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Student Research Spotlight: Samantha Schenck

Samantha Schecnk and CRF Associate Director Wendy Varner at the CRF Annual Dinner in 2014

“CRF has helped me tremendously this year. It has allowed me the time to pursue my own research full time. I have been able to take time off from my Research Assistantship. By supporting me and my family, CRF has given me a chance to hopefully help other families.” - Samantha Schenck

One of the biggest challenges facing American parents and families today is striking a balance between the demands of work and the responsibilities and joys of raising a family. Too often, parents have little control over their work schedules and demands nor the inevitable unexpected family emergencies that accompany raising children. The challenges of holding down a full-time job and raising a child often creates an environment in which ordinary, but sometimes spontaneous, life events, like catching a cold or losing your child care can turn into life crises. Instead of having time to celebrate major life events, such as the birth of a baby, new parents often find themselves consumed with stressful decisions about returning to work very soon after a child’s birth due to financial necessity. Such financial and emotional decisions can be devastating for the individuals and the family. Work-family challenges are particularly pronounced for low-income and single-parent families where employers often offer few workplace supports, like paid sick time or paid parental leave, and the families don’t have the financial flexibility or time to meet life’s demands. 

Recognizing this problem, and its crippling effects on families, almost all industrialized countries in the world have created laws requiring paid parental leave and paid sick leave for workers. U.S. federal law, as noted by President Obama in his recent State of the Union Address, lags far behind its world counterparts on this issue, offering no paid parental leave for new parents.

Samantha Schenk received the 2014 Center for Research on Families Student Fellowship to research labor and leave policies in the United States, specifically to study a “natural experiment” underway in the U.S. where California has become the first state to offer paid leave. Samantha, in addition to pursuing a PhD, is a part time university instructor and mother of two young children; thus, she is hyper-aware of the struggles facing young families participating in the workforce. Inspired by her personal experience, encouraged by her advisor, and funded by the Center for Research on Families, Samantha is researching California’s labor policies, something she says would be nearly impossible without CRF funding.

In 2002, the state of California passed the California Paid Family Leave Act which includes provisions to provide 6 weeks of paid leave to workers whose families are experiencing a pregnancy or illness in the state of California. The Act has been heralded as America’s first steps towards catching up with its global counterparts, and was eluded to as a model for the nation by President Obama during his State of the Union Address, but its opponents have argued that a paid leave policy will decrease worker productivity and increase unemployment. As Schenck notes, although proponents and opponents of the act have debated and disagreed along the typical economic lines of theoretical dogma, market failure, productivity, rationality, and supply and demand, neither side has been able to offer data that directly tests  how the act has actually affected California’s labor market. Samantha is attempting to inform the debate on labor policy by offering an objective answer to the question using empirical economic research techniques.

To examine what effects, if any, there are on California’s labor market, Samantha will apply the powerful “difference-in-difference” regression method to data from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to address this question. The diffirence-in-diffirence method compares the changes in employment trends in California relative to employment changes in the rest of the United States. The data ranges from 2000, three years before the policy was fully implemented, to 2009, before any major changes to the policy occurred. Samantha’s methods will be able to isolate the policy’s effects from aggregate and state-specific economic trends.

Samantha hopes to answer four central research questions, all of which are relevant to both the family and the field of economics. Specifically, her primary questions are: (1) Has there been an overall change in employment attributable to the paid leave policy?; (2) How did the policy, if at all, affect female employment?; (3) Did the effects on employment vary based on whether the employer was a federal contractor?; and (4) Did the effects of the policy change depending on firm size, industry, or occupation? The extra time the CRF Fellowship provides has allowed her, between raising her children and teaching courses, to focus on the intense data collection and analysis.

The Center for Research on Families Student Awards program recognizes outstanding student family researchers like Samantha Schenck. Samantha’s interdisciplinary research is highly relevant to families and has the potential to shape future labor and maternity leave policy. The Center anxiously awaits Samantha’s findings and is excited about supporting Samantha as she translates her results to policy makers with the aim of improving the lives of working families. 


The Center for Research on Families will begin accepting applications for student research fellowships and awards on January 27th. Follow this link to learn more and apply.