Duncan Thomas

Norb F. Schaefer Professor of International Studies in Trinity College of Arts and Sciences

External Address: 
Dept of Economics, Soc Sci Building, Box 90097, Durham, NC 27708
(919) 660-1803

Thomas' research interests focus on population health and development. His work delves inside the black box of the family to provide empirical evidence on how resources are allocated within families in very low resource environments and highlights the role of female empowerment in improving the well-being of the next generation. Understanding the mechanisms that explain why healthier people are richer is a theme that runs through much of his research. He implemented a large-scale randomized intervention in Indonesia and established the causal impact of poor nutrition on economic prosperity among adults. Related research examines the impact of unanticipated financial shocks in Indonesia, Russia and the United States on health and well-being. The immediate and longer-term impact of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami on a broad array of indicators of well-being are explored to identify the behaviors and coping mechanisms that are most effective in the aftermath of a devastating disaster. Thomas has invested heavily in the design and implementation of large-scale population-based longitudinal surveys that contribute to the information infrastructure for scientific research. This includes co-directing waves of the Indonesia Family Life Survey (IFLS) and Mexican Family Life Survey (MxFLS). His work has emphasized measurement of health using biomarkers, innovative measurement of economic status and preferences and the importance of minimizing attrition in longitudinal surveys. This includes following migrants who were interviewed in Mexico and have subsequently been interviewed in both the U.S. and Mexico to better understand the causes and consequences of international migration. Thomas' research has been supported by the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, MacArthur Foundation and the World Bank. His work has been published in such journals as the American Economic Review, Journal of Political Economy, Economic Journal, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Demography, Population Studies and the American Journal of Public Health. He was elected Vice President of the Population Association of America and has served on its Board of Directors. He is an elected Fellow of the Bureau for Research on the Economic Analysis of Development (BREAD) and has served as its President. He directs the Development Program at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He has served on the Board of Scientific Counselors at the National Center for Health Statistics and on the Committee on Population at the National Academy of Sciences. He has been a co-editor of the Journal of Development Economics, the Journal of Human Resources and Economic Development and Cultural Change. He is on the editorial board of the American Economic Journal-Applied Economics and the Economics of Human Biology.


  • Ph.D., Princeton University 1986
  • B.S., University of Bristol 1981

Frankenberg, E, Ho, JY, and Thomas, D. "Biological Health Risks and Economic Development." June 2015.

Thomas, D, and Frankenberg, E. "Comments on collecting and utilizing biological indicators in social science surveys." In Biosocial Surveys, 149-155. January 6, 2008. Full Text

Strauss, J, and Thomas, D. "Chapter 54 Health over the Life Course." 3375-3474. 2007. Full Text

Brown, R, Montalva, V, Thomas, D, and Velásquez, A. "Impact of Violent Crime on Risk Aversion: Evidence from the Mexican Drug War." (February 2017).

LaFave, D, and Thomas, D. "Height and cognition at work: Labor market productivity in a low income setting." Economics and human biology (November 5, 2016). Full Text

LaFave, D, and Thomas, D. "Farms, Families, and Markets: New Evidence on Completeness of Markets in Agricultural Settings." Econometrica : journal of the Econometric Society 84, no. 5 (September 2016): 1917-1960.

Ho, JY, Frankenberg, E, Sumantri, C, and Thomas, D. "Adult Mortality Five Years after a Natural Disaster: Evidence from the Indian Ocean Tsunami." (June 2016).

Elo, IT, Frankenberg, E, Gansey, R, and Thomas, D. "Africans in the American Labor Market." Demography 52, no. 5 (October 2015): 1513-1542. Full Text

Nobles, J, Frankenberg, E, and Thomas, D. "The effects of mortality on fertility: population dynamics after a natural disaster." Demography 52, no. 1 (February 2015): 15-38. Full Text

Hamoudi, A, and Thomas, D. "Endogenous coresidence and program incidence: South Africa's Old Age Pension." Journal of development economics 109 (July 2014): 30-37. Full Text

Gillespie, TW, Frankenberg, E, Chum, KF, and Thomas, D. "Nighttime lights time series of tsunami damage, recovery, and economic metrics in Sumatra, Indonesia." Remote sensing letters (Print) 5, no. 3 (January 2014): 286-294. Full Text

Gray, C, Frankenberg, E, Gillespie, T, Sumantri, C, and Thomas, D. "Studying Displacement After a Disaster Using Large Scale Survey Methods: Sumatra After the 2004 Tsunami." Annals of the Association of American Geographers. Association of American Geographers 104, no. 3 (January 2014): 594-612. Full Text

Cas, AG, Frankenberg, E, Suriastini, W, and Thomas, D. "The Impact of Parental Death on Child Well-being: Evidence From the Indian Ocean Tsunami." Demography 51, no. 2 (2014): 437-457.


The Evolution of Well-Being among Older Adults after a Disaster awarded by National Institutes of Health (Co Investigator). 2008 to 2018

Longer Term Effects of a Natural Disaster on Health and Socio-Economic Status awarded by National Institutes of Health (Co Investigator). 2007 to 2017

Health and Well-Being after Large Scale Shocks awarded by National Institutes of Health (Co-Mentor). 2015 to 2017

Integrative Pathways to Health and Illness awarded by The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System (Principal Investigator). 2011 to 2017

Longitudinal Study of Older Adults and their Families in Mexico awarded by National Institutes of Health (Principal Investigator). 2008 to 2014

Doctoral Dissertation Research in Economics: Experimenting with methods that will cut the costs of attrition awarded by National Science Foundation (Principal Investigator). 2012 to 2014

Preferences and Economic Decision-Making awarded by National Institutes of Health (Principal Investigator). 2005 to 2012

Second and Third Waves of the Mexican Family Life Survey awarded by National Institutes of Health (Principal Investigator). 2005 to 2012

Economic Well-being in the Aftermath of the Indian Ocean Tsunami awarded by National Institutes of Health (Principal Investigator). 2009 to 2011