The Weatherhead East Asian Institute welcomes Qin Gao, Professor of Social Policy and Social Work at the Columbia School of Social Work (CSSW) and Faculty Affiliate of the Columbia Population Research Center and WEAI. Professor Gao, who joined Columbia’s faculty in the fall of 2016, is also an Academic Board Member of the China Institute for Income Distribution at Beijing Normal University and a Public Intellectual Fellow of the National Committee on United States-China Relations. Before joining the faculty of CSSW, she was a Professor and Coordinator of International Initiatives at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service. Professor Gao’s current research examines the following topics: 1) the Chinese welfare state in transition: size, structure, and redistributive effects; 2) effectiveness and impacts of Dibao, China’s primary social assistance program, and other anti-poverty policies and programs; 3) gender inequality in time use in China and beyond; 4) social protection for rural-to-urban migrants in China and Asian American immigrants; and 5) cross-national comparative social policies and programs.
Read below for a Q&A about Professor Gao’s research and teaching interests:
What led you to your career as an academic and social policy researcher?
I lived with my paternal grandparents growing up. They both cared about social issues in their own ways, which had a profound impact on me. My grandmother, who was illiterate, was one of the most empathetic people I have ever known. She was always ready to listen and offer help, be it to a relative, a neighbor, or a stranger. I deeply admired her quiet, positive energy and was determined to pursue work that would promote human wellbeing and social justice. My grandfather, who was a government official, cared a lot about social and political affairs—local, national, and international—and was constantly reading or discussing them. From him, I understood that policy changes were not abstract; they were real and could improve or damage people’s lives.
In college, I was among the first cohorts of students to major in social work. While I appreciated the power of direct practice in serving individuals, groups, and communities, I decided to pursue a career in social policy research, with the goal of enhancing human livelihood through rigorous research and advocating for the most effective policy changes.
How did you decide to focus your research on issues of poverty, social assistance, and rural-to-urban migration in China?
China has had significant economic growth and poverty reduction in the past four decades. The other side of this story, however, is the rapid increase in income and wealth inequality, which has left behind the urban and rural poor as well as rural-to-urban migrants. My research focuses on the living conditions and survival strategies of these populations, and examines the effectiveness of social policies that aim to provide a safety net for the poor and increase social protection for migrants.
Your new book, Welfare, Work, and Poverty: Social Assistance in China, was recently published by Oxford University Press. What are some of your main findings in it?
This book offers a systematic and comprehensive evaluation of the impact of China’s primary social assistance program, Dibao, or the Minimum Livelihood Guarantee. Despite significant expansions in both urban and rural areas over time, Dibao assistance standards remain low, manifesting its fundamental role as a last-resort, bare-minimum safety net program. Dibao’s effectiveness in alleviating poverty is at best modest, largely due to its targeting errors and gaps in benefit delivery. Dibao recipients face a variety of barriers to work, leading many to be unwillingly labeled “welfare dependents.” Dibao recipients also tend to live a more isolated and detached life and engage in fewer leisure and social activities than their non-recipient peers. Needless to say, many improvements can be made in Dibao’s policy design, implementation, and coordination with other programs to fulfill its anti-poverty goal. In the book, I propose a series of policy solutions that can help make such improvements.
How do you envision your role as a faculty member of WEAI?
Joining WEAI as a faculty member is a kind of homecoming for me. I earned my Ph.D. degree from Columbia School of Social Work in 2005. WEAI awarded me the V. K. Wellington Koo Fellowship, which enabled me to concentrate on the writing during the last stage of my dissertation. I believe it was the first time in the history of WEAI that this prestigious fellowship was awarded to a social work Ph.D. student. My dissertation, honored with Distinction, was one of the first studies to quantify the size, structure, and redistributive effects of the Chinese social welfare system. I remain enormously grateful for the support, and am glad to return as a faculty member. It’s thrilling to be able to pay this generosity forward by mentoring and supporting the next generation of scholars.
Looking ahead, I plan to be an active WEAI member and contribute to the scholarship, programs, and community building of the Institute. I would particularly like to assist in the development of the Master of Arts in Regional Studies–East Asia (MARSEA) program by engaging with students who are interested in social transformations and policy issues in East Asia.
What aspects of teaching at Columbia excite you? What classes do you teach?
Many aspects of teaching at Columbia excite me. I’ll highlight two: the students, and the interdisciplinary nature of many courses. Columbia students are bright, aspiring, and hardworking. They come from diverse backgrounds and are eager to learn and change the world. I have enjoyed the stimulation and inspiration from my students and always look forward to interacting with them.
Most courses I teach are interdisciplinary by nature. I am teaching two courses this semester. One is an advanced seminar on poverty, inequality, and public policy. This course examines the causes, contexts, and consequences of poverty and inequality, and evaluates the impacts of various public policy responses. The most important and exciting part of the course is that students work to complete a research paper cumulatively throughout the semester, from question formulation to data analysis and writing up conclusions and discussion. The current cohort of students chose to examine issues in China, Korea, Iraq, and the US, and we enjoy pushing and learning from each other every week as each paper gets developed.
The other course I currently teach is research methods and statistics for policy practice, a hands-on experience of addressing policy questions across nations through analyzing large-scale survey data. This course is similarly enriching and exhilarating to me. In the future, I would also like to offer a course on Chinese social policy and social development and attract a group of students from across disciplines who are interested in these issues.