Yale sociologist helps Boston Fed assess the region’s economic health

Yale sociologist Rourke O’Brien has joined an advisory council to guide Boston Fed researchers on projects intended to inform public policy.
Rourke O’Brien

Rourke O’Brien (Photo by Dan Renzetti)

Rourke O’Brien, a Yale sociologist and social demographer who studies social and economic inequalities, is helping researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston as they seek to better understand the economic health of low- and moderate-income individuals and communities across New England.

The bank recently invited O’Brien to join its Community Development Research Advisory Council — a body of social scientists from the region that helps guide research projects intended to inform public policy. The council, which includes experts from the region’s colleges and universities and community-based nonprofits, advises Fed researchers on methodology and potential resources, such as existing data and potential collaborations, and shares findings from its members’ research projects.

I’ve always respected the work of the Federal Reserve and I’m excited to have this opportunity to be in conversation with its researchers and my colleagues on the advisory council,” said O’Brien, an assistant professor of sociology in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “It’s already sparked conversations about potential collaborative research projects.”

As part of the central bank of the United States, the Boston Fed promotes sound growth and financial stability in the New England states and nationally through economic research, advising on monetary policy, and supervising financial institutions, among other services. It represents one of 12 federal reserve districts.

During O’Brien’s first meeting, held in Boston on Jan. 24, the advisory council discussed the design of the survey instruments the researchers will use to collect their data.

In his research, O’Brien studies the effects of economic inequality and potential policy solutions to alleviate them. Specifically, he explores the interplay between economic opportunity and population health, examining how health policy interventions (such as expanding Medicaid access) can improve people’s economic outcomes, and how economic circumstances (for instance, the decline of manufacturing) affect their health. He also looks at public and household finance through a sociological lens, analyzing how governments tax and spend and how relationships influence decisions on lending and borrowing.

These research interests overlap with the Boston Fed’s interest in better understanding the economic health of New England residents. Earlier in his career, O’Brien served as a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of the Treasury where he frequently interacted with researchers at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors and the Federal Reserve System.

This new role feels like a return to conversations from my policy work in the past,” he said.

Currently, the bank’s researchers are planning a major survey of wealth inequality in New England, which will augment the Federal Reserve’s national survey of consumer finances. 

The Boston Fed team is seeking to better understand the distribution of household wealth in New England,” said O’Brien, whose appointment to the advisory council lasts three years. “It’s focused on getting more fine-grained data to help guide the region’s policymakers.”

Another survey project in the works will seek to understand demand for childcare assistance at this stage of the pandemic, he said.

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Bess Connolly : elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu,