Rucker C. Johnson

Associate Professor
Goldman School of Public Policy, UC Berkeley

You can view full-text PDF versions of the manuscripts (which are published or under review) by clicking on the titles below.

Johnson, Rucker C. and C. Kirabo Jackson (2017). Reducing Inequality Through Dynamic Complementarity: Evidence from Head Start and Public School Spending.  NBER working paper #23489. 


We explore whether early childhood human-capital investments are complementary to those made later in life. Using the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, we compare the adult outcomes of cohorts who were differentially exposed to policy-induced changes in pre-school (Head Start) spending and school-finance-reform-induced changes in public K12 school spending during childhood, depending on place and year of birth. Difference-in-difference instrumental variables and sibling-difference estimates indicate that, for poor children, increases in Head Start spending and increases in public K12 spending each individually increased educational attainment and earnings, and reduced the likelihood of both poverty and incarceration in adulthood. The benefits of Head Start spending were larger when followed by access to better-funded public K12 schools, and the increases in K12 spending were more efficacious for poor children who were exposed to higher levels of Head Start spending during their preschool years. The findings suggest that early investments in the skills of disadvantaged children that are followed by sustained educational investments over time can effectively break the cycle of poverty. (JEL I20, J20)


“The Effects of School Spending on Educational & Economic Outcomes: Evidence from School Finance Reforms” (with C.Kirabo Jackson and Claudia Persico), Published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics.


Since Coleman (1966), many have questioned whether school spending affects student outcomes. The school finance reforms that began in the early 1970s and accelerated in the 1980s caused some of the most dramatic changes in the structure of K–12 education spending in US history. To study the effect of these school-finance-reform-induced changes in school spending on long-run adult outcomes, we link school spending and school finance reform data to detailed, nationally-representative data on children born between 1955 and 1985 and followed through 2011. We use the timing of the passage of court-mandated reforms, and their associated type of funding formula change, as an exogenous shifter of school spending and we compare the adult outcomes of cohorts that were differentially exposed to school finance reforms, depending on place and year of birth. Event-study and instrumental variable models reveal that a 10 percent increase in per-pupil spending each year for all twelve years of public school leads to 0.31 more completed years of education, about 7 percent higher wages, and a 3.2 percentage-point reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty; effects are much more pronounced for children from low-income families. Exogenous spending increases were associated with sizable improvements in measured school quality, including reductions in student-to-teacher ratios, increases in teacher salaries, and longer school years.

Non-technical summary of research findings published in Education Next

Boosting Educational Attainment and Adult Earnings : Does school spending matter after all?"

"Money Does Matter After All: A response to Eric Hanushek"

Press reactions: The Washington Post, The International Business Times, Education Week, The Chicago Tribune, BloombergView, California Magazine, The Spokesman-Review


“The Effect of School Finance Reforms on the Distribution of Spending, Academic Achievement & Adult Outcomes” (with C.Kirabo Jackson and Claudia Persico)

NBER working paper #20118, May 2014.


The school finance reforms (SFRs) that began in the early 1970s and accelerated in the 1980s caused some of the most dramatic changes in the structure of K–12 education spending in U.S. history. We analyze the effects of these reforms on the level and distribution of school district spending, as well as their effects on subsequent educational and economic outcomes.
In Part One, using a newly compiled database of school finance reforms and a recently available long panel of annual school district data on per-pupil spending that spans 1967–2010, we present an event-study analysis of the effects of different types of school finance reforms on per-pupil spending in low- and high-income school districts. We find that SFRs have been instrumental in equalizing school spending between low- and high-income districts and many reforms do so by increasing spending for poor districts. While all reforms reduce spending inequality, there are important differences by reform type: adequacy-based court-ordered reforms increase overall school spending, while equity-based court-ordered reforms reduce the variance of spending with little effect on overall levels; reforms that entail high tax prices (the amount of taxes a district must raise to increase spending by one dollar) reduce long-run spending for all districts, and those that entail low tax prices lead to increased spending growth, particularly for low-income districts.


“Long-run Impacts of School Desegregation & School Quality on Adult Attainments ”


This paper investigates the long-run impacts of court-ordered school desegregation on an array of adult socioeconomic and health outcomes. The study analyzes the life trajectories of children born between 1945 and 1970, and followed through 2011, using the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID). The PSID data are linked with multiple data sources that describe the neighborhood attributes, school quality resources, and coincident policies that prevailed at the time these children were growing up. I exploit quasi-random variation in the timing of initial court orders, which generated differences in the timing and scope of the implementation of desegregation plans during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Event study analyses as well as sibling-difference estimates indicate that school desegregation and the accompanied increases in school quality resulted in significant improvements in adult attainments for blacks. I find that, for blacks, school desegregation significantly increased both educational and occupational attainments, college quality and adult earnings, reduced the probability of incarceration, and improved adult health status; desegregation had no effects on whites across each of these outcomes. The results suggest that the mechanisms through which school desegregation led to beneficial adult attainment outcomes for blacks include improvement in access to school resources reflected in reductions in class size and increases in per-pupil spending.

