2012 News

CSD announces asset-building expert Michal Grinstein-Weiss as associate director

Dr. Michal Grinstein-Weiss is the newly appointed associate director of the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis. 

Grinstein-Weiss is a nationally and internationally recognized expert in the field of asset building whose research focuses on developing programs and policies to promote economic and social development of vulnerable groups. Well known amongst her colleagues as someone who brings boundless energy and keen insight to her work, a keystone of Grinstein-Weiss’ career is her capacity to build connections with researchers, policy makers, foundations, and practitioners. Her ability to use her worldwide network to forge collaborations among diverse partners will add a new dimension to the work of the Center. Currently, Grinstein-Weiss is collaborating on ground- breaking studies that examine innovative ways to increase savings and to promote financial security of American households.

She brings to CSD a breadth of new work in the asset-building field, including studies in the areas of tax-time, emergency and college savings.

“The overarching objective of my research is to develop empirical evidence to inform the development of innovative policies and strategies to help low-income people climb the economic ladder,” Grinstein-Weiss said. “I aim to conduct large-scale research that will improve financial security for all American households, universally, building savings over the course of their lives.”

Prior to coming to CSD, Grinstein-Weiss was teaching and conducting research at the School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she established her own research unit, the Assets Building Research Group. Key members of that research team have joined her in St. Louis to continue their work with her at CSD. In her role as associate director, Grinstein-Weiss will lead CSD research teams in examining how to encourage more Americans to save at tax time, investigating programs and policies to promote emergency savings, evaluating an innovative program to boost college savings and continuing her work to promote Universal Savings Accounts in Israel.

The Refund to Savings Initiative (R2S)—the largest savings experiment conducted in the United States to date—is a collaboration of Grinstein Weiss’ team and researchers from Duke University with corporate partner Intuit, Inc., the makers of TurboTax software that is used by millions of Americans. This project is responsible for designing, launching and testing a forward-looking program that builds a savings opportunity into the TurboTax Free File software that will be available online to low- and moderate-income tax payers. Because the tax refund is often the largest lump sum of disposable income that households receive in a year, the R2S researchers see tax time as a golden moment to promote saving a portion of the refund. Grinstein-Weiss will lead CSD researchers in examining several options built into the tax-filing software and determining the effect of those options on increasing savings at tax time.

Grinstein-Weiss’ expertise has gained international recognition, and she has been asked to consult on asset-building initiatives in several countries. The Israeli government asked her to lead a project designing a universal program of children’s savings account. After the program design earned the endorsement of the Isaac Herzog, minister of social affairs, and Esther Dominissini, director general of the National Insurance Institute, legislation to enact the plan moved to the Knesset, the legislative branch of the Israeli government. At CSD, Dr. Grinstein-Weiss is continuing to influence this work in Israel and designing a national pilot that can test the policy.

Grinstein-Weiss is currently leading a project, the Emergency Savings Program, funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Whether through natural disasters, illness, job loss, or economic recessions, increasing numbers of American households are finding themselves without a safety net of emergency savings. The Pew Trust has asked CSD to identify opportunities and obstacles to emergency savings, and to explore policy approaches that will enhance the economic security of the American family. Grinstein-Weiss will collaborate with Ray Boshara, senior advisor to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, to lead a team researching emergency savings, developing policy recommendations, and guiding Pew’s work on the topic.

Under Grinstein-Weiss’ leadership, CSD will be part of the $16.5 million evaluation of the Gaining Early Awareness for Undergraduate Program (GEAR UP). Sponsored by the Department of Education, GEAR UP takes a unique approach to boost college education among low-income students. GEAR UP combines traditional mentoring and tutoring programs with an innovative savings plan to help students build college savings and avoid high student loan debt. ABT Associates selected Grinstein-Weiss as a subcontractor to conduct the evaluation of the college savings account component of GEAR UP.

Grinstein-Weiss, a native of Israel, received a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in social work at the University of Haifa. She came to the United States in 1999, and simultaneously earned a PhD in social work at Washington University and a master’s in economics at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. Grinstein-Weiss began working with CSD during her first semester at the Brown School and continued contributing to CSD through several months of post-doctorate work. In 2005, she accepted her first faculty position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH).

Over the past seven years, Grinstein-Weiss maintained close contact with her mentor at CSD, Dr. Michael Sherraden, with whom she has partnered on several projects. When the opportunity arose to return to CSD as the associate director, Grinstein-Weiss said it was an offer that was hard to pass up.

“It’s the best opportunity anyone can be offered—to work with someone you respect and admire,” Grinstein-Weiss said. “Michael and I kept in touch throughout the years, and I look forward to working closely with him again. I look forward to all of the meaningful work we will embark on together.”

In addition to her role as associate director of CSD, Grinstein-Weiss serves as an associate professor in the Brown School, a Brookings Institution Nonresident Senior Fellow, a research associate for the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland and a fellow for the Center of Community Capital, and she still holds a faculty appointment at UNC. She moved to St. Louis with her husband, Modi Weiss, and her three sons, Ron, Gil and Ziv.