Anita A. Summers, Economist, Dies at 98; Brought Rigor to Public Policy newsbhunt


Anita A. Summers, an economist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who injected quantitative rigor into a wide variety of public policy topics, including zoning, education and tax incentives, died on Sunday at her home in Gladwyne, Pa. She was 98.

Her son Lawrence H. Summers, the economist and former secretary of the Treasury, confirmed the death.

Though she spent much of her career in academia, Mrs. Summers was far from a hidebound intellectual. She insisted that public policymaking be strengthened with economic analysis, and vice versa: that the business and finance world could benefit from a greater understanding of policymaking.

That, in fact, was her primary task at Wharton, where she moved in 1979 after spending nearly a decade at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. She was the founding chairwoman of Wharton’s public policy and management department, the first of its kind at a business school. (It is now called the department of business economics and public policy.)

Both at the Philadelphia Fed and later at Wharton, Mrs. Summers was a leading advocate of public planning at the regional level, pushing city and state governments to collaborate on economic issues that often crossed political boundaries.

Through the 1980s and ’90s she wrote or co-wrote a series of studies on the emerging postindustrial economy of southeastern Pennsylvania, work that influenced the way policymakers thought about economic change nationally.

She was unsentimental about vanishing industries, and she encouraged policymakers to focus their energies on new sectors. When the local shipbuilding facility, once a cornerstone of the regional economy, shut down in the early 1990s, she told The Washington Post that “the question to ask is not why the Philadelphia shipyard is closing, but why it took so long.”

She had an equal interest in zoning laws and how they affected economic growth, and in education policy; she was among the earliest advocates of merit pay for teachers, based on student test scores. Unions howled, but she had extensive data to make her case.

Economics ran in Mrs. Summers’s family. Her brother, Kenneth J. Arrow, won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1972, which her brother-in-law Paul A. Samuelson also won, in 1970. Her husband, Robert, taught economics at Penn, and her son Lawrence, after serving as Treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton, was later president of Harvard.

“Growing up, we probably spent more time discussing what government should do about poverty than at most dinner tables in America,” Lawrence Summers said.

Anita Arrow was born on Sept. 9, 1925, in Great Neck, N.Y., on Long Island, and raised in Manhattan. Her parents were both Romanian Jewish immigrants — her father, Harry, was a banker, and her mother, Lillian (Greenberg) Arrow, was a homemaker.

She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics from Hunter College in 1945 and received a master’s in the same subject from the University of Chicago in 1947.

She then spent several years in New York working as an economist for Standard Oil. She was among the first women to hold such a position at a major corporation, and it was not easy going.

After the hiring manager told her she had the job, she later recalled, he added that, since she was a woman, “We decided we could get the same brains for less money.”

She was assigned high-priority projects to complete, but she was barred from delivering them to the executive suites, where women were forbidden. Instead she had to sit by her phone, waiting for the bosses to call with questions.

“I felt like my brain was being insulted,” she said in a 2022 interview at Wharton.

She eventually left the job to pursue doctoral studies at Columbia University, but left the program to raise her three children. She spent 11 years out of the work force — a choice that she embraced, and that she long defended.

“I cannot imagine more profound pleasure than I got in feeding and talking and reading to our children, to being present for every tear and each stage of development,” she wrote in The Boston Globe in 2017.

She married Robert Summers in 1953. He died in 2012. Along with her son Lawrence, she is survived by two other sons, Richard and John. She also had seven grandchildren, six of whom survive her.

Once her children were in school and her husband had relocated to the University of Pennsylvania, Mrs. Summers took a position teaching economics at Swarthmore College, outside Philadelphia. She also took an active role in local politics and policymaking, and eventually became president of her local chapter of the League of Women Voters.

In 1971 she moved to the Philadelphia Fed, where she led its Urban Economics Group. She also served as the chairwoman of the board of Mathematica, a public-policy consulting firm.

Mrs. Summers was proud to be a woman cutting a path through a male-dominated field, a path that following generations of women were able to walk — among them Betsey Stevenson, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, whose first job was in Mrs. Summers’s department at Wharton.

“It meant a lot that it was a department founded by Anita Summers,” Dr. Stevenson said in a phone interview. “Being a parent, being a spouse, it’s a reminder of how things have changed and the amount of grit and talent it took female economists to succeed in that generation.”


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