Press Reactions: CNN, US News, The NBER Digest, New York Times magazine, The Atlantic, The Atlantic (again), New York Times op-ed, Slate , The Charlotte Observer , EdNC


“The Health Returns to Education Policies: From Preschool to High School & Beyond ” published in American Economic Review Papers & Proceedings, May 2010.

“Follow the Money: School Spending from Title I to Adult Earnings”.  Forthcoming in special issue, ESEA at 50, The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences.

“Can Schools Level the Intergenerational Playing Field?  Lessons from Equal Educational Opportunity Policies”.  Prepared for special edited volume on mobility, to be published by the Federal Reserve Board, D.C.

“Early-Life Origins of Adult Disease: National Longitudinal Population-Based Study of the US
(with Robert Schoeni), published in the American Journal of Public Health, Dec 2011.


“Employment Patterns of Less-Skilled Workers: Links to Children’s Behavior and Academic Progress”
(with Ariel Kalil and Rachel Dunifon), published in Demography 47(3), August 2011.


Mothers’ Work and Children’s Lives: Low-income Families After Welfare Reform,

Book published by Upjohn Insititute Press (2010)


Using data from five waves of the Women’s Employment Survey (WES; 1997-2003), we examine the links between low-income mothers’ employment experiences and the emotional well-being and academic progress of their children.  We find robust linkages between several different dimensions of mothers’ employment experiences and child outcomes.  The pattern of results is remarkably similar across all of our empirical approaches—including OLS and child fixed effect models, with and without an unusually extensive set of controls.  First, children exhibit fewer behavior problems when mothers work and experience job stability (relative to children whose mothers do not work).  In contrast, maternal work accompanied by job instability is associated with significantly higher child behavior problems (relative to job stability).  Children whose mothers work full-time and/or have fluctuating levels of work hours or irregular schedules also exhibit significantly higher levels of behavior problems.  However, full-time work has negative consequences for children only when it is in jobs that offer limited potential for wage growth.  Such negative consequences are completely offset when this work experience is in jobs that require the cognitive skills that lead to higher wage growth prospects.  Finally, fluctuating levels of work hours and full-time work in jobs with limited wage growth prospects are also both strongly associated with the probability that the child will repeat a grade or be placed in special education.  These results suggest that “welfare reform,” when considered more broadly to include the new landscape of employment for low-income mothers, has imposed some risks to children’s development.


“The Influence of Early-Life Events on Human Capital, Health Status, and Labor Market Outcomes Over the Life Course”
(with Robert Schoeni)

Published in B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy: Advances, 2011 vol(3), iss. 3.


Using nationally representative data from the US, this study provides evidence on the relationship between early life conditions and cognition, human capital accumulation, labor market outcomes, and health status in adulthood.  We find that poor health at birth and limited parental resources (including low income, lack of health insurance, and unwanted pregnancy) interfere with cognitive development and health capital in childhood, reduce educational attainment, and lead to worse labor market and health outcomes in adulthood.  These effects are substantial and are robust to the inclusion of sibling fixed effects and an extensive set of controls.  The results reveal that low birth weight ages people in their 30s and 40s by 12 years, increases the probability of dropping out of high school by one-third, lowers labor force participation by 5 percentage points, and reduces labor market earnings by roughly 15 percent.  Not only are socioeconomic factors determinants of poor birth outcomes, but they also influence the lasting impacts of poor infant health.  In particular, the negative long-run consequences of low birth weight are larger among children whose parents did not have health insurance.  While poor birth outcomes reduce human capital accumulation, they explain only 10% of the total effect of low birth weight on labor market earnings.  The study also finds that racial differences in adult health can be accounted for by a few early life factors – birth weight, parental income, and parental health insurance coverage – while contemporaneous economic factors account for relatively little of this gap.  Finally, the paper sheds light on the well known strong relationship between education and health outcomes; we find that sibling models that account for time-invariant family factors reduce the effects of education on health substantially, but the remaining effects are large.  Taken together, the evidence is consistent with a negative reinforcing intergenerational transmission of disadvantage within the family; parental economic status influences birth outcomes, birth outcomes have long reaching effects on health and economic status in adulthood, which in turn leads to poor birth outcomes for one’s own children.

