Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Donald J. Bruce

Committee Members

Celeste K. Carruthers, Matthew C. Harris, Phillip Daves


This dissertation is composed of three essays in public economics that study individual and family responses to changes in public policy.

First, I assess how access to a childhood literacy program affects early cognitive skill development in the home. Using the national roll-out of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, I compare elementary level achievement scores of students who had access to the program to those that did not have access. I find uncertain, but likely small, effects from having access having access to the program on third and fourth grade English and Mathematics exams. After controlling for local participation, the results are closer to zero, suggesting that small investments of capital alone are not an effective input into early skill development.

The second essay examines the distribution of all-inclusive effective marginal tax rates (MTRs) of low-income families who participate in social assistance programs in the United States between 2004 and 2012. I find that program participants face extremely high MTRs, especially when participating in multiple programs. The average MTR for a family earning under two times the federal poverty limit is 36 percent, a rate that is almost equal to the top statutory income tax rate. Because the MTRs from program participation are high, I estimate the number of families who make adjustments at the nonconvex kink point where SNAP benefits are fully phased out. I find visual evidence that families respond to the incentives that nonconvex kinks create by not choosing to locate in the area immediately above the cutoff point.

The third essay, joint work with Matthew C. Harris, examines the effect of restricting access to payday lending on local criminal activity. To assess this relationship, we take advantage of the variation in access to high-cost credit across state borders. We find that restricting access to payday lending potentially increases total arrests, primarily driven by violent crime. Surprisingly, we fail to find evidence that losing access to payday lending has any effect on small property crimes, such as larceny. This study contributes to the growing literature examining the effects of access to credit on various outcomes.

Available for download on Saturday, May 15, 2027

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