Leah Boustan talks about the challenges of asking the right research questions to the students of the Applied Economics Seminar at The Graduate Center

This is the first of a recurring series of interviews where the PhD students at The Graduate Center talk with economists and other social scientists about their work and research experience. With these interviews the students are exploring the challenges of formulating good research questions and establishing a research agenda. Hopefully, other early career researchers will find this series a helpful tool.

In this first installment, Miles Corak, professor of economics at The Graduate Center and Stone Center Senior Scholar, kicks things off by interviewing Leah Platt Boustan, Professor of Economics at Princeton University who visited the department on January 28th, speaking to a paper called “Economic and cultural effects of living in an ethnic enclave: Early 20th century evidence from the Industrial Removal Office.”

The two discuss Leah’s recent work on the cultural effects of living in an ethnic enclave and look back to Leah’s experience as a PhD student and young scholar.

Read their conversation below.

MC – Thank you for presenting in our seminar series. I wanted to invite you to give me an elevator pitch of the paper. What, very briefly, are the major messages of this piece of research? Why are they important?

LB – Well, this is a paper about whether living in an immigrant enclave helps immigrants move up the economic ladder or holds them back from economic assimilation.

We’re looking at a policy that was put in place in the early 1900s in New York City to relocate Jewish households out of immigrant enclaves, to locations around the country. This was a self-help program, not a government policy, but it looks very similar to government policies today, like Moving to Opportunity.

We were able to follow households that participated in this mobility program over 30 years, and we find that immigrants who were relocated from large Jewish enclaves to other locations in the US moved up the occupational ladder, and also underwent a process of cultural assimilation. That is, they were more likely to marry either with non-Jewish spouses or Jewish spouses with a weaker connection to Jewish ethnicity.

So, we think that this is a historical paper that speaks to policy concerns today about what are the potential benefits or costs of having immigrants living in concentrated neighborhoods.


MC – So are enclaves a good thing or a bad thing?

LB – Well, my priors have changed on that question actually. I went into the study very influenced by the papers on refugee assignment. Those papers are quite interesting. They find that if you just look at raw data and compare immigrants in enclaves with immigrants out of enclaves, it looks like immigrants in enclaves are doing worse. But they don’t draw causal conclusions from this because immigrants choose where to live, and maybe the people who move into an enclave are the ones who need help. If you use random assignment based on refugee policy you find that being assigned to a place with other people from your home community is good for you.

That really was very foundational for me, and I thought, so enclaves are good. But there is a wide spectrum of enclaves. Enclaves can be a little cluster of a few families from the same country, and they might really give each other assistance. Or we could be talking about a mile square that is all from one sending country, and might hinder immigrants in some way, in terms learning English, in terms of getting access to labor market networks.

This study is swinging back in that direction to think: well, while there might be benefits to enclaves that we’ve seen in the refugee assignment case, there also may be costs. Having too many people from one community together, the concern of the Industrial Removal Office that we study, was that Jewish immigrants tended to arrive in the US with a similar set of skills. If you concentrate too many people with the same set of skills altogether they might compete with each other in the labor market.

It is not necessarily a channel that comes from cultural dysfunction, or delinquency, or crime within a neighborhood, it could just be a matter of labor market forces. I’m not really sure of the channels, but what I’m learning from this study is that there are some costs to living in a neighborhood with a concentrated set of people from your home country.


MC – Going back to my days as a graduate student, trying to get my thesis done, the biggest challenge I had was just finding a question I could answer. So, I want to transport you back to that time in your life and ask you about your PhD thesis. What was it about? And how did you get to a question that you knew you could answer? Did you stumble along the way? Did you have challenges? How did you overcome them?

LB – My dissertation was about the Great Black Migration from the US south to the north. Looking at primarily agricultural, rural based black families from the south, these families moved from the south to cities like New York and Chicago. My work was mostly focused on around World War II to 1970. This was the broad theme, which was disentangled into a couple different chapters.

One was about labor market effects of a large black inflow into the labor market. Does it affect similarly skilled whites, or only similarly skilled blacks? And can you learn something about how segmented the labor markets were from who is affected by this large inflow?

Another chapter is about white flight from black arrivals. So, when blacks moved into the city, there were, simultaneously, white families going into the suburbs. Based on that, I tried to dive in a little bit more about why traditionally people would say that this was a racist response. That is, being a white family, it may well be that, by then, if you saw a black family moving in your neighborhood, you get worried and you leave. And that was certainly going on in areas where there was a black neighborhood that was sort of expanding into a historically white neighborhood.

But most whites in the city actually lived in neighborhoods that were very far from any black neighborhood. There was such racial segregation that most whites could reasonably say, “well, it’s very unlikely that I ever will get a black neighbor.” Yet a lot of the white families moved anyway. So, I tried to think about some of the political economy about school systems, public spending and tax rates and how much that might have influenced these demographic changes.

I produced a unified dissertation, around the results of the Great Black Migration. It was on a topic and it had different ways of approaching the same issue.

