Office hours with… Rourke O’Brien
Growing inequality is one of the most pressing issues facing the United States. Yale sociologist Rourke O’Brien is studying how it 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 question-and-answer series that introduces newcomers to Yale faculty to the wider college community.
How do you describe your research to non-academics?
I am a social demographer specializing in inequalities. My work examines the interplay between economic opportunities and population health: how health policy interventions – such as access to Medicaid – can improve economic outcomes, and how economic circumstances – such as declining populations. manufacturing jobs – impact health outcomes. In other work, I approach the study of public finances from a sociological perspective, analyzing the social dimensions of how we tax and spend, and the study of household finances, for example, by exploring how relationships shape borrowing and lending decisions.
What prompted you to examine social and economic inequalities?
As a child, I did a lot of volunteering in my community. It sparked my interest in how social structure shapes life chances – and how we might make things better.
You spent two years as a political advisor at the US Department of the Treasury. What did you learn from this experience?
This policy change is slow. One of the topics I worked on was reforming government systems to make it easier for ordinary citizens to access and manage essential public benefits such as food stamps and social security payments. At the time, I felt like we had made little progress, but I was happy to see many of these ideas come true in the current administration.
What is a project that you are currently working on that you are passionate about?
Have you ever noticed that there is no county government in Connecticut, only towns and villages? Where I grew up in Maryland, counties are the primary form of local government. Public finances work differently in each part of the country. Lately, I have become fascinated by exploring how this variation in “tax structure” shapes social inequalities across places.
You spent the fall semester as a visiting scholar at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center. Did you like being in Germany?
It’s good! I have had the opportunity to begin new comparative work, examining the impact of taxes on poverty rates in the United States and Europe. And the past few weeks, I’ve enjoyed exploring the Christmas markets across town.
What do you like to do in your spare time ?
I love to swim, travel, and take long walks around New Haven while competing for the best pizza place in town.