The Effects of Male Incarceration Dynamics on AIDS Infection Rates among African-American Women and Men
(with Steven Raphael)

(Published in Journal of Law and Economics, May 2009, 52(2): 251-293.)


In this paper, we investigate the potential connection between incarceration dynamics and AIDS infection rates, with a particular emphasis on the black-white AIDS rate disparity. Using caselevel data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we construct a panel data set of AIDS infection rates covering the period 1982 to 1996 that vary by year of onset, mode of transmission, state of residence, age, gender, and race/ethnicity. Using data from the U.S. Census, we construct a conforming panel of male and female incarceration rates. We use this panel data to model the dynamic relationship between the male and female AIDS infection rates and the proportion of men in the age/state/race-matched cohort that are incarcerated. We find very strong effects of male incarceration rates on both male and female AIDS infection rates. The dynamic structure of this relationship parallels the distribution of the incubation time between HIV infection and the onset of full-blown AIDS documented in the medical and epidemiological literature. These results are robust to explicit controls for (race-specific) year fixed effects and a fully interacted set of age/race/state fixed effects. Our results reveal that the higher incarceration rates among black males over this period explain the lion’s share of the racial disparity in AIDS infection between black women and women of other racial and ethnic groups. The magnitude and significance of these effects persist after controlling for measures of crack cocaine prevalence and flow rates in and out of prison. In a separate analysis, we exploit the occurrence of system-wide state prison overcrowding litigation as an instrumental variable for the flow rate of prison releases. We find short-run increases in prison release rates that were induced by final court decisions on relief of prisoner overcrowding resulted in significant increases in subsequent AIDS infection rates among women and blacks, manifesting 5-10 years following the increase of prison releases.

Health Dynamics and the Evolution of Health Inequality over the Life Course: The Importance of Neighborhood and Family Background

Forthcoming in B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy: Advances (2011).


This paper investigates the extent and ways in which childhood family and neighborhood quality causally influence later-life health outcomes.  The study analyzes the health trajectories of children born between 1950 and 1970 followed through 2005. Data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) spanning four decades are linked with information on neighborhood attributes and school quality resources that prevailed at the time these children were growing up. There are several key findings.  First, estimates of sibling and child neighbor correlations in health are used to bound the proportion of inequality in health status in childhood through mid-life that are attributable to childhood family and neighborhood quality.  Estimates based on four-level hierarchical random effects models (neighborhoods, families, individuals, over time) consistently show a significant scope for both childhood family and neighborhood background (including school quality).  The results imply substantial persistence in health status across generations that are linked in part to low intergenerational economic mobility.  Sibling correlations are large throughout at least the first 50 years of life: roughly three-fifths of adult health disparities may be attributable to family and neighborhood background.  Childhood neighbor correlations in adult health are also substantial (net of the similarity arising from similar family characteristics), suggesting that disparities in neighborhood background account for more than one-third of the variation in health status in mid life. Second, exposure to concentrated neighborhood poverty during childhood has significant deleterious impacts on adult health.  I control for the endogeneity of neighborhood location choice using instrumental variables based on political factors, historical migration patterns, and topographical features.  The results reveal that even a large amount of selection on unobservable factors does not eliminate the significant effect of child neighborhood poverty on health status later in life.  Thus, racial differences in adult health can be accounted for by childhood family, neighborhood, and school quality factors, while contemporaneous economic factors account for relatively little of this gap.

“Health Disparities in Mid-to-Late-Life: The Role of Earlier Life Family and Neighborhood Socioeconomic Conditions” (with Jeannette Rogowski and Robert Schoeni)

Forthcoming in Social Science & Medicine (2011)


This paper investigates the degree to which childhood SES and young adult family, neighborhood, and individual-level factors contribute to adult health disparities in mid-to-late life.  We use correlations based on a nationally representative longitudinal sample of married couples and neighbors followed from young adulthood through elderly ages to estimate bounds on the possible causal effects of young adult family and neighborhood characteristics on general health status in mid-to-late life.  Estimates based on four-level hierarchical random effects models consistently show a significant scope for both young adult family and neighborhood factors.  The estimates suggest that disparities in neighborhood conditions experienced in young adulthood account for up to one-quarter of the variation in health status in mid-to-late life.  While the neighbor correlations must be strictly interpreted as upper bounds, the estimates suggest that neighborhood factors experienced earlier in the life course influence both contemporaneous and future health outcomes.  In particular, we find that living in a high poverty neighborhood during young adulthood has large harmful consequences on mid-to-late life health, while contemporaneous neighborhood poverty is only weakly related to mid-to-late life health.  To probe the robustness of a causal inference, the analysis employs a novel empirical approach, recently proposed by Altonji et al. (2005), to gauge how sensitive estimates of the effects of neighborhood poverty are to selection on unobserved variables.  The results reveal that even a large amount of selection on unobservable factors does not eliminate the significant effect of neighborhood poverty on health status later in life.  Finally, the results indicate that childhood SES and young adult neighborhood and family factors can account for three-quarters of the black-white gap in health status at ages over 55.


