Office Hours with… Rourke O’Brien

O’Brien studies how inequality in the United States affects people and society and how policy interventions could narrow the gap between rich and poor.
Rourke O’Brien

Rourke O’Brien

Rising inequality is among the most pressing issues facing the United States. Yale sociologist Rourke O’Brien studies how this affects people and society and how policy interventions could narrow the gap between rich and poor.

We caught up with O’Brien for the latest edition of Office Hours, a Q&A series that introduces newcomers to the Yale faculty to the broader university community.

Title Assistant professor of sociology
Research interest Inequality, demography, health, economic sociology, social policy
Prior institution University of Wisconsin-Madison
Started at Yale July 2019

How do you describe your research to non-academics?

I am a social demographer with a focus on inequality. My work examines the interplay between economic opportunity and population health: how health policy interventions — like access to Medicaid — can improve economic outcomes, and how economic circumstances — like the decline of manufacturing jobs — impact health outcomes. In other work, I take a sociological lens to the study of public finance, analyzing the social dimensions of how we tax and spend, and to the study of household finance, for example, by exploring how relationships shape decisions about borrowing and lending.

What made you interested in examining social and economic inequality?

As a kid I did a lot of volunteer work in my community. That sparked my interest in how social structure shapes life chances — and how we might make things better.

You spent two years as a policy advisor at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. What did you learn from that experience?

That policy change is slow. One topic I worked on was reforming government systems to make it easier for everyday people to access and manage essential public benefits like food stamps and social security payments. At the time it felt like we made little progress, but I have been glad to see many of those ideas become reality in the current administration.

What’s a project you’re currently working on that you’re excited about?

Ever notice that there is no county government in Connecticut, only cities and towns? Where I grew up in Maryland, counties are the primary form of local government. Public finance operates differently in every part of the country. Lately I have become fascinated with exploring how this variation in “fiscal structure” shapes social inequalities across places.

You spent the fall semester as a visiting researcher at WZB Berlin Social Science Center. Have you enjoyed being in Germany?

It’s great! I have had the opportunity to start some new comparative work, examining how taxes impact poverty rates in the U.S. and Europe. And in recent weeks, I enjoyed exploring Christmas markets across the city.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I like to swim, travel, and take long walks around New Haven while arguing over the best pizza spot in town.

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