The University Record, July 6, 1993

Duncan recognized for ‘exceptional scholarly achievement’

By Mary Jo Frank

“A model scientist and colleague” is how other researchers describe Greg J. Duncan, a leading scholar on poverty and income dynamics and co-director of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics project.

Duncan, professor of economics, recently received the prestigious University Distinguished Research Scientist Award, which recognizes “exceptional scholarly achievement on the part of University researchers holding the rank of research scientist.” He will hold the title for the duration of his career at the U-M.

In nominating Duncan, Jerald G. Bachman, interim director of the Survey Research Center (SRC), and Harold K. Jacobson, interim director of the Institute for Social Research (ISR), wrote:

“We have known Greg Duncan throughout his career at ISR and have always admired his clarity and enthusiasm in addressing his own work and other topics. Further, he has invariably been an outstanding citizen of SRC and the Institute. His management of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics has extended its value, both as a national resource and also as a core of continued research effort within ISR.”

The Panel Study of Income Dynamics is a leading national data resource for scientific and policy research on issues of poverty and income dynamics. It also is the model for an international network of such studies, notes James S. House, SRC director and professor of sociology.

The annual survey of a national probability sample of about 7,000 families and 20,000 individuals has been conducted continuously by the SRC since 1968.

“Duncan’s 1984 book, Years of Poverty, Years of Plenty: The Changing Economic Fortunes of American Workers and Families, and many of his subsequent articles and chapters, have become classics, especially important for documenting that while a great deal of poverty is a transient state, it is nevertheless painful and deleterious for individuals, families and society,” House noted in a statement supporting Duncan’s nomination.

Duncan, who joined the SRC as assistant study director in 1972, says “the annual panel survey is an amazing project. The value of the data keeps growing the longer the study goes.”

Duncan credits the genius of James N. Morgan, creator of the study, for much of the its success.

“The really important decisions in designing the study were made by him and the loyal and talented staff he assembled. It was supposed to be a five-year study. He made many brilliant decisions about how to organize information and sample respondents.”

Working with project co-directors Martha S. Hill and James M. Lepkowski, Duncan has made some changes in the study, including recently adding a sample of Hispanics. Duncan is responsible for raising and managing funding, $3 million annually, most of which comes from the National Science Foundation.

Duncan’s office distributes its data annually to more than 100 universities through the International University Consortium for Political Research. The researchers are interested in the dynamic aspects of poverty and social assistance, family demographics and labor-market topics.

Originally a math major at Grinnell College, Duncan switched to economics despite his mother’s observation that “economists are a dime a dozen.”

“Then I started getting interested in real problems. Economics is a powerful way to think about problems,” observes Duncan, who earned a Ph.D. at the U-M in 1974.

“I’m honored by this award,” Duncan says. “The U-M is a wonderful place to do my research. ISR is an absolutely unique research environment.”

He appreciates the democratic way SRC is run. “We collectively make important financial decisions.” The constant need to secure funding also fosters collegiality and creates a stimulating environment, Duncan adds.

When not managing the Panel Study of Income Dynamics or doing his own research, Duncan usually can be found with his wife, Dorothy, and 7-year-old daughter, Ellen, or playing squash at the Intramural Sports Building.

The U-M’s athletic facilities are one of the University’s best fringe benefits, maintains Duncan, who describes himself as “an enthusiastic, if untalented, squash player.”

This summer Duncan is teaching a course in Switzerland on panel surveys for the Statistical Office of the European Community. He also is working with a German colleague comparing welfare dependence in the United States and Germany.

In Germany, benefits are more generous and less stigmatized than in the United States, and yet German recipients do not appear to be more dependent, Duncan says. “We’re trying to figure out why.”