Under Secretary for Economic Affairs and Performs the Duties of the Deputy Secretary, Rebecca M. Blank

BlogHer Original Post

Jobs. The economy. Small business. Start-ups. Venture capital. These perennial issues get a lot of play in posts and comments at BlogHer.com. Who better to add to the catalogue of information and affirmation about the role women have in those areas than Dr. Rebecca M. Blank, Under Secretary for Economic Affairs and performs the duties of the Deputy Secretary?

Throughout her career, Dr. Blank has written extensively on family income issues, and on topics related to women’s labor force participation. She has worked on a host of related policies while at the Council of Economic Advisors in the 1990s and through her involvement with various policy advisory committees and boards.

Dr. Blank's biography is expansive and, frankly, a bit intimidating. But through a few questions to which she responded, it's clear that she is incredibly in touch with the challenges we face and the opportunities before us.

BH: Your 1998 book, It Takes a Nation: A New Agenda for Fighting Poverty, was published more than a decade ago and yet it seems as though the choices being contemplated by the Obama administration and the US Congress couldn’t be more entangled in the issues you covered then (and that I know I studied as a sociology and government major in the early 1980s!). So two questions:

What steps do you think hold the most promise for extricating ourselves from these problems?

There’s no magic bullet for reducing poverty. After the recent deep recession, one of the most important things we can do is continue to grow the economy, assuring that jobs are available to all those who seek them. In the past, I’ve written several papers looking at the impact of the macroeconomy on poverty and it’s clear that high unemployment rate is closely correlated with poverty and lower incomes.

For these reasons, President Obama has called for key investments that will make America stronger – in innovation and export promotion so that American business can thrive and so job creation is strong. It’s also why much of the attention of this Administration in its first two years has focused on helping America recover from the deep recession that was in place when we took office. While reforming financial markets might seem a long way from anti-poverty policy, making sure that the financial collapse that occurred in 2008 is never repeated is important to assure jobs and long-term economic growth.

Another key policy response to poverty is assuring that all American children have access to good schools and an adequate education, so that they have the skills needed to work and earn an adequate income for their families. More jobs in the future will require higher education, and investments in education programs are crucial to ensure that the next generation is prepared with the skills they need to succeed in the workplace. The President has called for the preparation of an additional 100,000 science and math teachers, and vowed to make college more accessible and affordable by strengthening our community colleges and permanently extending the American Opportunity Tax Credit. These investments will help achieve the President’s goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

BH: Based on your personal and professional experience, how do and how can women contribute to those problem-solving steps?

More women hold senior professional positions than ever before in the workplace. Women’s lived experiences differ in various ways from men’s lives. This means that women can sometimes bring new perspectives and insights to the table as decision-makers. There is clear evidence that higher-quality decisions occur when they are made by a group that is diverse in background, ideas and experience. As women progress in the working world, we will continue to see the value of their contributions. In particular, women are often more sympathetic to challenges that both men and women can face in reconciling their family responsibilities with their work responsibilities.

A high share of those in poverty are less-skilled single mothers, raising children on their own. Their ability to escape poverty depends upon being able to earn enough while also dealing with full-time child rearing responsibilities. For this group in particular, work-family policies are deeply important, such as accessible and affordable child care, the availability of health insurance, and a work environment that provides some flexibility to parents.

BH: Your professional biographies don’t mention anything about your status as a mother (but an inside scoop told BlogHer.com that you have one teenager), and your professional work, generally speaking, has not focused until more recently on women, children, mothers or parents. Yet in “Michelle Obama’s Balancing Act,” you contributed to the New York Times’ Room for Debate Forum suggesting that the First Lady highlight at least two critical issues: what good employers can do to support families and recognition of the need for quality child care in this country.

What practical suggestions do you have for women who may not have the White House as their perch but still seek to be advocates for those two issues?

Each one of us has a voice and the power to make a difference. I encourage women to be active in their communities and follow their passion. There are numerous excellent non-profit organizations across the country that work with lower-income families and individuals, but they need financial support and volunteers. This administration believes strongly in community service, and I admire and support that. It’s easy to get caught up in our daily lives and forget the struggles that many of our neighbors face every day. All of us can do something that helps. I’ve been volunteering recently in a tutoring program at one of the D.C. public schools, and I view this work as important as the work that I do on weekdays in the Department of Commerce. If we come together, we can make a difference not only for our nation but for the world.

BH: The report, “Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being,” which was created by the Office of Management and Budget and the Commerce Department’s Economics and Statistics Administration, was released early this month in conjunction with March being Women’s History Month. The findings are a bit of a mixed bag in terms of progress for women along many continuums.

Which one or two items from that effort most stand out for you as needing attention and having a good possibility of receiving that attention?

As the report shows, women have made enormous progress on some fronts. Women have not only caught up with men in college attendance but younger women are now more likely than younger men to have a college or a master’s degree. Women are also working more and the number of women and men in the labor force has nearly equalized in recent years. As women’s work has increased, their earnings constitute a growing share of family income.

Yet, these gains in education and labor force involvement have not yet translated into wage and income equity. On average, women earn $0.75 for every $1.00 earned by their male counterparts. In part because of these lower earnings and in part because unmarried and divorced women are most likely to have responsibility for raising and supporting their children, women are more likely to be in poverty than men. These economic inequities are even more acute for women of color.

One reason for lower wages among women is that women work in a very different set of jobs than men and these jobs tend to pay less. I strongly support this Administration's efforts to increase the number of women who are attracted to the so-called 'STEM' (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields is because I think girls need to be encouraged to think more broadly about the possible careers that are open to them. Beyond the United States, these issues are even more pressing. A growing body of research suggests that one of the best policies for long-term development is better education for girls in the developing world. Countries that increase girl's schooling opportunities typically see reduced population growth, improved family health, and higher family incomes.

BH: Since these questions are, after all, for BlogHer.com, could you please offer a few thoughts on your experiences as a woman whose professional life has unfolded in the hard news area of economics?

I’ve seen big changes during my own career. Before going to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to get my doctorate, I had never actually seen a woman with an economics Ph.D. I very clearly remember when President Carter appointed Juanita Kreps as U.S. Secretary of Commerce in 1977. Dr. Kreps was the first economist and the first woman to hold that post and someone whose work I had read, so I noticed when she received a senior political appointment.

While there are still far too few women in tenured positions in economics (only about 10 percent of the Professors of Economics in Ph.D.-producing economics departments are women), there are many more women economists in policy and business-related positions. In fact, I’ve been struck every time I’ve moved to D.C. from a university appointment to take a temporary policy position (which I’ve done three times in my life), at how many women economists there are in this town. At the same time, the conflicts that many women feel between work and family have hardly disappeared. I tell my students that the best thing they can do for their career is to ‘marry well.’ I don’t meet marrying someone who is wealthy (although that may help!) but marrying someone who is fully willing to be a partner in family life and child-rearing.

Great, great responses and insight. Thank you very very much to the Under Secretary for taking the time to share her reflections and ideas, and for her work throughout the years.

Photo Credit: Credit Image: © Wang Fengfeng/Xinhua/ZUMAPRESS.com

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