When Emilia Simeonova joined the Carey School faculty in 2013 from Tufts University, she joined a wave of new hires. In the past four years, Carey has brought on 58 full-time faculty members – an increase of almost 200 percent.
A native of Bulgaria, Simeonova (right) says joining Carey has propelled her toward bolder, more ambitious research. In an environment of energy and newness, she says she’s more willing to bypass sure but predictable projects in favor of riskier ones that might have a larger impact.
“There’s a lot to be said about how people not only like to work with each other but spend time with each other and help each other out,” she says. “There’s a lot of flexibility here, and generally because it’s a young place, there’s an atmosphere of ‘can do’ and ‘let’s go get it,’ and ‘let’s do it,’ which is very rare.”
Simeonova is never happier than when venturing into uncharted waters, and the field of health economics, which generally stands in the shadows of other economics specialties, exerts a strong pull on her researcher’s heart. The connection between poverty and ill health particularly intrigues her: Are people of limited means more likely to be unhealthy because they’re poor, or are they poor because they’re unhealthy?
It’s a question with relatively few answers, and Simeonova is pushing to fill in the gaps. What she’s finding is a very strong link between family economic well-being and children’s physical and mental health.
In one paper, Simeonova and colleagues explored how an infusion of cash into a family’s income stream – in this case, profit-sharing from a casino on Native American land – improved measures of emotional and behavioral health among the children. The researchers traced the positive effects to reduced parental stress and improved parent-child relationships.
“That suggests that money issues are a real drag on family well-being, including on how well the kids are behaving and whether they have issues with behavior and emotional stability,” says Simeonova, an assistant professor with a joint appointment in the economics department of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. “This is the first paper that really shows this.”
Another study found that adopted kids’ longevity was strongly influenced by their biological mothers’ longevity, but also by their adoptive mothers’ level of education: Each extra year of schooling for the mother translated to three extra years of life for the adopted child.
“It speaks strongly in favor of a socioeconomic determinant of long-term health. We’re pretty confident it’s a very interesting finding that a lot of people would like to know about,” Simeonova says.
Results such as these can be used to point policymakers toward systemic change. For example, investments in better neighborhood safety measures might catalyze a chain reaction: When new businesses move in, parents have better access to jobs, so families have more income, and kids’ health improves. “Ideally, you’d have everything working better because there’s more business development,” she says.
Rachel Wallach's article first appeared in the fall 2016 edition of Carey Business.