Rebecca “Becky” Blank, an economist and administrator whose career spanned academe and the policy world, died of pancreatic cancer February 17 near Madison, Wisconsin. She was 67.
Blank’s career in labor economics saw her advise three United States presidents. She taught at various universities and was chancellor emerita of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her work described connections between the labor market, macroeconomics, poverty and government policy.
Blank advocated to improve how poverty is measured. She felt measuring poverty would help determine how public policy and government assistance impact low-income families. Among her signal policy achievements was the restructuring — and then the enactment — of America’s “Official Poverty Measure” to be more accurate of the breadth of poverty in the United States.
“One of the important roles of social science is to provide useful and measurable definitions of concepts that are out there in the political discourse,” she said in a 2010 interview with the American Academy of Political and Social Science (AAPSS). “One of the reasons why economists are so often invited into government service is because they are good at measuring and defining…In short, the work is not always appreciated, but it is absolutely necessary if we are going to turn political rhetoric into actual policy ideas and implementation. Always remember that measurement matters!”
AAPSS named Blank its Elanor Roosevelt Fellow in 2010 and Daniel Patrick Moynihan Prize Winner in 2015. She received numerous other awards during her lifetime, including being a distinguished fellow of the American Economic Association.
Blank was born Sept. 19, 1955, in Columbia, Missouri, and spent her childhood in Michigan, Missouri and Minnesota. She attended the University of Minnesota and graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1976. She continued to study economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she earned her Ph.D. in 1983.
Throughout her career, she published about 100 articles and several books, most identifying approaches to reduce poverty and inequality. Her 1996 book, It Takes a Nation: A New Agenda for Fighting Poverty, won the 1997 Richard A. Lester Prize for the Outstanding Book in Labor Economics and Industrial Relations.
Blank also used her fiscal knowledge to impact policy. She served as a senior staff member on the Council of Economic Advisors during George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton’s administrations. She also worked as deputy secretary and acting commerce secretary under former president Barack Obama.
“Learning how to politically navigate D.C. is not unhelpful when you’re running a university,” she told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last year. “Everything at some point comes down to a certain amount of political negotiation.” She was chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 2013 to 2022. A significant accomplishment under her direction was the Bucky’s Tuition Promise program, which guarantees scholarships or grants for students with household incomes at or below $65,000.
She left her role as chancellor to become the first female president at Northwestern University. However, the president-elect stepped down when she was diagnosed with cancer the day she was to start her new post.
Blank had also been dean of the University of Michigan School of Public Policy and was also a professor at Princeton University, Northwestern University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Dr. Blank’s four years serving in my administration was just one part of her extraordinary life,” said former president Barack Obama in a statement on Twitter. “Whether in government or academia, she devoted her career to reducing inequality and increasing opportunities for others, and made everyone around her better.”
Blank is survived by her husband, Hanns Kuttner, and daughter Emily Kuttner.