Meet the Scholars: Benjamin Carter


Benjamin Carter is a PhD candidate in political science at Stony Brook University. He is a part of Health Policy Research Scholars Cohort 2018.

Before we begin, tell us a little bit about yourself and what your research interests are.

I was primarily raised in southwest Florida, but I moved to New York to complete my bachelor’s and master’s degrees before starting my PhD here. In my research, I use incentivized economic experiments along with other quantitative methods to study how members of the public think and vote about health insurance, taxation, and social spending.

What’s the story behind why you’re doing what you’re doing? 

My community in southwest Florida is full of wonderful people, but it can be quite politically insular. When I moved to New York, and especially when I became a Health Policy Research Scholar, I was exposed to many great people and ideas that fundamentally shifted how I thought about politics and the proper role of government. For instance, one powerful lesson is that treating marginalized populations and privileged populations equally will likely exacerbate systemic inequities, not repair them. However, even the most well-designed policies will fail to become law if they do not garner political consensus.

As I reflected on these truths, I noticed that people from my community sometimes opposed policies that promote equity and a culture of health even when these policies could have made their own households better off. To understand this puzzle, much of my research focuses on exposing the factors that lead people to vote against their own interests and to support policies that perpetuate systemic inequities.

Tell us about a project you are currently working on that you are excited about.

I am very excited about the projects in my dissertation. My dissertation uses economic games I designed and programmed to answer several questions about why citizens oppose policies that would bring them benefits. In many cases, progressive social programs require raising taxes, so taxation and social spending are a central focus of my dissertation.

In one project, I experimentally test whether people understand who benefits from higher taxes by giving people real money and asking them to vote on how it should be taxed. I find that labeling the program as “taxes” leads many people with low incomes to vote for lower taxes and social spending even though higher taxes would bring them more benefits through redistribution. Interestingly, people make this mistake less often when the same program is labeled as “sharing.”

In another project, I test whether people prefer less redistribution when they believe income is based on merit. In the United States, many citizens believe people’s incomes are determined solely by their effort, rather than by luck or systemic forces. In this experiment, I plan to test whether people prefer lower taxes and less redistribution when income is determined by effort compared to when income is determined by people’s demographic attributes. This study could provide novel experimental evidence that believing incomes are based on merit reduces support for public help.

For people unfamiliar with your research area, what is one piece of information you think is important for them to know? 

We are all biased decision-makers and everyone holds opinions that deserve closer examination. Additionally, political issues can be complex, which can make it tempting to simply pick a favorite political team and to cheer them on. However, our political decisions affect our lives, as well as the lives of others. It is therefore critically important that people challenge themselves to be excellent citizens by questioning their beliefs about politics and by being brave enough to alter their beliefs when needed.

Who is a researcher you admire and why?

I admire Vincent Hutchings because his body of work has helped me understand how race and racism continues to affect people’s political preferences. Although my current work does not directly overlap with Hutchings’, I often cite his work with Nicholas Valentino in conversations regarding race and politics as supporting evidence for my arguments. I am grateful to be able to point to published evidence showing that yes, racism is still guiding policy opinions among whites, and, yes, political elites still use racism and racist cues to generate political support. What is more, I was excited to learn that Hutchings is an alum of RWJF’s previous Scholars in Health Policy Research program!

How has being a Health Policy Research Scholar helped you during your time as a doctoral candidate?

HPRS has given me an unparalleled opportunity to meet brilliant scholars and leaders who fundamentally changed how I related to politics. Beyond this, HPRS has provided experiences ranging from equity and inclusion training to visits with nonprofits, all of which have been immensely valuable for understanding the directions I can take my research and my career. Finally, the stipend and financial support from HPRS have been a godsend and have helped me navigate family crises and stay focused on my work.

In the RWJF HPRS program we have worked with you to help you think further about using your research to develop policy. If you could use your research to change any policy, what policy would it be? 

Though Elizabeth Warren repeatedly argued that Medicare for All would mean people would save money, she was repeatedly asked whether taxes would go up. I would love to see people loosen their grip on the idea that all taxes are bad, and to let go of the idea that higher taxes harm lower- and middle-class households. Ultimately, I see people’s opposition to taxes as a major barrier to many policies I’d like to change, two of which are universal access to health care and better federal funding for low-income school districts.

OK, here’s a fun question to wrap things up. If you could visit any place in the world, where would you choose to go and why? 

When we get COVID-19 under control, I would love to visit Burma (Myanmar). My fiancee was born in Burma, but has not been back for nearly 20 years. She has been dying to show me the delicious food and the beautiful temples!

Thank you so much for your time! 

Benjamin’s bio


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