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Rebecca Blank:"Always remember that measurement matters."

  • Tue, Jun 1 2010

On May 13, 2010, Rebecca M. Blank was inducted as the Eleanor Roosevelt Fellow of the Academy at the Newseum in Washington, DC. While inducting her, Fran Blau noted that Blank’s scholarship “combines a deep concern about social issues with passion for unbridled intellectual inquiry and a deep commitment to objectivity and even-handedness. Through her research we have gained fundamental insights into the nature of poverty and the impact of the macroeconomy and social policy on the behavior and well-being of low income families”. The following is a transcript of Rebecca Blank’s remarks.

    • Rebecca Blank with Francine Blau
  • Rebecca Blank:"Always remember that measurement matters.", Rebecca M. Blank's Remarks
  • Rebecca Blank:"Always remember that measurement matters.", Francine Blau’s induction

“Eleanor Roosevelt has been one of my heroes for many, many years. It is a deep honor to receive this award and particularly an award with this particular name. Good politicians are often artful at using phrases that seem to have great substance but are a little vague on the details. This, of course, allows folks with widely different opinions to think the politicians are talking to them. For instance, some of the more effective currently vague phrases are: “The need for deficit reduction,” “The importance of healthcare cost containment,” or “Movement towards a clean energy economy.” It is hard to be against such things, but the devil is in the details of what those phrases might actually mean.

Good social scientists are trained to think rigorously about words and their meanings. As an empirically trained economist, I have been taught if you cannot define it and measure it, it is not a useful concept. A great deal of social science literature focuses on defining and measuring concepts in ways that shed light on their implications. So, to pick a few topics that I have worked on, “what does welfare dependence mean and what would you look for in the data to prove whether it exists or not?”, or “how do you know if gender or racial differences that you are observing should actually be labeled discrimination?” These measurement topics are interesting because they place the researcher right at the intersection between academic and policy conversations. Policy-makers care deeply about how concepts get defined and academic research that proposes a particular way to put flesh on the bones of a vague political phrase can be both useful and controversial.

Let me talk briefly about an example I have been involved with for more than two decades. Poverty is a term that politicians use in many ways. But the measurement of poverty requires precision. Here in the United States our official definition of poverty, which was constructed in the 1960s as part of the War on Poverty effort, focuses on a relatively narrow definition based on cash income. This definition has become steadily less useful in the almost five decades since it was first utilized. I have been involved in the academic conversations about better ways to measure poverty, including service on a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel in the mid-1990s that proposed an alternative approach. And I have been involved in conversations about changing the poverty rate in three previous administrations. I became involved in these conversations in the current Obama administration even before I went to work for them.

This past February, the Obama administration announced a new initiative that has asked the Census Bureau to report a supplemental poverty measure alongside the official poverty measure, starting in the fall of 2011. This measure will closely follow the recommendations of the NAS panel, modified and informed by more recent research.

Why does an alternative definition matter? For the first time, the supplemental poverty measure will include the effects of tax policy, in-kind benefits, childcare, housing, and health supplements in measuring people’s resources. In the past, many policies that affected low-income families simply had no affect on poverty. This allowed politicians to declare that anti-poverty policies were ineffective. But, of course, the problem was not that the policies had not reduced poverty. The problem was that the official measure could not possibly have been affected by these policies so we really did not know whether they were effective or not. The supplemental poverty measure should provide a clearer statistic by which to track the effects of public policy on the economic well-being of low-income families.

Let me be clear—this is a new measure, not a new policy, but it will tell a different story over time about who is poor and where poor people live. Over time, different ways of seeing—different measures of poverty—can influence the policies that we adopt.

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. One of the reasons why economists are so often invited into government service is because they are good at measuring and defining. Of course, in Washington DC this can be dangerous. Once key policy questions are more precisely defined, it becomes quite clear exactly who the winners or losers might be. 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!”

Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are solely the opinions of the individuals and not those of the Academy.