Ney bridges policy and data to understand U.S. income inequality.
April 26, 2021
Jeremy Ney grew up in Brooklyn thinking that the American dream was accessible to everyone. He watched as his grandfather started his own supermarket business from nothing, and as his father helped grow that family business for many years. He watched his mother rise as a lawyer in the public and private sectors through hard work and ingenuity. But when the 2008 financial crisis hit, Ney and his family realized that the door to opportunity could slam shut quickly. Friends and family lost their jobs seemingly overnight, and he remembers biking past shuttered stores that had been in the neighborhood for years.
As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania in the shadow of the Great Recession, Ney wrestled with the social challenges facing America. Why did some people lose their livelihoods from one moment to the next? Why were some able to bounce back while others struggled? What systemic factors determined who succeeded and who didn’t? He studied politics, philosophy, and economics to look across disciplines in search of answers.
After college, Ney joined the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to dive into the institution that was at the epicenter of resolving the crisis. He worked on macroeconomic forecasting and crisis readiness, focusing on everything from “economic meltdowns” to “resiliency of global payments systems” to “North Korean cyber heists” he says. What really spoke to him during his time at the New York Fed, however, was the working group he organized on the widening gap in U.S. economic inequality. But the more he unpacked this problem, the more he realized that new types of solutions were needed.
Ney enrolled in a dual degree program at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management to understand why some achieved the American dream and others were denied it. Channeling the strengths of both programs, he studied data analytics at MIT to explore inequality through a quantitative lens, and at HKS he studied income disparity through a policy lens. While in graduate school, he worked part-time as a financial inclusion fellow at design and innovation firm IDEO—an experience that allowed him to put what he was learning to work.
At the Kennedy School, Ney immersed himself in inequality policy, doing research as the inaugural editor in chief of the Malcolm Wiener Center’s Social Policy Data Visualization Lab. He works closely here with the center’s director, Professor of Public Policy David Deming; Gordon Hanson, the Peter Wertheim Professor in Urban Policy; and Sandra Susan Smith, the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice.
Ney has come to understand that “U.S. income inequality isn’t just about one dominating factor. It’s tied up in so many threads: race and gender and location—but also health care and taxes and education.” To understand and visualize the many dimensions of inequality, he launched a newsletter, “American Inequality,” in which he looks at regional economic divides from many angles. “For example, why do people in parts of South Dakota die 20 years earlier on average than people in parts of Colorado?” Ney asks. “Or why are people in certain Black communities more than three times as likely to die from air pollution than people in white communities? What does the data tell us about these problems and what policies can we implement to drive forward solutions?” While in graduate school, Ney co-founded a startup, Let’s Get Set, to help low-income families access certain tax credits, and he helped launch a nonprofit, No One Left Offline, focused on providing WiFi hotspots to youth in foster care across the United States.
Ney integrates storytelling into every article to make the visualizations come alive. “Data science and data analytics can feel impersonal, often lacking humanity,” he explains. “I don’t just want to present statistics; instead I want readers to see that there are real people struggling with these very real challenges.”
He graduated from MIT last year, where he was the graduation speaker. In his speech, he exhorted his peers, “Be intentional with your time”—advice he takes to heart each day. This May, Ney will be graduating from the Kennedy School, wrapping up his dual degree program.
Ney also looks forward to being closer to his family again soon: He has accepted a job offer with Google in New York City on the company’s product partnerships team. “I’ll be helping them forge partnerships with different types of institutions—state and local governments, educational institutions, with some focus on election work and economic security,” he says. The emphasis will be on “coalition building” and “bringing people together around complex problems to achieve shared goals.”
Ney is excited about interweaving policy and data in this work, and he remains driven by the desire to make the American dream a reality for millions of underserved families.
Portraits by Natalie Montaner