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W&L Economics Professor Wins Allan Nevins Prize

Katharine (Katie) Shester, assistant professor of economics at Washington and Lee University, has won the 2011 Allan Nevins Prize for the best dissertation on American and Canadian economic history.  The prize was awarded by the Economic History Association, and Shester was selected from three finalists.

Her dissertation, “American Public Housing’s Origins and Effects,” examines the diffusion and effects of public housing in the United States between 1940 and 1970.

Shester, who joined the Washington and Lee faculty this year, recalled that her interest in public housing began while growing up in a small southern town, where both her primary and middle schools were adjacent to public housing projects. “I was used to seeing them,” she said. “Also, early on in graduate school I watched the HBO series “The Wire,” which is about the drug trade in public housing in Baltimore, and I found it absolutely fascinating. That encouraged me to take a closer look as well.”

Public housing was built from only the 1930s through the 1970s. While there is a relatively large literature that looks at the effects of public housing during the 1990s and later, Shester’s dissertation is one of the first empirical studies to look at the effect of public housing across the entire United States during the period of the program’s expansion.

Her data set included all of the approximately 3,000 counties in the United States, of which almost half had adopted public housing by 1970. Shester’s research shows that counties that had high intensities of public housing also had lower property values, lower family income, lower population density, a higher percentage of low income families and and a higher percentage of female-headed households in 1970 than if they had never built public housing.

“I certainly didn’t go into this project looking for the negative effects of public housing,” said Shester. “If anything, I naively hoped to find positive effects of public housing earlier on in the period and then maybe those effects would disappear over time. But it turned out to be more negative.”

Shester found negative effects of public housing in only 1970 and not in 1950 or 1960. “That means that whatever caused the negative effects occurred in the 1960s,” she said. “I looked at whether it could be explained by what I call changes in human capital, which means education. But I didn’t find that people with low human capital were migrating into counties with a lot of public housing. If anything, it looks as if people with high human capital, those with high school degrees and college degrees, were leaving more quickly than people with lower education. It looks like everyone was leaving. It’s just a matter of who was leaving faster.”

Shester said that she plans in her future research to examine several theories that may explain the negative effects of public housing more clearly.

One theory is that, over time, counties built more high-rise and less scattered-site housing, giving rise to what Shester described as the “concentration of poverty effect.”

“When you build a high rise there are a lot more poor people living on top of each other,” she explained. “They also changed the regulations over time. Instead of public housing being a temporary place meant for working class families who had fallen on hard times, it became a place for the chronically poor with more single mothers and people who had lived there all their lives. Another theory is that public housing could have interacted with a decade-specific effect, such as the drugs trade.”

She conceded that it was difficult to assess exactly what was going on by looking at county-level aggregates and hopes in the future to include more data on public housing tracts — groups of approximately four thousand people. “By looking at public housing at the neighborhood level, I can tell, for example, the effects on surrounding property values and labor market outcomes for much smaller areas than the county level,” she said.

In the meantime, Shester said she is breaking up her dissertation into papers for possible publication.

In 2008-09, Shester received the Rendig Fels Award for Excellence in Teaching as a graduate student at Vanderbilt University.

“W&L and the Williams School take pride in the teacher-scholar model of faculty development,” said Robert Straughan, professor of business administration/marketing and associate dean of the Williams School of Commerce, Economics, and Politics.

“We want faculty whose scholarship expands our understanding of the world and whose passion for sharing that with bright, motivated students creates enthusiasm for the subject in and out of the classroom,” Straughan added. “Though very early in her career, Katie has already garnered awards for both her scholarship and her teaching, demonstrating excellence in both of these areas. As she starts her career at W&L, this bodes very well for her students and for the university.”

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Sarah Tschiggfrie
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