IRP Honors the Life and Legacy of Former UW Chancellor and IRP Affiliate Rebecca Blank

UW Chancellor Blank is pictured in Bascom Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on January 13, 2022. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

Reflections from current and past IRP Directors on the passing of Rebecca Blank

Rebecca Blank, Who Changed How Poverty Is Measured, Dies at 67, New York Times, 3/9/2023

Katherine Magnuson, Vilas Distinguished Professor of Social Work, University of Wisconsin–Madison, IRP Director

UW Chancellor Blank is pictured in her office in Bascom Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on January 13, 2022. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

We were deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Rebecca Blank. Becky was an exceptional leader, scholar, and friend. She was brilliant, generous, and kind. From her early connection with us as a Visiting Fellow in the UW–Madison Department of Economics and here at IRP, through her years as an IRP Affiliate, to her support as UW Chancellor, we have appreciated and benefited from her scholarship, leadership, and friendship. We extend our heartfelt sympathy to her husband Hanns, daughter Emily, and her family and friends who are mourning her loss.

Lawrence Berger, Associate Vice Chancellor for Research in the Social Sciences, Vilas Distinguished Professor of Social Work, University of Wisconsin–Madison, former IRP Director

Becky Blank was a true visionary and role model who I am honored to have known and worked with closely. She tirelessly fought the good fight for all that she believed in. Her pathbreaking scholarship informed actionable policies for reducing poverty and inequality, for which she fiercely advocated in her various government and nongovernmental roles. Her commitment to UW and its Institute for Research on Poverty was unwavering, as was her commitment to our nation, state and community, as demonstrated locally by her leadership in the DreamUp Wisconsin initiative. Her legacy will live on through her many contributions to the world.

Tim Smeeding, Lee Rainwater Distinguished Professor of Public Affairs and Economics, LaFollette School of Public Affairs, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Former IRP Director

UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blanks speaks during her presentation at the UW System Board of Regents meeting hosted at Union South at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Feb. 6, 2020. (Photo by Bryce Richter /UW-Madison)


I met Becky Blank in 1982 at a conference discussing a report that I completed for the Census Bureau on the effect of in-kind benefits on poverty. We became friends and colleagues, reading each other’s work over the next several decades, and finally co-authoring a paper together with Bob Haveman and others in 2015.

Becky was bright, effective, and her work was always policy relevant. She initiated multiple policy ideas for reducing poverty and effectively gauging the effects of policy on poverty and inequality, the most important of these being the initiation of an official government measure which included in-kind benefits.

Becky Blank was a long-time anti-poverty warrior who enriched IRP which she visited in the 1980s and where she contributed greatly to work on ways in which public policy could help reduce poverty among the working poor. Her many books and papers in the 1990s and early 2000s pointed to ways in which government could offer work supports and targeted benefits to reduce poverty. Of course, it would be important for government to measure the impact of these benefits on poverty as well. And it was Becky who, in 2009, as Under Secretary for Economic Affairs at the US Department of Commerce, created and implemented the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM). The measure was based on her 2008 Presidential address to the Association for Public Policy Analysis & Management (APPAM) and was the measure that first showed the effect of government tax and benefit policy, including refundable tax credits, food support, and housing support, on poverty. The measure was adopted at IRP in 2009, as it produced its first of 11 Wisconsin Poverty Reports, based closely on the Wisconsin Poverty Measure, an SPM for the state of Wisconsin.

The SPM measure was the basis for Becky to coauthor a major paper with IRP colleagues to gauge the effect of the War on Poverty from 1960 to the mid-2010s. “The War on Poverty: Measurement, Trends, and Policy” (with Robert Haveman, Robert Moffitt, Timothy Smeeding and Geoffrey Wallace) was published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management in Summer 2015, and it has been cited nearly 100 times since.

UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank displays a W hand sign as she stands in front of Bascom Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison during spring on June 6, 2016. Hanging between the columns of Bascom Hall is a banner with a graphic of UW-Madison mascot Bucky Badger’s face. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)