I think that that’s not the advice that many econ grad students get. Usually, the advice goes as “Oh, just work on three papers and name the dissertation as ‘Essays in Applied Microeconomics’.” But well, I’m an economic historian. So, I think it was more encouraged and accepted for me to work on one thing and try to look at it from many different angles.

I actually think this unified dissertation approach is not a bad strategy for graduate students, even in applied work. Indeed, I think it’s a pretty good strategy to follow because the more you learn about a particular topic and time period, and policy and context, the more you come up with new ideas about what to work on next. So, you can become an expert in something and then really live on that expertise to move on to the next topic. It also really encourages you to think about what’s the big question, what’s the big context that I want to work on rather than starting from “where’s the identification?” That is, thinking, “what’s the one thing I want to know about the world” and just start with that.

And then of course, you need your identification. Where does that come from? Mine all came right off the shelf. I was working on black migration, but black migrants are “immigrants” even though they don’t cross an international border. And at the time, this was 2002, 2003, the Borjas and Card debate was very hot. And of course, we still hear echoes of that debate today. And then in 2006, which is when I graduated, The New York Times Magazine actually had a cover story I about the Borjas and Card debate, and I believe George Borjas was on the cover.

Basically, I was learning about those methods, and the strengths and weaknesses of each method in a labor course in my second year. I just took them and used them. Namely, I just took the Borjas method and tried that. Borjas was being criticized at the time by Ottaviano and Peri, saying that maybe within a skill group immigrants and natives aren’t perfectly substitutable. So that was exactly what I was trying to look at with blacks and whites in the same skill cell. I literally just followed their template.

And then for my other research for the white flight paper, it was David Card. So, I took Card off the shelf and just applied it to a different context.

Ultimately what became my job market paper wasn’t on either of those things. It was something else, which was a perfectly good paper that used border discontinuity with housing prices. It was like, here’s the city, here’s the suburbs, here’s the neighborhood borders. And I looked before and after a policy change.

I remember talking to my advisor, Claudia Goldin, and saying, “Claudia, I’m so worried about my job market paper because it’s a border discontinuity with school district type of data, and Sandy Black had pioneered that method.” And she said, “So what? There’s only six identification strategies in the world. Just pick one of them. What you think you’re like an econometrician? You’re not gonna come up with a new method, just use a method and just answer an interesting question!” And that really stuck with me.

I really want to endorse this idea of just taking something off the shelf, and using that tool to answer the question that you’re interested in, and having no shame about that. The mindset should be “This is what I want to know about the world. So, the answer I get is going to be important and interesting. And then I will use the tools I need to go along the way.”


MC – Okay, so you’ve got, in your mind, some significant questions, that hopefully, you’ll be able to chip away at steadily, with methods that you’re well trained with, and data you’re familiar with. Where did that big question come from in the first place?

LB – Why I was working on the Great Black Migration came from, in some sense, a serendipitous reading. I was reading William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged. I know it seems random, but at the same time I also encourage everyone at this stage to be taking courses outside of economics.

I was taking this inequality and public policy course at the Kennedy School, which was something offered to economics, political science, and public policy PhDs. So, we had three or four people from each of those programs together, and then we had faculty from those three programs as well. So, it was economics adjacent. It wasn’t like completely go off into some different department, but it was primarily being exposed to different areas.

By then we were reading The Truly Disadvantaged and, in a passage, the author states that a lot of the guys that he was studying moved from the south when they were in their 20s. And now they were in their 50s and 60s. So, they were either immigrants or the children of immigrants. And that is obvious once you know US history, but it hadn’t really clicked in for me, the way that black populations are migrant populations.

And so, I immediately started thinking to myself, “wait a second, I’m learning all of this immigration literature in labor economics and then the next week I’m learning historical black-white wage differentials, but I’m not seeing the two things together. What if we thought about using the tools from immigration to go back and re-study African-American economic history?

MC – So just that dialogue between public policy, sociology and history sort of informed your research direction and the questions.

LB – Yeah, I would really encourage economics students to search for ideas in areas adjacent to economics. And that might be sociology, history, as it was, for me, it might be psychology, it might even be computer science. I mean, there’s a lot of intellectual gains from trade.


MC – You talked about conversations across disciplines and that is great. The other thing that impressed me about your paper was just how much hard data work seems to be going on. You’re telling me, I’m starting with an important question. Then I’m going to find data to help me answer that question. But you must have some prior on whether the data can feasibly answer that question. Otherwise, I can imagine you’ll run into a dead end. No matter how important the question, if the data are too costly or not available, maybe it is best to abandon things, if there’s no feasible way of really answering that question.

LB – No, that’s absolutely right. And I remember Claudia, my advisor, always talking about toggling, going back and forth between your question and your data and your question and your method. You know, you always come back to your question, but then you’re always checking “Is there going to be a message that works? Is there going to be data that works for me?”.

MC – I like that metaphor of toggling. I often think of it as a dance. Sometimes the data takes the lead in the dance, sometimes it’s theory, or the big question. Sometimes it’s even just public policy relevance that moves you forward, but it’s sort of being able to follow that lead. This was great. Thank you for talking with us about your research, your PhD research and your overall way of looking into producing sound science in economics. I really enjoyed this chat.


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