Biden’s new top economist has a longtime focus on workers

By Jim Tankersley and Jeanna Smialek

Soon after Cecilia Rouse finished her first stint as a White House economic adviser, in the administration of President Bill Clinton, a prestigious academic journal published what would arguably become her most famous research paper: a study finding sexism in auditions and hiring for symphony orchestras.

To complete that study, Rouse and a co-author, Claudia Goldin of Harvard, conducted years of research. They worked with orchestra managers and unions to unearth records of auditions dating back decades. “We traveled from city to city,” Goldin recalled, “rummaged through dusty boxes and copied hundreds of entries from yellowing pieces of paper.”

The effort reflected both a focus on the forces that hold people back in the economy and a degree of diligence in her research that Rouse’s colleagues call trademarks of her second stint in the White House, when President Barack Obama tapped her to join his Council of Economic Advisers.

And it is what friends and former colleagues say they expect Rouse to bring to the council if she is confirmed by the Senate to lead it under President-elect Joe Biden, a job that Biden said Tuesday he would restore to Cabinet-level status after it was demoted under President Donald Trump.

Rouse, who received her bachelor’s degree and doctorate in economics from Harvard, is the dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. She emphasized her interest in workers, and what hurts them and holds them back, at an introductory event Tuesday with Biden and other nominees for economic posts in his administration. She said her mother, a school psychologist, had encouraged her to take an economics course as a freshman in college, which came during a national spike in unemployment.

“It was impossible to separate what we were learning in the classroom from what I knew was going on in towns across the country,” Rouse said, “and I found myself drawn to study the labor market in all of its dimensions — the reasons that jobs disappear, the impact of education on people’s job prospects, the ways we can tear down barriers to job growth and make it easier for people to find long-lasting economic security.”

Rouse will be a pioneer if confirmed — the first Black chair of the council. And she will take her position during a sagging recovery from a pandemic recession, at a time when millions of Americans have been out of work for months since the virus first surged through the United States.

Austan Goolsbee, who led the council under Obama when Rouse was a member, said he expected Rouse to focus on challenges facing workers in the so-called gig economy — like drivers for ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft — and on workers who suffer long spells of unemployment in the crisis.

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Goolsbee said, “she was way ahead of everyone on the issues of the long-term unemployed. From the second the thing began, she was saying, we’re going to have to think about the long-term unemployed and how to get them out of unemployment.”

Along with her symphony paper — which found women were substantially more likely to be hired for orchestras when participating in a “blind” audition with their gender concealed — Rouse’s research has included work on school performance, educational vouchers and diversity in the economics profession. Goldin called her “a leading expert on core labor market issues as well as those in the field of education.”

Goolsbee said he would have not been surprised if Biden had chosen Rouse to lead the Education Department, instead of the CEA. But at the council, he said, he expected Rouse to employ a collaborative management style, in the model of another Princeton economist who went to work in government: Ben Bernanke, the former Federal Reserve chair.

In recent months, Rouse has advocated new federal protections for workers in response to the pandemic. In April she called for a law “that mandates (and perhaps subsidizes) paid sick leave, which has been shown to reduce turnover, increase productivity and lower overall health care costs for employers.”

At her introduction in Delaware, she called the pandemic a “devastating crisis” but also “an opportunity to build a better economy in its wake — an economy that works for everyone, brings fulfilling job opportunities and leaves no one to fall through the cracks.”

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