“How Much Crime Reduction Does the Marginal Prisoner Buy?” (joint with Steven Raphael), Forthcoming in the Journal of Law & Economics, May 2012 issue.


“Ever-Increasing Levels of Parental Incarceration and the Consequences for Children ”
(Published book chapter in edited volume Do Prisons Make Us Safer? Russell Sage Foundation, editors: Steven Raphael and Michael Stoll)


“The Place of Race in Health Disparities: How Family Background and Neighborhood Conditions in Childhood Impact Later-Life Health”
(Published book chapter in edited volume Neighborhood and Life Chances: How Place Matters in Modern America. University of Pennsylvania Press)


“Landing a Job in Urban Space: The Extent and Effects of Spatial Mismatch”
(Published in Regional Science & Urban Economics)


The spatial mismatch hypothesis proposes that involuntary housing segregation and the increasing suburbanization of less-skilled jobs that has occurred over the past thirty years, have acted to disadvantage inner-city workers' labor market outcomes by isolating them from the labor market opportunities they are most qualified for.  Using a job search theoretic framework, this paper emphasizes the spatial nature of the job search process and analyzes the effects of job accessibility on search duration to gain deeper insights into how the volume, pattern, and efficiency of job search activity are shaped and affected by different spatial labor market conditions.  For this analysis, I merge data from both the household and employer surveys of the Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality in Atlanta, Boston, and Los Angeles--three large MSAs with diverse spatial structures in which high levels of racial residential segregation prevail, and for which the trend of increasing decentralization of less-skilled jobs has been especially pronounced.  Using the employer survey, I develop unique detailed geographic measures of both accessibility to turnover-induced less-skilled job availability and accessibility to employment opportunities generated by net employment growth. 

I find the consistent pattern across all three MSAs that job accessibility for less-educated workers is greatest in predominantly white suburbs more than 10 miles from the centroid of black residential concentration, and that these "job-rich" areas are not served by public transportation.  The regression results indicate that job search behavior and job search outcomes are affected by the interaction of the degree of residential location constraints facing the job seeker and the job searcher's proximity to employment opportunities.  In particular, the regression analysis identifies significant race differences in the effects of job accessibility and reveals that the patterns of racial differences in the effects of job accessibility mirror the patterns of racial differences in the extent of residential location constraints (documented in the residential segregation literature).  I find large effects of job accessibility for less-educated blacks and small insignificant effects for similarly educated whites.  Simulation results show that black's greater sensitivity to local labor market demand conditions contribute significantly to the black-white gap in search durations.  In addition, the decomposition analysis shows that racial differences in the distribution of job accessibility account for one-fifth of the black-white gap in the hazard of successfully completing a job search, and the cumulative effect of racial differences in all the included spatial search-related variables accounts for forty percent of the overall black-white gap.       

(Published in Research in Labor Economics)


I use data from employers and longitudinal data from former/current recipients covering the period 1997-early 2004 to analyze the relationship between job skills, job changes, and the evolution of wages. I analyze the effects of job skill requirements on starting wages, on-the-job training opportunities, wage growth prospects, and job turnover. The results show that jobs of different skill requirements differ in their prospects for earnings growth, independent of the workers who fill these jobs. Furthermore, these differences in wage growth opportunities across jobs are important determinants of workers’ quit propensities (explicitly controlling for unobserved worker heterogeneity). The determinants and consequences of job dynamics are investigated. The results using a multiplicity of methods, including the estimation of a multinomial endogenous switching model of wage growth, show that job changes, continuity of work involvement, and the use of cognitive skills are all critical components of the content of work experience that leads to upward mobility. The results underscore the sensitivity of recipients’ job transition patterns to changes in labor market demand conditions.

(with Mary Corcoran)
(Published in Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Autumn 2003)


In this paper, we analyze the relationships of schooling, the skill content of work experience, and different types of employment patterns with less-skilled women's job quality outcomes.  We use survey data from employers and longitudinal data from former/current welfare recipients covering the period 1997-early 2002.  We broaden the analysis of job quality beyond employment rates and wages measured at a point in time by including non-wage attributes of compensation and aspects of jobs that affect future earnings potential.  This study shows the extent to which a lack of employment stability, job skills, and occupation-specific experience impede welfare recipients' abilities to obtain "good jobs" or transition into them from bad ones.  We find that the business cycle downturn has significantly negatively impacted the job quality and job transition patterns of former/current recipients.