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Economic historian brings enthusiasm and energy to research, teaching

Photo of: Shari Eli on a sofaIf Shari Eli’s enthusiastic students are any indication, there will soon be a boom in budding economic historians at the University of Toronto.

Paul Han, a fourth-year economics and philosophy student, took a class in American economic history with Eli, an assistant professor of economics.

“I went to high school in the United States, and this course gave us an alternate perspective on U.S. history, as well as economic history,” he said. “Professor Eli was very responsive to questions and very helpful in understanding the literature.”

Eli joined the Department of Economics and the Centre for the Study of the United States in 2011 as a newly minted PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. She and her partner Nicholas Li, a development economist, conducted a dual job search and landed at U of T.

“It feels like we hit the jackpot for sure,” Eli said. “What every economist wants is to have a department that is invested in their research, and we both feel that this is a department where we can grow.”

Eli had planned to become an economic theorist like her mentor at Berkeley, but after taking a required course in economic history, a love affair was born. Her specialty is American economic history.

History’s lessons: why things turned out the way they did and what this says about the present

“When economists study history, they have the benefit of knowing the outcome, but the interesting question is why things turned out the way they did and what this says about the present,” she said. “That’s what’s really exciting about economic history.

“If we try to think about the effects of implementing a social program in a developing country today, we can look at the United States 100 years ago, when the U.S. itself was undergoing a period of rapid development, and consider whether there are any lessons in the outcomes we observe that give us a sense of whether the program might work or not.”

Lessons from the Civil War

Eli’s published work explores the long-term effects of army pensions on the health of Union Army veterans from the U.S. Civil War. Since the veterans had to provide evidence of their disabilities, the records of their service and their pensions were preserved and are available at the U.S. National Archives.

“By 1890, most of these men were eligible for old age pensions,” Eli said. “The interesting question is how does the receipt of this income affect their health, longevity and the onset of disease?”

Eli has studied the impact of pensions given to white veterans and is now exploring the pensions received by black veterans. She is finding that simply getting a pension was much easier for white veterans than blacks; doctors could deny pensions to vets if they didn’t believe an illness was legitimate.

“It depended on the doctor they’d see and the doctors were hired by the pension board,” she said. “They may have had racist attitudes about black health. Some doctors believed white veterans, but not blacks.

“Many black veterans were denied pensions, which put their health at a greater disadvantage.”

Meanwhile, veterans in the South, who served for the Confederacy, had no universal access to federal pensions. Instead, Confederate veterans could apply for military pensions administered by their southern state of residence. These pensions actually became a way for the ruling party Democrats to buy the votes of Confederate veterans, while denying money to blacks, since the latter group had been enslaved and didn’t serve in the military and were largely disenfranchised after the war.

The roots of policy

“It helps explain why there are so many different policies in the U.S. and why they have all these social programs that seem so unusual relative to the programs we see in Europe,” Eli said. “I am interested in why we see the types of programs we do and the reasons behind it. When you look at whose votes politicians were trying to get and who they were trying to leave out, you see how unequal and unfair many programs really were. They didn’t always reward those who were most in need.”

Her most recent research focuses on an early twentieth century welfare program called the Mothers’ Pension Program, which was the precursor to the U.S.’ welfare program today, in which the mothers of approximately 80,000 poor children received cash transfers between 1911 and 1930.

“I’m looking at what the effects of social programs like these are,” she said. “I’m collaborating with colleagues at Brown University, UCLA, and Northwestern and finding that the program led to longer life, higher educational and higher income.

“In economic history, we have the benefit of hindsight.”