Robinson G. Hollister Jr., longtime economist from Swarthmore College known for his groundbreaking assessment of public policy efforts, dies at 86

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Robinson G. Hollister Jr., 86, a renowned economist and professor at Swarthmore College who designed and conducted the first large-scale social policy assessment involving randomized trials, died on September 14 of complications from a fall in Needham , Massachusetts.

Mr. Hollister was a professor for over four decades at Swarthmore, where he initiated a public policy program and taught labor economics, social economics and econometrics. He was an expert on poverty, welfare reform, health care, and the effectiveness of vocational training, and he led groundbreaking work using randomized trials to evaluate social policies, designed sort of like clinical trials of drugs where some have been treated and some have not. He has served as an advisor to agencies and governments around the world and eventually worked in over 40 countries during his career.

He is perhaps best known for his conception of the New Jersey Negative Income Tax Experiment after joining the United States Office of Economic Opportunity in 1966 as an economist during his war on poverty effort. In this experiment, people were given cash assistance to bring them to a certain level of income, while others were not, and the impact was studied. The tax experiment was ultimately not retained but paved the way for other evaluations of social policies using random trials.

“For Rob, economics was not about theory but about using economic knowledge to inform public policies so that they could improve people’s lives,” said Ellen Magenheim, professor of economics at Swarthmore. . “This commitment was at the heart of his teaching and all other aspects of his professional life.

The work was viewed with some skepticism at first but was widely accepted, and in 2019 the Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to economists who used this method.

“His persistence and logic won the day,” said John Caskey, also professor of economics at Swarthmore.

Growing up in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, Mr. Hollister became interested in economics after writing an essay on farm subsidies that won a newspaper competition. He majored in economics at Amherst College and went on to earn his doctorate at Stanford University, with his career as an international consultant already underway. Prior to Swarthmore, he taught at Williams College and the University of Wisconsin.

An avid swimmer his entire life, he became the New England backstroke champion in college and was a member of the 1000 Lap Club of the Swarthmore Swim Club.

“The joke is that he chose to go to Amherst because there was a nice pool,” said his daughter Matissa Hollister, assistant professor of organizational behavior at McGill University in Montreal.

Both his father and mother gave their children every chance, and Mr Hollister kept a diary in which he wrote how proud he was to hear from teachers that his daughters were kind and welcomed others. children in the classroom, she said. The family lived in Malaysia, France, New York and Berkeley during their research sabbaticals. Matissa Hollister followed in her father’s footsteps, and when she was a doctoral student at Harvard, he came for a sabbatical at the same research office where she was studying.

Known for his teacher’s outfit of shorts and Birkenstocks, Mr. Hollister was as passionate about his teaching as he was about his research, and over the years his students have returned repeatedly to thank him, even in the weeks before his death. .

A student came to visit him in August after finding out he was not doing so well, driving “across Massachusetts, three hours each way, to see him,” said daughter Arusha Hollister, a developer of Boston programs.

Her father always sought to put her children and students in touch with others who could help them in their careers, she said, and encouraged students to get into public policy.

Asked during Donald Trump’s presidency what helpful advice he would give a Swarthmore economics student, he said in a Q&A: “Think seriously about a career in public policy because you can really make a big contribution. … The Trump administration has fired or fired so many capable people and really gutted key parts of the administration. I think at the end of his term there will be an opportunity to start something new and have a real impact.

Although he retired in 2015 at the age of 80 and moved to the Boston area to be closer to one of his daughters, he continued to share his vast knowledge, giving presentations in his retirement community until a few years ago, said Arusha Hollister. He also played his harmonica and sang songs in the hallways and participated in an intergenerational choir with her and her children.

Besides his daughters, Mr. Hollister is survived by his wife of 57 years, Valerie, an artist he met at Stanford; and two grandchildren. The family is planning a service on Zoom at 10 a.m. on Saturday, October 23. For more information, contact [email protected]

The family requests that the gifts be directed to the Robinson G. Hollister Summer Opportunity fund at gift.swarthmore.edu by choosing “other” and entering the fund name.

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