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Diane Gibson: A Pioneering Social Welfare Researcher

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How does the availability of supermarkets affect the food choices and overall health of people living in low-income neighborhoods? It's a question that seems to have an obvious answer. But after a decade of studying the impact of various social welfare programs, Diane Gibson, associate professor in Baruch College's School of Public Affairs (SPA), still has a lot to uncover.

Gibson started investigating the connection between supermarket availability and neighborhood racial/ethnic concentration for her dissertation at the University of Chicago. Though she was already interested in better understanding poverty, the University's close vicinity to many poor communities made it a key spot for Gibson to begin her research career. This ongoing research has been her means of “quantifying the difficulties of being poor from a neighborhood perspective” and has been recognized with grants and awards. Her research has been published in influential journals and newspapers, such as the American Journal of Public Health, the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, the Journal of Nutrition, and recently, a New York Times “Room for Debate” on the challenges faced by policymakers working to encourage healthful food choices by those receiving food program benefits.

At present, Gibson is focusing her research on better understanding why people in low-income neighborhoods often don't make healthful food selections, even after receiving information on the fundamentals of proper nutrition. Gibson would like to help policymakers construct messages that would prove more effective.

Effective communication is at the core of another of Gibson's roles at Baruch. She's executive director of the New York Census Research Data Center (NYCRDC), one of 10 secure facilities in the country offering restricted-access data to researchers whose projects are approved by the U.S. Census Bureau. As executive director of Baruch's RDC, Gibson gives introductory seminars to researchers at member institutions on the types of research that can be conducted using the center's confidential microdata. “It's a teaching challenge,” she says, smiling, “to make talking about data interesting.” Fortunately, her classroom experience, plus the ability to “speak the same language” as her fellow researchers, makes her a natural for the job. Besides, “it's fun learning about the research projects people are working on,” she says.

Gibson came to Baruch in 1999 after earning her PhD from the University of Chicago. “I trained in a school of public policy so this was very much where I wanted to be,” she says of Baruch. Gibson teaches microeconomics as well as a capstone research course. Her own research often serves as a relevant example to showcase the principles of these courses. In her microeconomics classes, for instance, Gibson almost always examines food stamp programs with her students: “I focus on how individuals make choices and how economics can help policymakers think about what individuals are going to do. We think about how food stamp benefits compare to welfare programs that give money. Students get pretty interested in looking at the model of choice and understanding people's incentives and constraints. Plus, it's food — and people always like talking about food.”

Now in her 13th year teaching at the College, Gibson sings Baruch's praises: “The interdisciplinary nature of SPA has really helped my research,” she says, adding, “it's a very fun place to teach and do research. Our students are really interesting. Because many of them come from a wide array of backgrounds in terms of country of origin, undergraduate training, degrees, and the organizations that they work for, I learn a lot from them. That keeps the teaching interesting.”