Selected Funded Research by Theme

CDE’s overarching objective is to support and facilitate innovative and influential research and rigorous training in population science. Demographic research at CDE provides foundational information about the health and well-being of individuals, families, and groups, and the changing composition of the broader populations that they comprise. A selection of current and recently funded projects is below.

Health and the Life Course

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Baby's First Years

Funder: Various private and federal agencies, including NICHD
Principal Investigators: Katherine Magnuson, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Sandra Rosenbaum School of Social Work
Kimberly Noble, Columbia University, Teachers College
Qualitative Sub-Study Principal Investigator: Sarah Halpern-Meekin, University of Wisconsin–Madison, School of Human Ecology

Summary: Baby’s First Years is the first study in the United States to assess the impact of poverty reduction on family life and  infant and toddlers’ cognitive, emotional, and brain development. One thousand low-income mothers and their newborns were recruited in several ethnically and geographically diverse communities. Mothers receive either (1) $333 each month ($4,000 each year), or (2) $20 each month ($240 each year), for the first 40 months of the children’s lives with the first payments occurring shortly after the baby’s birth. To understand how poverty reduction affects children’s development and family life, quantitative data will be collected on or around the children’s first, second, and third birthdays. Each wave of data collection will capture:

  • Aspects of family life hypothesized to be affected by poverty, including parent stress, family expenditures, family routines, parents’ time use and parenting practices, and child care arrangements.
  • Children’s development, as well as their physical health, stress, and behavior.

Effects of Interviewers, Respondents, and Questions on Survey Measurement

Funder: National Science Foundation
Grant Number: 1853094
Principal Investigators: Jennifer Dykema, University of Wisconsin Survey Center
Dana Garbarski, Loyola University Chicago, Department of Sociology

Summary: This research project will investigate how the quality of survey data is influenced by features of the survey interview. Survey data remains one of the most important ways that researchers learn about the behaviors and attitudes of populations. Using data and transcripts from a health survey, the investigators will examine the interplay between the characteristics of the survey questions, the behaviors of interviewers and respondents when questions are administered, and the socio-demographic attributes (for example, age, ethnicity, and gender) of both interviewers and respondents. The project will improve understanding of the issues involved in participation in medical research, questionnaire design, interviewing methods, and interviewer training. The results of this project will be of value to survey practitioners, federal data collection efforts, and social, behavioral, and medical researchers. Improving the quality of survey data benefits society by elevating the contribution that social science surveys make to the nation’s data infrastructure. Results from this project will be disseminated in journals and at conferences. Materials produced by the project will be made available to practitioners and other researchers. Students will be trained as part of this project.

Estimating Childhood Infectious Disease Outbreak Risk in the Context of Heterogeneous Vaccine Coverage

Funder: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Grant Number: K01 AI132741
Principal Investigator: Malia Jones, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Applied Population Lab

Summary: The project has two research aims. Aim 1 is to quantify the excess risk of measles and pertussis outbreak stemming from clusters of unvaccinated children. Agent-based models will be used to simulate populations and test dynamic within-group processes and potential policy effects on those processes. Aim 2 is to characterize the attributes of vaccine-hesitant ideas that promote uptake of hesitancy and refusals in terms of diffusion of innovation theory.

Impact of COVID-19 Exposure on U.S. Birth Outcomes

Funder: NICHD
Grant Number: 1R21HD105361-01
Principal Investigators: Jenna Nobles, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Department of Sociology
Florencia Torche, Stanford University, Department of Sociology
Investigators: Felix Elwert, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Department of Sociology

Summary: Uses state-level birth records with early release, researchers will estimate the effects of COVID-19 on birth outcomes at the population level, over time, and across groups defined by different sources of disadvantage. The research team focuses on six states that provide large and diverse samples in areas in which the pandemic unfolded with significant variation: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, New Jersey, and Wisconsin. With this data, the researchers will:

  • Estimate the effect of local-level exposure to COVID-19 on birth outcomes, including intrauterine growth restriction, birthweight, and delivery complications;
  • Test for differences in COVID-19 effects on birth outcomes by maternal age, race, nativity, economic disadvantage, and pre-pandemic, local-level economic conditions and health care infrastructure; and
  • Model the change in the number and composition of women giving birth as a result of COVID-19 exposure.

Using this information, the researchers will adjust estimates of COVID-19 effects on infant health, while also providing the earliest evidence of COVID effects on population fertility. The research identifies communities and subpopulations in which the pandemic has had the largest impact, and in which lasting effects for the next generation may unfold.

