Janet Gornick: In the Global Spotlight

It has become a dominant theme in media reports: the rich are getting richer, while the poor are struggling — and often failing — to stay afloat.   
The attention follows four decades of increasing income inequality in the United States and across much of the world. And when the United Nations sought an authority to address the topic, it turned to Professor Janet Gornick.
In October, Gornick, a professor of political science and sociology who also serves as the director of LIS, an international research institute, delivered a keynote address to the UN General Assembly. Her talk, “High and Rising Inequality: Causes and Consequences,” presented to senior delegates from 193 member states, was billed as the centerpiece of the opening of the General Assembly’s work on economic and financial issues. [Watch the video.]

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The talk was informed by Gornick’s work with LIS (formerly known as the Luxembourg Income Study), which is based in Luxembourg and has a satellite office at the Graduate Center; both are directed by Gornick, who joined the research institution in 1990 and recently expanded the satellite office by bringing in noted economists Branko Milanovic and Paul Krugman. 
LIS is a unique resource in the information world: it gathers and harmonizes datasets from many countries — now over 50 — so that they can be meaningfully compared across nations and over time.

LIS’ “claim to fame” is its microdata: the records are available at the level of households and the persons in those households. A dataset might include tens of thousands of households, and, for each, detailed data are available on each person’s earnings, as well as how much they receive in social benefits such as retirement pensions and unemployment insurance, and the amount of taxes paid. The datasets also include information on household members’ gender, age, ethnicity, partnership status, and level of education, as well as detailed data on each person’s employment. (Names, Gornick notes, are not included.)
These records are coded into an enormous database, which has been used by more than 5,000 researchers, students, and policymakers, who can’t get this information anywhere else.

“You could go to the websites of organizations such as the World Bank or the International Labour Organization and get country-level indicators, even on inequality or poverty or employment,” Gornick says. “But, through those organizations, researchers can’t get their hands on the original microdata that underlie those indicators. There’s a long tradition of countries being protective of their microdata. Fortunately, data producers in many countries trust LIS to both protect and share their data.”

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Developing and improving the LIS database has become more than a full-time job for Gornick, who spends about three months a year abroad, negotiating with government and private data producers around the world, and raising the funding that enables LIS to carry out its work. And though interest in income inequality has surged in recent years, that topic represents just a fraction of what the LIS data reveal about the state of the world.

Gornick has drawn on the database to research topics such as the gender wage gap and the relationship between having children and employment. Other scholars have used LIS data to examine a vast array of topics, including earnings gaps between college and high school graduates, the economic success of immigrants compared to natives, and the anti-poverty effects of targeted versus universal social programs.
In addition to its value to the international community, LIS serves as an invaluable training venue for students at the Graduate Center.

“LIS’ visibility has grown tremendously, which has given our students access to research that receives worldwide attention,” Gornick says. “For a growing number of our students, it has also shaped their research agendas.”

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About a dozen students are working with the LIS microdata, under Gornick’s supervision; most of them began their studies in 2008, the year that she came to the Graduate Center. “There’s a whole little cohort whose studies have been shaped by working with me, with the LIS staff, and with each other.”
The Graduate Center has benefited from attention on LIS, reflected in an uptick in applications from prospective students. “The Graduate Center has become a recognized setting for the study of inequality, and LIS is proud and grateful to be a core component of that recognition,” says Gornick, who told of a World Bank economist whose colleagues suggested the Graduate Center as the best place to pursue advanced study in income inequality. “There’s momentum in every direction,” she says. “It’s very exciting.”
For Gornick, the melding of the Graduate Center and LIS represents an intellectual and geographical ideal. “If you want to study social inequalities, it makes most sense to be at a public university. And if you want to study the issues that we focus on at LIS, you ought to be in a global city. There’s no place else that I’d rather have LIS’ satellite office located than in this city, in this university, and in our graduate environment,” she says. “And there’s no place on earth where I’d rather be.”

Submitted on: JAN 8, 2015

Category: General GC News | Luxembourg Income Study Center