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Women of the Year: Vange Ocasio Hochheimer on working towards an ‘economy that works for everyone’

Vange Ocasio Hochheimer, an economics professor at Whitworth University, owns her own economic analytics firm and has come a long way since growing up in Puerto Rico and New York City as one of eight in a household led by a single mother. She is focusing on policy and how economics can help alleviate inequities in society.   (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

You could say that Vange Ocasio Hochheimer has hit her stride, but that doesn’t really begin to explain how the Puerto Rican economist came to be a professor, board member for various local organizations and a new business owner in the Inland Northwest.

At first glance, Hochheimer is a tenured economics professor at Whitworth University, and has taught there since 2011. She takes students to Costa Rica and Panama some years for a course, striving to help students gain understanding of poverty, wealth and how economics impacts everyone.

She is a wife and mother of two young boys. The family of four lives in north Spokane, and they have lived in the area for about a decade.

In reality, her involvement in the community runs deep and continues to grow. She opened her own independent firm, Grand Fir Analytics, early in 2020 before the pandemic set in. Hochheimer recently completed one of her first projects, a report on housing as a social determinant of health in Spokane completed for the Spokane Association of Realtors.

“It was a call to action to policymakers to pay attention to this issue because (housing instability) can definitely deepen poverty and deepen homelessness,” she said.

The report details how housing instability can lead to adverse health outcomes, including more poverty and homelessness when economic stability is threatened or destroyed.

Hochheimer’s work grows not only out of her love of economics, but also out of her own lived experience.

She was born in New York City but as a toddler, she and her twin sister moved to Puerto Rico to live with their grandparents. While her grandparents were not educated, Hochheimer remembers their work ethic and their commitment to other people as key to her upbringing. One of her formative memories occurred while living with her grandparents in Toa Baja, about 25 minutes west of San Juan.

It was some sort of promotion ceremony, Hochheimer remembers, maybe from elementary school to middle school. She received no additional recognition or awards for her school performance, and she felt shorted by herself.

“I remember on graduation day not receiving a medal or any kind of recognition and telling myself, ‘I can get recognition; I am smart enough,’ ” she recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘I need to work harder.’ I put myself to the test.”

Her hard work paid off, and she reached her goal of achieving a 4.0 grade-point average her next semester. She learned a valuable lesson that day.

“If you put in the work, you will get really good results,” she said, although she acknowledges that’s not a consistent formula. “It doesn’t mean you won’t fail,” she added.

That determination remained a deep part of who Hochheimer is to this day.

“I owe everything I am first to God, then to my grandparents,” she said.

She and her twin sister returned to New York City when they were 12 years old. She recalls hard years, and even a point when their mother who worked constantly (and had eight children; she and her sister were the youngest) could not afford rent anymore, and they were evicted.

Hochheimer believes that growing up in two distinct settings and seeing how economics played a role in her environment led her to later make that her field of study.

“I became acquainted with income inequality and poverty and all of these issues with the economy,” she said. “Sometimes the economy can work better for some than for others.”

Hochheimer said that those disparities she saw early on led her to questions of “Why are some people poor and why are others rich?” and “What aspects of their lives make them poor or rich?”

Hochheimer and her sister worked hard in both school and after school at retail jobs. Eventually, after graduation, Hochheimer went to Binghamton University in upstate New York and her sister returned to Puerto Rico. After receiving her undergraduate degree in pre-law and philosophy, Hochheimer returned to New York City and worked on Wall Street for an investment bank, but eventually decided she wanted something different.

She settled on pursuing economics in the form of first a master’s degree, then a doctoral degree, focusing on economic development, international trade and sustainability.

“I decided that economics was a discipline that gave me a lens to where I can dip in and out of different branches of business while also considering social issues,” she said.

At Colorado State University, where she studied economics, she met her husband, Manny Hochheimer. They spent some time in Colorado, as she finished her dissertation and taught courses in Denver. They wanted to stay in the West, and after having their first son, Noah, and finishing her doctoral degree, Hochheimer applied for the position at Whitworth. They moved their family to Spokane about a decade ago, and added another son, Luca, to their family.

She was tenured a couple of years ago, and serves on multiple community boards, from the YWCA in Spokane to the Catholic Charities Housing Board of Directors in Eastern Washington.

Her love of economics is inclusive, and understanding what keeps certain communities and people from accessing jobs, housing or education is integral to understanding how the economy works for her.

“Everything I do is connected to this perspective of: making the economy work for everyone,” she said.

Her graduate research focused on sustainable development, focusing on development respecting the environment and people it will impact. In a way, her research became her work, and is also reflected in the boards she is a part of.

She sits on the Inland Northwest Land Conservancy board as well as the state Department of Commerce Community Economic Revitalization Board, representing Spokane on a state board that helps allocate funding for development projects.

The question she focuses on asking and answering is, “How can the economy develop successfully while at the same time preserving the well-being and dignity of people and the environment?”

Hochheimer, who has primarily played the role of researcher, is looking to aim that work toward policy implications moving forward. Of course, the Spokane economy post-COVID-19 could look very different.

Before the pandemic, Hochheimer had analyzed available jobs in the state and found that there were labor demands for technological jobs but a shortage of workers to fill those roles. While those problems will persist after the pandemic, she is concerned about the inequities illuminated by the coronavirus.

“I think we need to reassess the impact of the pandemic; it is disproportionately affecting people of color, indigenous populations and the poor,” Hochheimer said.

After the pandemic, “that will deepen, the housing crisis will deepen,” she said, noting that if the eviction moratorium is lifted, homelessness could become a reality for many local families.

“I think the reopening should strike to reach a balance between all the different demographics that were affected and think strategically, because if we neglect certain populations, that could create a host of impacts,” she said.

As for her future? She’s just getting started.

“Policy work is what I will be pursuing very heavily going forward, and seeing how my contributions can help our community thrive,” she said.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.