RAPID: Estimating the Reciprocal Relationship between COVID-19 Infections of Prisoners and Staff and Infections in the Surrounding Communities

Funder: National Science Foundation
Grant Number: 2032747
Principal Investigators: John Eason, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Department of Sociology
Danielle Wallace, Arizona State University, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice

Summary: Controlling COVID-19 infections in prison is a critical part of “flattening the curve.” Prisons are high transmission and risk settings for the spread of infectious disease due to crowding, communal dining, and difficulty with sanitation. Prison staff may contribute to disease transmission between the local community and prisoners because staffers exit the prison and enter the community each shift (and vice-versa). This creates a bidirectional pathway for spreading the disease. Prisons, as well as other high density accommodations like nursing homes or cruise ships, are in immediate need of information concerning the spread of COVID-19. In particular, strategies are needed for halting or slowing the spread of COVID-19 in these settings. Prisons are a particularly difficult setting for such evaluative efforts because the current crisis leaves stakeholders little time to assess whether virus suppression strategies and their associated policies are working – creating a devastating information gap. Thus, quickly understanding the spread of COVID-19 both among people and across geographies, the effectiveness of policies and strategies for flattening the curve, as well as the return on investments (ROI) is critical for prisons to minimize and contain future outbreaks of COVID-19. This project will deepen our understanding of the reciprocal relationship between COVID-19 infections among prisoners, correctional staff and the communities where prisons are located. Findings will be useful to communities and congregate facility officials as they develop policies to manage these reciprocal infections in congregate settings, thus contributing to U. S. health and well-being.

Demography of Inequality

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The Foundational Inequality—Race Differences in Equal Opportunity in the United States

Funder: UW Foundation Reducing Inequalities Initiative 
Principal Investigator: Jason Fletcher
Investigator: Eric Grodsky

This project focuses on race/ethnicity heterogeneity in intergenerational education mobility to better understand education disparities. The United States has a history of racial and ethnic inequalities in education and recent research further uncovers vast differences in economic opportunities by race/ethnicity. Non-Hispanic Black and Native American/Alaska Native children in particular face the lowest levels of upward economic mobility in the United States. Education is fundamental to health and socioeconomic status throughout the lifecourse and understanding these disparities can help inform socioeconomic inequality more broadly. This project brings an intergenerational mobility lens to the study of education – conceptualizing educational attainment through complementary processes of upward and downward education mobility.

Understanding and Reducing Inequalities During the COVID-19 Crisis

Funder: UW Foundation Reducing Inequalities Initiative 

Principal  Investigators: Christine Durrance and Jessica Pac

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused shocks to not only health systems, but also to the economy, financial stability, health insurance, education and childcare. Low-income and minority families have been disproportionately impacted by pandemic impact on employment, income, health insurance and social safety net benefits. Wisconsin children, especially racial and ethnic minorities, may be particularly vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19. Early reports indicate that critical preventative health and treatment services for mothers and children are being missed, which may negatively affect short and long-term health. Moreover, parental stress and loss of economic resources may influence child maltreatment and safety. This project utilizes unique administrative linked data, Wisconsin Administrative Core Data and Big Data for Little Kids, and several empirical approaches to leverage quasi-experimental timing in county stay-at-home orders and school closures on a number of important health and safety outcomes for mothers and children. 

Evaluating the Impacts of Wisconsin’s Birth Cost Recovery Policy on the Health and Wellbeing of Low-Income Black Birthing Parents

Principal Investigator: Tiffany Green

Birth Cost Recovery (BCR) holds unmarried, non-custodial fathers liable for Medicaid birth costs in Wisconsin, yet there is little known about the impact of this policy on Black birthing people in Wisconsin. This project, led by Tiffany Green, PhD, assistant professor in the departments of Population Health Sciences and Obstetrics and Gynecology, will work to better understand how BCR and other similar social policies impact inequities in health outcomes among low-income Black birthing people in the state of Wisconsin. Dr. Green and a team of interdisciplinary experts in the fields of economics, population health, pediatrics, social work, clinical/social psychology and community engagement will create an evaluation framework for BCR as a way of measuring the impact of this policy and collect evidence that can be useful in informing future policies and improving health outcomes statewide.

Immigration, Legal Status, and Criminal Adjudication in State Courts

Funder: NSF

Grant Number: 1849297

Principal  Investigator: Michael Light, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Department of Sociology

Immigration enforcement has fundamentally altered the criminal justice system in the United States, yet we still lack information on basic questions regarding noncitizens in the legal system, particularly in state and local jurisdictions. The lack of knowledge on the local criminal processing of immigrants is largely due to data constraints, in that information on foreign-born or legal status is rarely available in most state court databases. This project addresses this limitation by leveraging unique criminal history data from California and Texas – the two largest immigrant destinations in the U.S. – which tracks criminal cases from arrest through sentencing.

