society. This is what drives the economy,’” Elkana said. “It was mind blowing, and I was like, ‘You’re right.’”

His research has shown a link between investing in early childhood care and education – particularly for low-income children – and an increased return on investment in terms of lower social welfare costs, decreased crime rates and increased tax revenue.

Elkana went back to her hotel room and spent the entire night researching the concept – partly because she was fascinated and partly because she was pregnant and had insomnia. After the conference, she shelved the idea of pursuing economics but continued to read about the subject.

After a few years, her interest hadn’t subsided. Elkana was more confident than ever that training in economics could improve the work she was doing. It prompted her to go back to school. Considering the commitments of a full-time job and family, she chose to attend UMSL because of the school’s affordability and flexibility.

Still, she was afraid that the economics department might be a little unwelcoming. What she found instead were highly supportive classmates and professors, including a mentor, Anne Winkler, chair of the Department of Economics and professor of economics and public policy administration.

“It’s been such an incredible experience,” Elkana said. “I feel so connected to the department. I’m very grateful for that. I really am. I think a lot of that is due to Dr. Winkler’s leadership.”

Winkler, a respected labor economist, gave Elkana the academic grounding to confirm what she had seen as a social worker.

The financial realities of having a family and available support dictate the choices parents, especially women, make. In turn, those choices, like deciding whether to continue working, have serious implications for the economy.

As Elkana started reading academic papers and articles in Winkler’s labor economics class, she found that it wasn’t conventional wisdom among all economists. She recalled one study where the big conclusion was that mothers must make decisions between sleeping and doing housework. Being curious, she looked into who was doing this research and how respected their contributions have been in the field. There were very few women involved.

Those dilemmas seemed obvious to her. Yet, research looking at the impact of family decision making on the health of the economy has regularly been contested, and social workers’ insights are routinely neglected in favor of economists, who sometimes have little practical experience with those situations.

“We have people making decisions about policy, people making decisions about our economic future as a society who have never made those hard decisions,” she said. “They may have kids, but they were shielded from it.”

By studying these issues, Elkana hopes to add her voice to public policy matters and show – empirically – that society benefits when parents and children receive the support they need. Currently, she is working with Winkler and Shirley Porterfield, a professor of social work who is also an economist by training, on a grant to do statistical modeling on adolescent parenting.

“We’re looking specifically at adolescent mothers, structural organizational factors in the organizations that provide services to them that increase the likelihood that young moms will graduate from high school,” she said.

She’s under no illusion that things will change overnight, but using statistical modeling and data can help identify small productive measures.

“What’s exciting for me is, let’s optimize,” Elkana said. “What are those tiny levers? What’s one small thing that we can do that makes a big impact down the road, right?”

This approach can also be beneficial to nonprofits. Having founded one, the Gateway Women’s Access Fund, and having worked with others such as WEPOWER and Nurses for Newborns, Elkana knows that they can be incentivized better.

She explained that it can be difficult to assess the effectiveness of social services, and it’s made more complicated because funding isn’t necessarily tied to results. More often than not, it’s tied to good marketing and storytelling. Elkana has a problem with that.

Fortunately, it’s the kind of problem she’s uniquely positioned to solve.

“One of the things that I really love about my opportunity here is that I’ve been able to find a niche,” she said. “I’ve been able to find a place where I can say, ‘This is what I’m good at.’ I’ve got these two disparate skills and interests, right? I want to sit on the floor with you and your baby and talk about your hopes, dreams and fears, and I also want to do math.”

Burk Krohe

Burk Krohe

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