By University of Arizona
The Great Recession has forced state governments to confront constituent demands and budget shortfalls on a scale not seen since the Great Depression — which makes understanding the dynamics between federal and state funding during the 1930s of particular interest today.
Thanks to support from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, six undergraduatestudents are working on a research project that examines those dynamics with economic historian Price Fishback, Thomas R. Brown Professor of Economics. Fishback and doctoral candidate Theresa Gutberlet are supervising the undergraduates, who are completing the project as honors theses.
“In terms of hard data, there is a gap in published, detailed information about state revenues and expenditures between 1932 and 1937,” explained Gutberlet. “We are trying to fill in this gap state by state using first-hand reports from state comptrollers and finance departments.”
The students each selected a state to focus on. “They are entering and analyzing government financial data and looking for newspaper and academic articles about the their state during the Great Depression era,” Gutberlet said.
“Many states at this time were having budget issues, and our project is to see what was happening politically, socially, and financially within each state,” said economics and mathematics junior Raghu Menon. “So far, I have done research on the political climate within a state, as well as analyzed the data.”
“I’ve been looking at financial data for the state of California and compiling that data into a single workbook,” said economics senior Claire Zimmerman. “I’ve also been spending a ton of time in the library reading newspapers, journal articles, and books — I’m trying to construct a narrative that explains the financial changes that show up in the data.”
Apart from helping her develop skills in financial analysis, Zimmerman said, “It’s also been a good opportunity to take the economic theory that I’ve learned in the classroom and apply it to a real-world scenario.”
Fellow economics senior Kenny Ho agreed: “It is really about applying a lot of what I have learned in my previous economic courses.”
“I’ve never done a research project like this before,” said economics senior Kristen Walsh. “It is something that I wouldn’t do in my other classes.”
Walsh’s state of focus is Iowa. “I’m looking at how the state generated revenue, changed tax structures, and the like to cope with the economic difficulties of the time,” she said.
“The students’ tasks are not easy, since we are the first research team trying to collect this kind of data from the Great Depression years,” Gutberlet added. “I am supervising data entry and analysis, so I make sure that they don’t get lost in their spreadsheets and don’t get too frustrated when the numbers don’t add up.”
Gutberlet and Fishback plan to use the undergraduates’ results in combination with data from other states to paint a picture for the U.S. as a whole. “The project is still in its early stages, so we are very much exploring the data together with the undergraduates,” she said. “For me, this project is my first research on U.S. economic history. I am from Germany and my dissertation is focused on German industrialization in the 19th century, so my experience is more European. But living and working in the U.S., I understand this project is a great opportunity to learn more about American economic and political history.”
“Through this project, I feel that I am getting a small experience of what our professors do,” Menon added. “It’s also a lot of fun to see how this project is relevant to our times, considering the current state of affairs of most states.”