Effects of Deportation on Remaining Family Members and Social Surroundings

Funder: Rockwool Foundation
Investigator: Michael Light, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Department of Sociology

Summary: This project aims to measure the causal effect of deportation on the life chances of the remaining family and social surroundings. For every deported person, several others (family members but also other people within the deported person’s social vicinity) are likely to be affected, which implies that the consequences of deportation may be far-reaching. In addition to affecting many individuals and families, deportation has grown into a mass phenomenon since the turn of the century, which makes it all the more important to identify the effects of this policy. Yet, because of a lack of causal research designs, whether the consequences are good or bad is unknown—and the causal effects could indeed go in either direction. Existing correlational studies seem to agree that consequences may be predominantly negative.

Improving Data Collection of Debt and Financial Strain to Assess Health Impacts of Economic Insecurity

Funder: NICHD
Grant Number: 1R01HD103356-01A1
Principal Investigator: Lawrence Berger, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Sandra Rosenbaum School of Social Work
Investigators: Jennifer Dykema, University of Wisconsin Survey Center
Jason Houle, Dartmouth College, Department of Sociology

Summary: In recent decades, individual and household debt has played an increasingly important role in the dynamics of economic inequality and insecurity in the United States. However, limitations of current data impede scientific understanding of the role of indebtedness in reducing or exacerbating economic insecurity for low-income families. This project consists of a multi-pronged data collection and analysis effort aimed at building a stronger data infrastructure, more adequate and accurate measures of indebtedness, and best practices for analyzing various forms of indebtedness and their relation to economic hardship and financial strain for low-income families.

Reproductive Outcomes and Schooling Expansion for Men in Ethiopia, Malawi, and Uganda

Funder: NICHD
Grant Number: 1R03HD103866-01A1
Principal Investigator: Monica Grant, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Department of Sociology

Summary: This project explores a set of complementary analyses focused on the reproductive consequences of schooling expansion for men. Using secondary data from the Demographic and Health Surveys, Grant will explore how boys’ schooling expansion is related to shifting reproductive and attitudinal norms. She will also examine how shifts in the educational composition of husbands and wives over time is associated with reproductive outcomes and couples’ decision-making. These analyses will contribute to the overall understanding of how education influences demographic behavior and the changing contributions of men’s and women’s schooling to reproductive outcomes over time.

The Geography of Information: Testing the Effects of Unequal Information in the Market for Rental Housing

Funder: National Science Foundation
Grant Number: 2041304
Principal Investigator: Max Besbris, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Department of Sociology

Summary: There is considerable urban residential segregation in the United States by race, ethnicity, and social class, with implications for community formation and inequality, as well as school segregation. We know that the majority of urban home-seekers in the United States now use the internet as their primary source to find new places to live. Despite this development, we know relatively little regarding how renters select their housing at a time when information about available housing is increasingly moving online. While this technological transformation has largely gone unexamined, some prior research shows that advertisements for rental housing are not all the same; rather, they differ systematically depending on the demographics of the neighborhood where the housing being advertised is located. This project analyzes rental housing advertisements posted online to investigate if these differences matter for people during their housing search. Understanding how individuals interpret the information they see in the online housing market is key to explaining why people move to certain places and not others, which has implications for the future of residential inequality and racial/ethnic segregation. The findings will advance understanding of residential selection processes and aid policy makers looking to expand and equalize access to information for home-seekers, with implications for improved social and economic well-being in urban areas.


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Examining the Sources and Implications of Genetic Homophily in Social Networks

Funder: NICHD
Grant Number: 7R21HD071884
Principal Investigators: Jason Fletcher, University of Wisconsin–Madison, La Follette School of Public Affairs

Summary: This is a series of projects that use complementary datasets and multiple methods to examine the interplay between genetics, social structure and health using social network analysis. The project will first explore the level of genetic homophily in adolescent friendship networks in two time periods in the US and then test specific hypotheses aimed at understanding the sources of the genetic homophily, with key foci on separating genetic and behavioral homophily and assessing the relevance of schools in determining genetic homophily. The project will then explore the interplay of school polices and genetic in shaping health through social networks.

