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Signe-Mary McKernan
Vice President, Labor, Human Services, and Population
Codirector, Opportunity and Ownership initiative
Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population
We all need public and private safety nets to help us in tough times and get ahead. Yet our research tells us that the United States has large gaps in needed protection, prevention, and opportunity. Big changes are needed to reduce inequality and improve safety nets, but even small steps can create real improvements for today’s struggling families. I believe in the importance of nonpartisan research and love collaborating with the hundreds of Urban Institute experts to inform policy, programs, and the public. Wealth isn’t just for the wealthy. Wealth is where opportunity lies.

Signe-Mary McKernan is vice president for labor, human services, and population and codirector of the Opportunity and Ownership initiative at the Urban Institute. She is a wealth-building and poverty expert with two decades of experience researching access to assets and credit and the impact of safety net programs. She coedited Asset Building and Low-Income Families, coauthored a chapter in the Oxford Handbook of the Economics of Poverty, and advised the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in setting up its research unit. Before joining Urban in 1999, she was lead economist on credit issues at the Federal Trade Commission. She has been a visiting and adjunct professor at Georgetown University and has been on the Center for Responsible Lending Research Advisory Council since 2013.

McKernan has extensive experience leading large projects and using rigorous econometric methods, randomized controlled trials, and administrative and survey data to evaluate programs and policies. Her research has been published in books, policy briefs, reports, and refereed journals, including the American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, Demography, and Review of Economics and Statistics. She has testified before Congress, appeared on NBC4 and Al Jazeera, and been cited in the New York Times, Washington Post, Forbes, and Time.

McKernan’s consumer finance research includes debt, financial products and services, the impact of the Great Recession, racial wealth disparities, individual development accounts, homeownership, and the alternative financial sector. Her poverty-related work evaluates the effectiveness of social programs in improving poverty, self-sufficiency, and material hardship. She has a PhD in economics from Brown University.

Research Areas
Wealth and financial well-being
Social safety net
Race and equity
Taxes and budgets
Inequality and mobility
Opportunity and ownership
Community and economic development
Racial barriers to accessing the safety net