Mayer is the author of several articles and book chapters on the measurement of poverty, the consequences for poor children growing up in poor neighborhoods, and how income affects a child's well-being. Mayer's current research is on the effects of economic inequality and economic segregation on children and adolescents. She is also doing research on how parents pass skills and traits on to their children. She is the author of the book What Money Can't Buy: Family Income and Children's Life Chances and co-editor with Paul Peterson of the book Earning and Learning: How Schools Matter.
Mayer is a former director of the Northwestern University/University of Chicago Joint Center for Poverty Research, which is now operated by the University of Michigan. She was a research associate at the Institute for Policy Studies at Northwestern University before joining the faculty of the Harris School in 1989.