Researching Epigenetics, Weathering, Aging & Residential Disadvantage (REWARD)

Funder: NIA
Grant Number: R01 AG061080
Principal Investigators: Kristen Malecki, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Department of Population Health Sciences
Michal Engelman, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Department of Sociology
: Katherine Curtis, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Department of Community and Environmental Sociology
Corinne Engelman, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Department of Population Health Sciences

Summary: Despite healthcare advances, racial and geographic disparities in life expectancy and complex chronic diseases persist. The REWARD Study aims to transform our understanding of biological mechanisms underlying disparities in mortality and chronic health conditions. It focuses on characterizing patterns of DNA methylation, a key epigenetic mechanism that influences gene expression during development and throughout life in response to environmental and social conditions. Specifically, it examines whether and how exposure to personal and neighborhood-level disadvantages impact methylation patterns associated with accelerated biological aging, inflammation, and chronic cardiovascular disease outcomes. Our findings will highlight the variability in human biological responses to adversity and inform clinical and policy-level interventions to reduce and mitigate health disparities.

Spatial and Environmental Demography

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The Impacts of Ecological Disasters on Social Mobility and Economic Security

Principal Investigators: Max Besbris and Anna Rhodes

Low-income households and communities are typically more susceptible to the effects of disasters than are their middle-class counterparts. However, climate change is making weather-related events more severe, and disasters like the California wildfires and Hurricanes Sandy, Irma, Harvey, Michael, and Florence have significantly affected middle- and high-income households and communities. Since October 2017, sociologists Anna Rhodes and Max Besbris have conducted two waves of interviews with 59 flooded households in Friendswood, Texas, a suburban middle-class town where over 3,000 homes flooded during Hurricane Harvey. They will analyze the extent to which disasters impact middle-class households and neighborhoods and the extent to which differences in financial and social support increase inequality across affected households within middle-class communities post-disaster. They will also explore how flood victims make decisions about whether or not to return to their flooded homes, how and to what extent to reinvest in their property, and the sources of financial and social support they receive during recovery.

Age-Specific Net Migration Estimates for US Counties, 2010-2020: Data Generation & Archiving

Funder: NICHD
Grant Number: 5R03HD100772
Principal Investigators: Katherine Curtis, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Department of Community and Environmental Sociology
Richelle Winkler, Michigan Technological University, Department of Social Sciences

Summary: The proposed project will provide essential information about how migration is changing the population composition (by age, sex, race, and Hispanic origin) of county populations. This information is critical for public health planners and policy-makers to identify migration patterns among demographic groups with specific health risks and needs, as well as the impact of migration on the potential health care labor force. Understanding the migration patterns among the elderly, women at prime child-bearing ages, and distinct racial and ethnic populations are of particular interest because of concerns regarding the specialized health needs of these populations and the differential access to health care providers and services.

The Consequences of Ecological Disaster on Social Mobility and Economic Security

Funder: Russell Sage Foundation
Principal Investigators: Max Besbris, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Department of Sociology
Anna C. Rhodes, Rice University

Supplemental Grant to “The Impacts of Ecological Disasters on Social Mobility and Economic Security

Summary: For the projects, researchers will conduct new interviews with respondents (N=10) from the original sample, including both those who did and did not experience damage from the February 2021 winter storm that led to blackouts for millions of Texan households and water infrastructure failure. This winter storm allows the investigators to examine how residents affected by multiple disasters understand and navigate recovery, make-sense of their vulnerability, and plan for the future.

Demographic Responses to Natural Resource Changes

Funder: NICHD
Grant Number: 5R03HD095014
Principal Investigators: Katherine Curtis, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Department of Community and Environmental Sociology
Jack DeWaard, University of Minnesota, Department of Sociology
Elizabeth Fussell, Brown University, Population Studies and Training Center

Summary: The project will link human migration systems to natural environmental and economic systems, and investigate the effect of environmentally-related exogenous shocks in the Gulf Coast region (e.g., oil spills, change in fish stocks, hurricanes) on the regional and national migration system. Understanding the complex interlinkages between migration, environmental, and economic systems is critical for public health planners and policy-makers to identify migration responses among populations in communities (both sending and receiving) with specific local health risks and needs. We hypothesize that a natural or anthropogenic environmental change in the region modifies the economic and social processes shaping decisions to move and destination choices, thereby altering the migration system, ultimately with consequences for community health and wellbeing through its impact on local area population size and composition, and economic capacity

Fecundity and Fertility in the Presence of Zika

Funder: NICHD
Grant Number: R03 HD092818
Investigators: Jenna Nobles, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Department of Sociology
Amar Hamoudi, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Center for Demography and Ecology

Summary: In response to mounting maternal and infant health risks, public health officials across the Americas have encouraged populations affected by the Zika virus (ZIKV) epidemic to delay childbearing. We build a novel data resource on Brazilian demographic behavior to provide the first tests of whether, and among which sub-populations, fertility delay has occurred. To better understand the public health needs of the population, our research emphasizes (a) assessment of behavioral responses to the epidemic, (b) detection of socioeconomic variability in these responses, and (c) differentiation of infection risk from depiction of infection risk across multiple sources of media communication.