As a boy listening to his mother’s stories, Zach Parolin didn’t realize how fortunate he was. Both of his parents grew up in poverty. His mother at one point was homeless. After being adopted as a teen by a middle-class family, she gained her footing, made it to Mizzou, and achieved prosperity.
But the odds she would break the cycle of poverty were never certain.
“It has inspired me to understand why so many others don’t escape the grasp of poverty in childhood,” Parolin says.
A year after graduating with a Bachelor of Journalism from Mizzou, Parolin was working for the U.S. government, crunching performance data from federally funded children’s health programs.
The work was intriguing, but Parolin wanted to go deeper. Needing better analysis skills, Parolin applied for a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University in England to earn a master’s degree in social policy.
He was not selected for Rhodes, but he made it to Oxford anyway as the inaugural recipient of the Mark Twain Fellowship.
In that international setting, he was stimulated by learning about the different policy approaches other governments use to address poverty. And while writing his thesis, he realized how much he liked research.
“I thought I would be one year at Oxford, then go back to D.C.,” Parolin says. “It was that thesis experience that pushed me into a research program.”
After Oxford, Parolin earned a doctorate in socioeconomics from the University of Antwerp in Belgium, then did a postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University in New York. He is now an assistant professor of social policy at Bocconi University in Milan, Italy.
As an academic leading an international research group, he was able to pivot during the pandemic and earn international attention for identifying the poverty-reduction effects of U.S. policy interventions.