New faculty focus: Rourke O’Brien

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OBrien-Photo-e1475092038359.jpg#asset:30Rourke O’Brien, assistant professor of public affairs, La Follette School of Public Affairs
Hometown: Leonardtown, Maryland
Educational background: BA, Harvard University, 2006; Ph.D., Princeton University, 2014
Previous position: RWJF Postdoctoral Scholar, Harvard University

How did you get into your field of research?

I’ve been interested in public policy as far back as I can remember. I was raised in a family that really emphasized volunteering and service; these experiences sparked my interest in how social forces and public policies shaped people’s lives. In college I focused on trying to understand the social determinants and consequences of poverty. And during and after college I spent time working on tax and social policy issues at various think tanks and in government. By then I was hooked.

What attracted you to UW–Madison?

UW-Madison is a tremendous place for a social scientist like me interested in conducting research that informs public policy. There’s really no better place to engage with scholars from a range of fields — sociology, economics, social work, demography — on issues of importance through conveners like the Institute for Research on Poverty (IRP), Center for Financial Security (CFS), Center for Demography and Ecology (CDE), just to name a few. All this situated in a beautiful city with good beer and gorgeous lakes — hard to beat!

What was your first visit to campus like?

My first visit to campus was actually when I interviewed for the position — I had never been to Madison (or Wisconsin) before. My favorite part of the visit was when folks (now colleagues) in the La Follette School took me to check out the Memorial Union. Staring out through the window at the freezing surface of Lake Mendota, my companions tried again and again to make me understand just how incredible the Terrace is in summertime. Now, having just finished my first summer in Madison, I get it!

Favorite place on campus?

Lakeshore Path along Lake Mendota.

What are you most enjoying so far about working here?

I’ve really enjoyed interacting with our public affairs students. Many of our students have worked for a number of years in the public, private and nonprofit sectors before enrolling in the MPA or MIPA program here at UW. They bring this experience with them into the classroom, which leads to much richer discussions and helps situate the course material to the “real” world. I learn so much from them.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea?

Oh, yes —  absolutely. Currently I am at work trying to understand the relationship between income inequality and state tax policy — topics currently at the center of our political debates and policy discourse. I also have a body of work that tries to understand, and hopefully improve, how households manage money in an era of rising income volatility. I do hope this research will prove useful in designing the next generation of public policies, financial products and financial advice targeted to low- and middle-income households.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?

One reason many low-income households don’t have a bank account is that many government programs employ an “asset test” that reduces or eliminates benefits to families who manage to save money (even $1,000 in some cases). This leads many families to rely solely on cash or use other means — often costlier and less convenient — to manage their finances. And, more importantly, these rules prevent families from building the precautionary savings they need to become financially independent.

Hobbies/other interests?

Swimming; traveling.

Story courtesy of University Communications.