Prior to arriving at Commerce, Blank was the Robert S. Kerr Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan (UM), where she implemented a major expansion of its faculty and programs. She also served as co-director of UM’s National Poverty Center. From 1997–1999, Blank was one of three members of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers, participating in White House decision-making on a host of economic, social and regulatory policy issues.
Before government service, she was a Professor of Economics at Northwestern University and Director of the Northwestern University/University of Chicago Joint Center for Poverty Research. She has also taught at Princeton University and at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Blank joined the Commerce Department in June 2009 as Secretary Gary Locke's principal economic advisor in her role as Under Secretary for Economic Affairs and head of the Economics and Statistics Administration (ESA). ESA oversees the two premier statistical agencies in the United States, the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis. She also served as Locke's appointed Board Representative to the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation.
During her service at ESA, Blank played an important role overseeing a decennial Census operation that completed its work on time and under budget – netting $1.6 billion in 2010 savings. Within ESA, she supervised a staff of economists and policy analysts who produce a wide variety of reports and forecasts that help develop and assess domestic and international policy.
The U.S. Commerce Department announced that Rebecca Blank would become its Acting Deputy Secretary on November 18, 2010. In that role, she focused on matters of management and policy for the department’s 12 bureaus, functioning as Commerce’s chief operating officer.
In late 2011, President Obama nominated Blank to be Deputy Secretary of Commerce. The United States Senate confirmed her to the post on March 29, 2012 by unanimous consent.
Rebecca Blank became the Acting Secretary of Commerce for the first time on August 1, 2011, after Secretary Gary Locke became U.S. ambassador to China. President Obama nominated John Bryson and on October 21, 2011 he became the 37th Secretary of Commerce. At the same time, Blank was designated the Acting Deputy Secretary of Commerce.
Blank was designated Acting Secretary of Commerce a second time on June 11, 2012. Incumbent Secretary John Bryson took a medical leave of absence following his citation on felony hit-and-run charges. He transferred his powers to Blank for an undetermined length of time. A Department of Commerce spokesperson said he had suffered a seizure.
Blank announced March 18, 2013, that she was leaving the Obama administration to become chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Following her resignation, Cameron Kerry was designated as Acting Secretary of Commerce, pending Senate confirmation of Penny Pritzker.
It was announced on February 21, 2013, that Blank was one of four finalists for the position of Chancellor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. A special committee of the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents recommended her for the position on March 18, and she announced that she would accept the position the same day. The full Board of Regents unanimously confirmed Blank as chancellor on April 5, and she began as chancellor on July 22. Blank was previously a finalist for the position in 2008.
Blank is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Fellow of the Society of Labor Economists, an Eleanor Roosevelt Fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science,and a Lifetime Associate at the National Academies of Science. She has served in a wide variety of advisory and professional roles, including service on the Boards of Directors of MDRC, the Economic Policy Institute, and the Urban Institute. She was a long-time faculty affiliate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, vice president of the American Economic Association, and president of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management.
Blank is the author of numerous books and articles that focus on the interaction between the macro economy, the labor market, government social policy programs, and the behavior and well-being of low-income families. Her 1997 book, It Takes A Nation: A New Agenda for Fighting Poverty (Princeton University Press) won the Richard A. Lester Award for the Outstanding Book in Labor Economics and Industrial Relations. Among her other recent books are Changing Inequality (University of California Press, 2011), Insufficient Funds: Savings, Assets, Credit, and Banking Among Low-Income Families (joint with Michael Barr, Russell Sage Press, 2009), and Is the Market Moral? (Joint with William McGurn, Brookings Press, 2004.) She is the author of over 100 articles in books and academic journals.