By Lisa Thiegs
Rebecca Blank's undergraduate degree in economics from the U of M launched a career dedicated to social change
As an undergraduate at the university of Minnesota, Rebecca Blank (B.S. '76) enjoyed the courses she was taking for her English major. But once she tried an economics class, she realized economics could take her life in an entirely different direction, one that could bring about social change.
"Taking economics classes gave me a chance to use math skills I had acquired over the years," she says, "and it gave me a chance to think seriously about social problems and issues I cared about."
If she had any doubts about whether she had made the right choice of major, they were dispelled in Walter Heller's introductory economics class. "He communicated that if you know economics, you can make a difference in the world," she says.
Blank knew she was working with outstanding faculty while she was in the program, but it wasn't until she was on her way to graduate school that she discovered just how much they cared about their students. After she graduated from the university, Blank was hospitalized for an illness that delayed her graduate school plans for a year. She was quite surprised when department head Jim Simler came to visit her in the hospital. "I still think about it, and I was so touched by it," she says. "He clearly felt connected to the people from his department, even though I was two years out."
Blank, now dean of the university of Michigan's School of Public Policy, has been heeding Heller's call to make a difference in the world. As a graduate student at MIT, Blank was active in community service, volunteering at a local shelter and soup kitchen. Over the next fifteen years, Blank found her niche in various economics professorships at MIT, Princeton and northwestern, where she also served for a year as director of the Joint Center for Poverty Research. Blank published and edited numerous books and articles that covered topics such as work and welfare reform, labor market dynamics and poverty trends. Her book, "It Takes A nation: A new Agenda for Fighting Poverty", has been widely used in classes and received the 1997 Richard A. lester Prize for
Outstanding Book in labor Economics.
Following major legislative changes in welfare programs in the mid-1990s, her edited volume with Ron Haskins, "The new World of Welfare", provided information to policymakers and researchers about the effects these changes were actually having. In a series of papers, Blank demonstrated that these policy changes led to large increases in work among single mothers and reduced their welfare use. "The U.S. has changed from a monthly cash support system for low-income families to one based on work," Blank says. "This has had many good effects, but it also has created new challenges for mothers who face problems finding adequate child care or who find themselves in unstable jobs. In my work, I've tried to point out the real successes of welfare reform while still recognizing that many single mothers have limited earnings and remain poor."
While most of her career has been spent in the academic arena, she also served on the Council of Economic Advisers, once as a senior staff economist during the first Bush administration in 1989, and later as a President-appointed member during Clinton's second term. While on the council, she advised the White House on such issues as a minimum wage increase, Social Security reform and welfare reform.
Blank, also co-director at the university of Michigan's national Poverty Center, helps initiate research that provides information to advocacy groups and policy analysts. She says that one of the biggest issues right now is the effect of large incarceration rates on low-income families. Many men with a prison record returning to low-income communities have difficulty finding a job. This limits their income and the ways in which they can support their children, who are often raised by single mothers. "We need to focus on jail-to-work efforts and find ways to reintegrate the incarcerated back into the community," she says.
Blank, the 2005 recipient of the university's Outstanding Alumni Achievement Award, tackles tough issues every day and doesn't balk when she's faced head-on with economic and social quandaries. She lives by following her passion and tells others to do the same: "Go out and do something you find deeply engaging."