A Conversation with Jiyoon (June) Kim

The assistant professor of economics talks about health disparities, SNAP, and why economics isn’t about money.

Assistant Professor of Economics Jiyoon (June) Kim focuses much of her research on understanding the determinants of health disparity and social inequality faced by vulnerable groups. She joined the Bryn Mawr faculty in 2021, having taught previously at Swarthmore, Elon University, and Purdue University.

What led you to your interest in economics? I didn’t major in economics in college. Instead, I studied business and applied statistics because I knew that would be the most appealing combination to employers when I went on the job market after college. After I graduated and worked for Korea Credit Bureau, I started to really think about what I was passionate about. I started grad school in economics initially with a focus on environmental economics and behavioral economics because I was deeply interested in environmentally friendly policies and people's behavior in response to them. My journey in the field has been pretty dynamic, though, and now I’m working on health economics and the economics of family and welfare policies. There are at least 20 different subfields under economics, which is part of what attracted me to the field.

Your research addresses the intersection of health disparities and social inequalities. What drew you to that area? My entire journey to Bryn Mawr and the process of jointly locating with my husband while taking care of my kids and keeping up with my professional responsibilities and early career stage actually sparked my current research interest. I was fortunate to enjoy a relatively long paid leave when I had my first kid in the spring of 2018. I was even able to move to where my husband was working back then and give birth there and take the entire summer off. Then I was offered an option to teach remotely in the fall and a hybrid one the following spring. So, for almost a year I was able to work from home and be close to my first child.

But not every woman can enjoy this benefit or even a short paid leave. So, I was intrigued about the effect of paid leave for women and how that affects a mother’s health. It’s widely documented that women with less education and low socioeconomic status have less access to these benefits because they might work for fast food restaurants, for example, or have multiple jobs or temporary jobs with almost no health benefits. They often end up quitting their jobs and exiting the labor force, all together. This further exacerbates the existing gap in health between the high socioeconomic status women versus the low socioeconomic status group.

Currently, fathers rarely take any leave when their child is born, and that has widened the gender pay gap. When mothers quit work to take care of their children, that’s called the “motherhood penalty.” Fathers, on the other hand, work even more to make up for the mother’s loss of salary, which is called the “fatherhood bonus.”

When my husband and I had our second child, I was the one who quit my job and took care of the two babies while my husband was not affected at all. So, I’m really eager to study what kind of policies could narrow the gender pay gap. One such policy could certainly be paid family leave, but others could be more work flexibility, being able to work outside a typical 9 to 5 timeframe, or the ability to work from home or set one’s own work schedule.

Can you talk about the work you’ve been doing related to the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefit?Yes, and this is a timely topic because there have been a lot of stories in the media recently about how the SNAP benefit boost during the pandemic is going to end soon. I’m interested in how that benefit reduction could affect household spending decisions and the broader economy, particularly at a time when there are already fears of a pullback in consumer spending.

There is an old cliche, “heat or eat,” which shows clearly the real choice faced by low-income households, who often have to choose between eating or paying rent or other utility bills and eating or filling up their car. On top of that, food prices have gone up by almost 10% over the past year. So, the SNAP benefit cut, especially at this time, could be way more detrimental to households who are already struggling with overall rising prices and wages that aren’t keeping up.

In my previous study, I looked at the effects of the SNAP benefit increase, which took place after the great recession in 2009, and how it affected household spending patterns for low-income households. I found that the increase in SNAP benefits not only induced more spending on food at home, but also increased spending on housing, education, and all the other spending categories.

This provides suggestive evidence that SNAP households were able to redirect their freed-up resources to non-food items like paying the mortgage or rent or paying tuition or utility bills. Based on this previous research, I believe exactly the opposite will happen if the SNAP benefit is cut. Many low-income households will be very adversely affected.

Another strand of your research that is especially timely is your work on the economic and health cost of extreme temperatures. This particular research on extreme temperature and how it could affect the mother’s health also comes from my own personal experience. I had to move from Indiana to Florida in the middle of my first pregnancy and that meant an extreme temperature shock to me, because Indiana in March is still windy, snowing, and extremely cold while in Florida it’s 80 or 90 degrees.

That motivated me to think about the effects of extreme temperature shock, whether that’s cold or heat, on a mother’s health or an infant’s health. We found that an extra day of average temperatures of 90 degrees or higher during any time in a pregnancy induces more adverse health outcomes for mothers at the time of childbirth.

The really shocking thing is that the effects are far more sizeable for Black mothers than for white mothers, controlling for education, income, or other observable characteristics. Beyoncé and Serena Williams, even though they are celebrities and wealthy, both had serious complications during their labor and delivery. That tells us something about the bias toward Black mothers and how doctors treat their Black patients. As we can expect to have more extreme hot days in the coming years, we would also expect to see the gap in health outcomes become much wider.

How does this research, which seems to be about health disparities and racial biases, tie into economics?  Economics is essentially not about money, it’s about how scarce resources—including the healthcare system and access to healthcare—are allocated. Economics is a lens through which to view the world and to see how people behave and interact. 

If, for example, there is a policy aimed at reducing plastic bag use, is it better to penalize using the plastic bag or is it better to offer a bonus when you use a reusable bag? That’s an economic question, but it also involves people’s behavior response to the incentives.

So, more broadly, economics allows us to evaluate a policy’s effectiveness. If we pour a lot of tax money into a certain policy, but it’s not effective, then we may want to think about changing some parameters to achieve its goal and reduce unintended consequences.

So, I would say economics is not about money, but it is about people.

Can you talk about your experiences teaching at Bryn Mawr?Before I came here, I worked at both big public universities and small private universities. I always wanted to work at a liberal arts college. We don’t have them in my home country, Korea, but I had friends in my graduate program who had been to liberal arts colleges and that’s how I heard about them. I thought they sounded like a wonderful kind of academic institution that motivated individual students and met each one’s needs at a very personal level.

When I came to Bryn Mawr I saw right away that the students here are super passionate and enthusiastic. I was also surprised at how much they cared not only about themselves but also about the community, the society, and the world.

Teaching has been my most enjoyable experience so far at Bryn Mawr, because I have learned so much from my students and have thoroughly enjoyed interacting with them and learning about them. Sometimes I feel like I learn a lot more from my students than they learn from me.