Deborah Levison

education; economic development; demography; international development; labor economics; human rights

Deborah Levison holds a doctorate in economics from the University of Michigan, where she also trained at the Population Studies Center. After a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale University, she joined the University of Minnesota’s policy school in 1992. She is a Professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, with 8 teaching awards to her record. Her sabbatical years were spent at the International Labour Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, (2001-2002) and as a technical advisor to the Whole Village Project in Tanzania (2009-2010).She was a member of the advisory committee to the International Labour Office’s division on child labor research and does occasional consulting. Levison is an investigator on the IPUMS-International project, which is dedicated to collecting, preserving, and distributing census data from around the world to researchers, absolutely free, from

Levison studies the work (both labor force and "chores") and schooling of children in low-income countries, typically via quantitative analysis of survey data; recent projects also include qualitative approaches. Levison’s research challenges a number of assumptions about child labor. It calls attention to children’s intermittent labor force work, when policies typically assume adult-like continuous work. Several articles find that there is a substantial bias in thinking and data collection efforts that inform policy, such that girls’ work is consistently overlooked. Another study discredits the “nimble fingers” argument that is often used to explain the prevalence of child labor. Research on economic shocks points to the negative effects on children’s educational attainment of even short unemployment spells of a father. A study of child domestic servants in Latin America demonstrates that estimating live-in child servants is possible there. Her co-authored book, Rights and Wrongs of Children’s Work (2010), explores the place of work in children’s lives and development. Recent projects examine risky child work in urban Brazil, work/school trade-offs in Egypt, and connections between domestic violence and educational progress in Colombia.

While on sabbatical in Tanzania, Levison became interested in connections between environmental sustainability, livelihoods, and the time use of children, women, and men. In 2011, she piloted a study in Kondoa, Tanzania, examining connections between youth’s chores and schooling, on the one hand, and environmental degradation on the other hand.

At the University of Minnesota, Levison has served on dissertation committees in many departments and programs, including Anthropology, Applied Economics, Conservation Biology, Economics, Education Policy and Administration, History, Industrial Relations, Natural Resources Science and Management, Public Health, and Sociology. In addition to her long-term engagement in interdisciplinary training in population studies, she sometimes teaches classes for ICGC Scholars from many disciplines, to prepare them for field work in low-income countries or the US.

Levison has been a co-Principal Investigator on the IPUMS-International Project since its inception. Based at the Minnesota Population Center of the University of Minnesota, IPUMSi collects and distributes census microdata from around the world—for free—for research purposes.

Rights and Wrongs of Children’s Work, authored by an interdisciplinary team of experts, incorporates recent theoretical advances and experiences to explore the place of labor in children’s lives and development. This groundbreaking book considers international policies governing children’s work and the complexity of assessing the various effects of their work. The authors question current child labor policies and interventions, which, even though pursued with the best intentions, too often fail to protect children against harm or promote their access to education and other opportunities for decent futures. They argue for the need to re-think the assumptions that underlie current policies on the basis of empirical evidence, and they recommend new approaches to advance working children’s well-being and guarantee their human rights.

Rights and Wrongs of Children’s Work condemns the exploitation and abuse of child workers and supports the right of all children to the best quality, free education that society can afford. At the same time, the authors recognize the value, and sometimes the necessity, of work in growing up, and the reality that a “workless” childhood, without responsibilities, is not good preparation for adult life in any environment.

Selected Writings

In The Media

Professor Deborah Levison writes a commentary about youth employment featured in the Star Tribune.

Star Tribune
May 31, 2015