Charting a Course

Wharton’s Anita Summers on Helping to Shape Policy at Work and at Home

By Kate Campbell

The changing urban landscape is her work-room. But the spotless office in Lauder-Fischer Hall, with the wide window and splash of family photographs, is Anita Summers’ home away from home. “An office is where you’re going to spend so much time,” says Summers, professor emeritus of public policy and management at Wharton. “I believe that you should have a space that you enjoy being in.”

Indeed, after decades of teaching, writing and raising a family, Summers seems to have carved every corner of her dynamic life into a space to enjoy. At 75, she finally has a measure of time to savor her success and reflect on the route she took to get there. She also delights in the success of her children, including Lawrence, who just ended his term as Secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton Administration and has been named the new president of Harvard University. And although technically retired, as a leading expert on urban economic development and finance and educational efficiency, she remains immersed in academic life.

“The luxury of retirement is that you can pick and choose your projects and do work that you thoroughly enjoy,” says Summers, who is also a senior research fellow at the Wharton Real Estate Center. “It’s the best of all worlds. But I do miss the teaching. There are few things more exciting than seeing when the light bulbs are turned on that weren’t on before,” says Summers, who began teaching at Wharton in 1979.

“I found it tremendously satisfying to watch students who thought the government could solve everything, to the ones who thought the government should have no role at all, come in from the edges,” she says. “With economics and political theory, there is a systematic way to approaching the question of the role of government. No matter how many times I taught the course, I always found it fascinating because they always came up with different answers.”

Now, between documenting the fate of urban governments buckling under the charge of supporting increased populations of the poor and predicting the inevitable changes poised to rock the city’s foundering public education system, Summers is often tapped as an expert witness on both subjects. And after three years of research for the Brookings Institution, her writing for the book titled Forging Metropolitan Solutions to Urban and Regional Problems will be released this spring. Summers co-authored a chapter with Wharton colleague Joseph Gyourko in which the two maintain that currently intergovernmental grants are not redistributional to the poor.

The book takes an in-depth look at metropolitan areas nationwide. Philadelphia, she says, provided a perfect example. “Philadelphia has a 20 percent poverty rate, which is extreme. These older cities did not send out invitations to the poor. It’s the history of immigration and jobs that have brought people here,” she says. “The cities’ local revenues cannot be adequate for the needs and services that these people require. Even though they get funding through Medicare and Medicaid, we proved through our research that it doesn’t begin to compensate for the needs of the city.”

The Philadelphia portion of the study included the five surrounding counties and parts of New Jersey. “The bottom line is that state funding is in no way redistributional. Federal funds do get to the poor, but it’s not enough. The net effect – the flow of external funds is in no way correlated with poverty rates. Huge cities with high poverty rates can’t be on their own, bottom line. Which is why the large cities across the country are perpetually experiencing fiscal problems. If we get the slightest recession here in our city, we’ll be in significant fiscal trouble. The only thing that was sustaining us was the incredibly buoyant economy.”

It’s not a welcome message. And changing a decades-old system is unlikely to happen soon. “We’ve been down to Washington and spoken to groups at the Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget. They found it interesting, but nobody wants to revisit the formulas.” Undaunted by the fact that years of research seem to have fallen on deaf ears, Summers plows on. “When the crisis comes, the information will have been compiled and will likely offer answers to those who seek it then.”

She has never shied away from delivering unpopular news. In 1975, when Summers was a senior economist in the urban research section of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, she delivered a report critical of the Philadelphia public school system for inefficient use of funds and insufficient monitoring of educational programs. “I got a lot of angry responses from teachers,” she remembers, able to smile about it now. “And so I was asked to speak at a meeting of the union, and I bounced there with eagerness. Well, there were about 200 teachers, and they were furious! It was really awful, and it lasted about three hours. But it spawned a lot of work around the country, and the fundamental message of the study was that you had to have performance-based education.”

Recently, Summers testified on the necessity of performance-based pay for the Colonial School District in suburban Montgomery County, which has since become the first district in Pennsylvania to approve the system. “It’s getting there. It will happen. If you don’t have performance-based compensation, you’ll have charter schools, because the market forces will drive it. Just as with anything else, once the crisis becomes great, the hard decisions get made.”

With so many critical accomplishments in her career, it’s somewhat of a marvel to see how Summers was able to master such a seamless blend between family and work. The crucial factor is choice, says the grandmother of seven. “I was socialized in another generation. I never thought I’d work again after I had children, and that was absolutely fine with me. I wasn’t torn apart by decisions about child care like so many women of this generation,” says Summers, a graduate of Hunter College and the University of Chicago, who had her first of three children at age 29. In fact, she returned to teaching on a part-time basis only when her sons were older. Eventually, she went back full time to teach and publish extensively.

“The changing role of women, and the many choices they have now with regard to career and family, is a positive thing. Many more have the chance to use the full set of talents that they have. But there are significant costs, and you have to know what comes first and what comes second. The torture comes when you don’t know what comes first. That needs really careful thought before you make the decision to start a family. My mother’s idol was Eleanor Roosevelt – she admired her strength. She always said to me, ‘Just remember, whatever you do, you have to be prepared to stand on your own two feet.'”

As children of the Depression, Summers and her husband, Robert, a retired Penn professor of economics, developed a keen sense of survival. “There was never any question of who was going to take care of us – it would be us,” she says. Although she did not guess at an early age what she would do with her life, she knew her strengths.

“I think I always knew I would work with my mind. Did I know I would be a professor? No. Did I know there would be such a strong stock market that would let us live as well as we do? No. When we started out we were fine. I never felt deprived. Life unfolding the way it has – it’s a miracle.”

The couple has tried to pass those lessons of independence and love of learning to their three sons. “We are lucky. We’ve been very healthy and have very well-functioning children. At our dinner table, we had discussions about everything. I’ll never forget one time when the children were young, we were sitting around the dinner table and my husband asked us if we had one million dollars what would we spend it on? The youngest, John, said a new TV set and Richard said a better car. Lawrence wanted a tennis court, and at that time I really wanted a screened-in porch. Then my husband’s turn came, and he said even with one million dollars he’d always want to go down to his office everyday and teach.

“The fact is, they never forgot that. Work can be sheer pleasure. It’s a good message, I think. We both had the good fortune in life to do things that we really loved to do. You should learn to work at what you like in life – choosing something for the money is a poor decision. My husband and I were on the same wavelength on the general structure of how to raise a family. But my children always knew they were responsible for their own lives.”

And like so many mothers, she’s proud of what they’ve done with their lives. In addition to Lawrence’s tenure as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, her son Richard is a psychiatrist at Penn and also has a private practice, and John is busy with a litigation practice.

Although they travel abroad as a couple, their most treasured memories are made with their children and grandchildren in the little town of Truro on Cape Cod. There, the Summers summer in a modern home they had built on the lip of the bay.

“We come up early to open the house and spend some time alone together. Then the family starts pouring in. We think that it is a miracle that we own this house. When we started our careers, academic salaries were very low and we never dreamed that we would someday own a second home and take these wonderful trips. We look out on the bay at sunset every night. I can just look at that sunset forever.”

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