Feb 05

Does unemployment insurance help? Finalist for UNCG’s 3MT explores complicated answer

When she first discovered Three Minute Thesis, Kelsi Hobbs thought it would be good practice if nothing else.

In the annual Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, held at hundreds of universities and institutions worldwide, currently enrolled master’s or doctoral students present their thesis or dissertation research to a non-specialist audience in just three minutes.

“I got an email from the graduate school. They put on the competition every year and they sent out an email about participating,” said Hobbs, a PhD candidate in Economics at the Bryan School. “I’m on the job market this year, so I figured if nothing else, I would have the opportunity to practice talking about my research. I still get nervous presenting my work to people, so I thought this competition would help me prepare for job interviews.”

Originally from New Hampshire, Hobbs had some experience working for a nonprofit in Alabama before coming to North Carolina.

“My nonprofit work in Birmingham really inspired me to go to graduate school. It was a lot of hands-on community development work,” she said. “Some of the work we were doing could have been solved by policy intervention instead of our nonprofit work, and I came (to Greensboro) wanting to study how programs can work better, how programs can lift up marginalized communities.”

For Hobbs, the idea to pursue her PhD came during her master’s studies.

“Doing the master’s program (at the Bryan School) was a great amount of time to decide. Those 18 months really spoke to me, and after being in the department, I thought, ‘I like it here,'” she said. “The professors really knew their stuff.”

A few years ago, Dr. Jeremy Bray, interim department head and Jefferson-Pilot Excellence Professor of Economics, was part of a team that began working on an eviction diversion program, according to Hobbs. She became a research assistant and things took off from there.

“I became really interested in rental housing eviction prevention. I came across an article by Hsu et al. (2018), which suggested that unemployment insurance helped to prevent mortgage foreclosures. I thought, “Well, can it prevent evictions?” said Hobbs. “My research finds that higher levels of unemployment insurance do aid renters by helping to prevent rental housing eviction filings. However, higher benefits also seem to induce landlords to file for eviction more often. As a result, areas with higher levels of benefits also end up having more eviction filings. This program (unemployment insurance) is working, but it also results in this negative spillover.”

Hobbs’ interest in the topic is immeasurable. She says the challenge during the 3MT competition, however, was talking about something complex in a concise, three-minute package. Three Minute Thesis also had a wrinkle this year — the need for socially distanced, pre-recorded videotaped theses.

“The findings are complicated. However, they highlight the idea that when we’re creating programs or policies to correct issues, we really need to know the whole picture,” said Hobbs. “Eviction involves two agents, a tenant, and a landlord. We need to understand both sides in order to create effective eviction prevention programs. When we don’t have a complete picture, we can create new problems.”

Though she didn’t win a top prize, Hobbs was a finalist here in the campus-wide portion of the competition. 

“There were super interesting presentations from many different departments in the Top 10,” said Hobbs. “Nobody else from my department entered, so it was cool to bring economics to the competition and represent the Bryan School. I think economics is sometimes seen as boring, so it was a fun challenge to think of how I could make economics more approachable, accessible, and interesting.”

Hobbs, who used this research when applying for jobs, will begin as an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Maine in August. She says this subject matter will likely inform her research as she moves forward in her career.

“I enjoy research and talking about economics. I am passionate about doing research that is useful and beneficial to the world. I want to keep putting my work out there and showing people how interesting economics can be, whether it’s to my future students or to my followers on Twitter,” Hobbs joked.