Robert A. Pollak, Ph.D.
Hernreich Distinguished Professor of Economics – joint with Arts & Sciences
Washington University in St. Louis
Robert A. Pollak is the Hernreich Distinguished Professor of Economics at Washington University in St. Louis with joint appointments in Arts and Sciences and in the Olin Business School. He received his BA from Amherst College in 1960 and his PhD from MIT in 1964. Pollak began his academic career at the University of Pennsylvania and was named Charles and William Day Professor of Economics and Social Science in 1983. He was on the faculty of the University of Washington in Seattle from 1985 to 1995 and has been on the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis since 1995. His research since the early 1980s has focused on the economics of the family and demography.
In a paper published in From Parent to Child: Intrahousehold Allocations and Intergenerational Relations in the United States, (University of Chicago Press, 1995), Behrman, Pollak and Taubman analyzed parental decisions about the allocation of resources among their children. Behrman, Pollak and Taubman show that replacing Becker’s assumption that parents seek to maximize the total wealth of their children with the assumption that parents also care about distribution of earnings among their children substantially modifies the implications of the model for the allocation of investments among the children.
In a series of papers, the first published in 1993, Lundberg and Pollak developed and analyzed theoretical models of bargaining in marriage. They proposed and analyzed a bargaining model in which threat points were internal to the marriage (rather than solely determined by the threat to divorce), and argued that these internal threat points reflected gender norms. The Lundberg and Pollak “separate spheres” bargaining models marked a major departure from both “divorce-threat” bargaining models and the standard Beckerian models of allocation within marriage. (Beckerian models assume that allocation within marriage is determined either by binding agreements that prospective spouses make in the marriage market or by the preferences of the “altruistic” head of the household. An implication of Beckerian models is that spouses “pool” their resources, so that control over resources within marriage has no effect on allocation within marriage. In contrast, a key implication of bargaining models of marriage is that control over resources within the household can affect allocation within marriage. Selection issues, however, make the pooling hypothesis difficult to test.
In a 1997 empirical paper, Lundberg, Pollak and Wales used a “natural experiment” created by a change in the British child allowance in the late 1970s that transferred the child allowance “from the wallet to the purse.” Household expenditure data showed that this change resulted in a substantial reallocation of clothing expenditures away from men’s clothing and toward women’s and children’s clothing. Over time, substantial evidence has accumulated, much of it from the Mexican conditional cash program Progresa, showing that control over resources within households has substantial effects on household resource allocation and confirming the widely-held belief that “kids do better” when their mothers control a larger fraction of family resources.
In 2000 Pollak received the Mindel C. Sheps Award from the PAA for his work on two-sex demographic models. The “two-sex problem” arises from the inconsistency of the implications for population growth of the standard female-based model of population age structure and growth and those of the mirror image male-based model. The difficulty is that these mirror image linear models imply different growth rates for the implied stable population. Pollak showed that this inconsistency disappears when we recognize that two-sex demographic models are inherently nonlinear and that the appropriate nonlinear model is susceptible to relatively straightforward analysis.
In a series of recent papers, Lundberg and Pollak and Lundberg, Pollak and Stearns document that, within each major racial and ethnic groups, there is a large socio-economic gradient in patterns of marriage, divorce, and nonmarital fertility. They show that, within each major racial and ethnic group, the behavior of college graduates and those with some college has diverged over the past 60 years. These papers argue that the traditional sources of gains to marriage — gender-based specialization and economies of scale in consumption — have declined in importance, while the returns to investment in children have increased. They argue that college-graduate men and women use marriage as a commitment device to facilitate intensive joint investment in their children.
Pollak served as editor of the International Economic Review from 1976 to 1985. He has also served on the editorial boards of The Review of Economics and Statistics, Demography, The Journal of Economic Literature, Feminist Economics, Review of Economics of the Household. Pollak was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for 1999-2000. In 2009-2010 he was President of the Society of Labor Economists. He is a fellow of the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) and a Research Association of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). Pollak is a fellow of the Society of Labor Economists, the Econometric Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 2018 was elected a Distinguished Fellow of the American Economic Association.
From 1997 to 2007 Pollak co-chaired the MacArthur Foundation Network on the Family and the Economy, an interdisciplinary group of economists, sociologists, and developmental psychologists studying the functioning of families. Repeated interaction with sociologists and developmental psychologists profoundly altered his understanding of the functioning of families and he is grateful to the MacArthur Foundation and to the members of the network for all that he learned from them.