Recent Ford School graduate Kalena Thomhave (MPP ‘21) is the 2021 winner of the Peter Eckstein Prize for Interdisciplinary Research for her comprehensive analysis of the challenges faced by the U.S. Unemployment Insurance (UI) system during the COVID-19 pandemic. The award celebrates the value of interdisciplinary research, which is critical in public policy.
In the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kalena Thomhave (MPP ‘21) says she was struck by the failures of an overburdened UI system. “We all saw the local news items about websites crashing and applicants calling state agencies dozens of times to no avail. Millions of Americans who needed UI weren't getting it, and they didn't know what was going on. I wanted to write an article that would clearly lay out the problems we were facing due to government disinvestment, the political reasons UI is such a complicated program, and what we might want to do to make the program better.”
Thomhave’s policy analysis, "The Journey of the Jobless" was published in The American Prospect in May 2020. Her findings reveal that “it’s clear that UI eligibility should be changed to better meet the realities of the labor market..”
“While UI rollout was and has been a disaster, it is important to recognize that millions of people were able to access benefits to keep them afloat,” says Thomhave. “I cannot overstate how important the benefits and their expansion were over the last year.”
Understanding that “policy doesn’t unfold in isolation,” Thomhave spoke with more than a dozen interdisciplinary sources, and she applied historical, political, legal, economics, business, and information systems perspectives. Using this approach allowed her to see how early coverage that blamed old coding language for the crisis missed how inequality is often “baked into” modern systems that regularly disenfranchise people.
“The history of UI, the politics of expansion and modernization, and even the sociology of poverty and work all affected how people experienced applying for benefits,” says Thomhave. “I even had to talk to computer scientists to learn about how state systems were designed.”
Paula Lantz, associate dean for academic affairs, served on the selection committee and says, “In addition to the high quality of her analysis, Kalena successfully explains the patchwork UI system and explores important policy recommendations in an accessible way. Her ‘policy journalism’ reveals the wide array of ways in which students can have an impact through the analytical, communication, and leadership skills they receive through a Ford School education.”
Lantz says that the selection committee had a challenging task as there were many exceptional and inspiring submissions this year.
Thomhave graduated in 2021 and plans to keep writing about poverty and inequality and pursue poverty research opportunities.
The Peter Eckstein Prize for Interdisciplinary Research and Policy Analysis is awarded to a Ford School student or group of students whose work exhibits the use of theories, concepts, frameworks, research methods, or other tools from two or more disciplines in researching, analyzing, or furthering understanding of a topic, issue or debate related to public policy, domestic or international. The prize was established in 2019 by a gift from Peter Eckstein (LSA ‘59), a student of both economics and social sciences. Throughout his career he saw the value in combining the two fields to explain economic phenomena.