University of Vermont

Center for Cultural Pluralism

Interview: Stephanie Seguino

Stephanie Seguino
Macroeconomist Stephanie Seguino sees a shift in views on inequality, in the broader culture and in her classroom. People are looking not just at causes of poverty, she says, but at problems caused by extreme wealth and starting to question the system. (Photo: Andy Duback)

An internet search for Stephanie Seguino, UVM professor of economics, will turn up academic papers, her affiliation with the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, where she spent her 2013 sabbatical year, and, less predictably, a website of her photography. Seguino is a macroeconomist studying the impact of globalization on income distribution and wellbeing. She’s earned the ear of policymakers worldwide as she’s shown that, while women -- and ultimately children -- bear the brunt of it, the entire economy suffers when some are marginalized. Seguino was a major contributor to a recently released report from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Humanity Divided: Confronting Inequality in Developing Countries. But she’s also a creative artist, a side of herself, until recently, she viewed as inconsistent. A close look -- and the conversation here -- show how inextricably intertwined they are. Seguino’s work, in academia, in the studio, in the world, comes down to one thing: exposing inequality.

UVM Today: Your research is directly influencing international policy at the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund. What’s that like and what shape is it taking?

Stephanie Seguino: There’s nothing more gratifying than seeing that your work is useful to people, and I think it’s really showing up in this Humanity Divided report. It’s a major publication, so to get this debated on an international level -- and be part of the conversation -- is just extraordinary. I’ve been working for a long time to develop a framework for analyzing gender inequality. And I’ve been a strong critic of the World Bank and others who think if we provide equality of opportunity we shouldn’t worry about equality of outcomes, that it’s antithetical to capitalism to interfere. But a lot of the work I’ve done suggests that we do have to care about inequality of outcomes because that fuels inequality of opportunity. Just a simple example: if you are in a country in which men’s wages are significantly higher than female wages, parents are going to differentially invest in their boys’ education rather than girls’, especially if their future social security is based on the earnings of their children, which is the case in many countries.

Because the World Bank’s donors are now requiring them to focus more on gender equality they started a seminar series, and I was the first person invited to speak. So even the organizations that really have a very different point of view have begun to at least be willing to engage in conversation and debate. The International Monetary Fund just came out with a paper on gender inequality, and many ideas of mine and other feminist macroeconomists now show up in these reports as mainstream. With the Millennium Development Goals expiring in 2015, the UNDP wants the new agenda to be inequality. I think this is going to influence the UN agenda for the next 15 years.

You’re starting new research that looks at the macroeconomic impact of racial inequality in the U.S.?

I’ve worked on this for a long time with regard to gender, but we really have not done that with regard to race. So one of the things I want to do is to look at whether states that have the widest achievement gaps between black and white students grow more slowly than those states that do not. It’s a way to argue that there are societal-wide effects of inequality. The research suggests that inequality is bad for the economy as a whole -- it leads to more crime, it leads to more conflict, it leads to lower productivity growth in the future, it leads to more social spending on social services because people who are disadvantaged can’t compete as well as others. We’re starting with the U.S. because we have better data, but I think it will have broader implications once we establish the methodology. The issue of racial inequality is profoundly important for Europe. 

Your artist statement says that you had felt torn between the quantitative, analytical world of an academic and the visual realm of an artist but that you no longer see them as separate. What changed?

In my photography I’ve been focusing on this portrait project on racial inequality (photographs of black men), so much of which is about norms and stereotypes about people, which leads to prejudice. It’s incredibly interesting to deal with creatively and also to know so much about it as an economist. I’m also doing a project with students of color at UVM, photographing them and making audio recordings as they talk about their experiences. That should be an exhibit, and it may be a book that’s photographic but informed by what I know about race and gender and inequality. 

What’s it going to take to eradicate global inequality? Can you envision it?

Sure! The UN report shows that global inequality has increased substantially from 1990 to 2010. But we identified a number of countries in which inequality has actually fallen, so it’s not inevitable. Policies can help. Now more than ever we see a focus on inequality, and I think that we are at a political moment where it is feasible to adopt policies that we already know work. We are on the verge of raising the minimum wage. In fact, The Gap just agreed unilaterally to raise the minimum wage to over $10 an hour.

And just to give an example of one region, Latin America has had very high inequality for a long time, and in the 2000s, they were one of the regions that lowered it. They did it by increasing social spending on education and health, on raising the minimum wage and on conditional cash transfers -- payments to households, typically to mothers, contingent on children immunized, attending school and so forth. So we know these programs work.

The problem has been that the forces of globalization have really limited the role of government, and I think people believe that we have gone too far in that direction. It comes from anxiety -- life has been economically insecure for the poor for a long time, but it’s economically insecure now for the middle class and that’s beginning to focus attention on this as a universal problem. It tells you a lot about sociological and psychological phenomena, that good ideas can lie around for a long time, but once they get a certain momentum you reach a tipping point in which the whole system will shift -- and that’s really more and more how I understand the world works.

Do you bring your research and your experiences on the world stage into the classroom?

Absolutely. It’s very exciting for students because they’re trying to figure out what to do with their lives, and I find more than ever that they really want to do meaningful work.

This semester I’ve taken to telling them about all of my activities -- I did a TV interview with the Real News Network last week, I testified on paid sick leave, I met with the police chief about racial disparities in policing, I talk about my UN work -- and all the political stuff behind the scenes. Seeing how to translate skills that we’re learning in the classroom into improving the world is really cool for them.