Michael Stepner wins Polanyi Prize in economic science

January 17, 2023 by Cynthia Macdonald - A&S News

Michael Stepner, an assistant professor in the Department of Economics, is the winner of the prestigious Polanyi Prize for his contributions to economic science.

The Polanyi Prize is awarded each year to as many as five researchers from an Ontario university in the early stages of their career. The award is given by the Ontario Council of Universities and is named in honour of John Charles Polanyi, University Professor Emeritus in the Faculty’s Department of Chemistry and recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize.

Stepner, who is also research principal at Harvard University’s Opportunity Insights lab, is an expert on the relationship between health and economic inequality. Analyzing questions on this subject with the assistance of available data, he focuses on how public policy can improve the health and financial security of low-income populations. Over time, his research will prove an invaluable tool in the creation of effective public policy that better supports the health of society’s most vulnerable citizens.

"I am honoured to have my research recognized with the Polanyi Prize and to be included in a group that includes such incredible scientists," said Stepner. "The Polanyi Prize is quite unique in spotlighting the work of academics at the start of our careers, and I'm grateful for the support for my research agenda studying how public policy can reduce disparities in health and financial security."

The award recognizes researchers in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and economic science. This year, all five prizes were awarded to faculty at the University of Toronto.

“I am thrilled to congratulate our Polanyi Prize winners,” says Melanie Woodin, dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science, “because they exemplify the breadth of the scholarship and research in the Faculty — in this case, from the Milky Way Galaxy, to the literature and art of Indigenous writers and artists, to the relationship between health and economic inequality. It is also special because it recognizes individuals who are in the early stages of their careers, meaning we will be seeing exciting work from them for years to come. Congratulations to them all!”

Through his research program, Stepner will develop four major research projects exploring the root causes of economic and health disparities during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. The first project includes developing databases that help identify how income losses, public health policies and new government income support programs shaped mortality and inequities during the pandemic.

The second project will focus on quantifying the long-term evolution of health inequality across high-income countries, using detailed data to uncover which income groups are driving differences in life expectancy across countries and identify the economic, medical and behavioural factors associated with those differences.

Stepner’s third project will examine how the effects of unemployment insurance on consumption and employment vary across groups accessing it, to help inform policies that address the unique needs of their recipients.

His last project will explore the long-term effects of an undergraduate education on disability, longevity and earnings — using the elimination of the Social Security Student Benefit Program in the United States in 1982, which provided financial assistance to more than one in 10 undergraduate students in the country.

"Michael’s research agenda is both creative and socially important and I am delighted to see it recognized with the 2022 Polanyi Prize," said Ettore Damiano, chair of economics. "We are proud to count this bright young economist among the faculty in the Department of Economics, and look forward to many more accomplishments ahead. Congratulations, Michael!

Read about the other A&S Polanyi Prize Winners:

 With files from the Ontario Council of Universities.