CSMGEP Profiles: Margaret C. Simms, Urban Institute

Blazing an Exceptional Career

Margaret C. Simms, Institute Fellow and Director of the Low-Income Working Families Project, Urban Institute, Washington, D.C.

Portrait of Margaret C. Simms“We really are a product of the time in which we came along.” So says Margaret C. Simms, one of the nation’s top economists. A leading expert in the economic well-being of African American families and children, Simms was a product of her time but also took advantage of every opportunity it offered to blaze an exceptional career.

In the 1960s, she was one of the few African American women to graduate from high school and complete college. Of the 1,400 students at Carleton College during her freshman year, only four were African American, and among economics majors only five were women. When Simms began graduate work at Stanford in 1967, there were no African American students in the graduate economics program, no woman had yet earned a PhD in economics, and there were no female or African American professors in the department. In Simms’ first year at Stanford, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and riots broke out. Although she was on a fellowship from the Foreign Affairs Scholars Program, her focus quickly shifted to domestic issues and policies, where, in the turbulent but optimistic 1960s, she hoped to make a difference. Consequently, Simms has chosen or accepted professional roles based on her interests in vulnerable populations, poverty, and racial disparities.

While completing her dissertation, Simms took a position at the University of California, Santa Cruz and then spent several years on the faculty at the historically black Atlanta University. She was appointed a Brookings Economic Policy Fellow at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development for the 1977-78 academic year. She pursued her interests as a Senior Research Associate and Director of the Minorities and Social Policy Program at the Urban Institute for seven years. She moved on to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies (JCPES), the leading African American policy think-tank. During her 21 years at the JCPES, she filled many leadership roles, becoming the first woman to serve as Vice President for Research in 1997, and later Vice President of Governance and Economic Analysis and then Interim President.

In 2007, Simms returned to the Urban Institute to direct the Low-Income Working Families project, which tracks the lives of American families living below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Her team analyzes factors that lead to poor outcomes for these families and maps the effects of interventions that could improve their lives. She states, “The Urban Institute's work on persistent poverty shows that African American children are five times more likely to be born poor and seven times more likely to be persistently poor than white children. Unfortunately, nearly 50 years after the March on Washington, opportunity still has a racial dimension.”

Simms’ decades of service have brought recognition. An elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, she has also served on the National Research Council Committee on the Fiscal Future of the United States. In 2008, Simms was the second woman to be granted the National Economic Association’s (NEA) prestigious Samuel Z. Westerfield Award honoring outstanding scholarly achievement and public service by an African American economist. In 2010, Carleton College presented Simms an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree.

One of Simms’ core beliefs is that objective, scientific research contributes to better policy. Some policymakers prefer less neutrality, like Harry Truman who once quipped that he wanted a one-handed economist because all economists responded with “On the one hand…on the other….” As an economist who translates research for policymakers – including U.S. presidents – Simms says, “We may not endorse a specific piece of legislation, but we can tell you whether it’s good or bad for a particular population,” which is more effective than basing policies on partisanship. While it’s important for policy analysts to maintain objectivity, Simms affirms that “advocacy organizations often find it useful to have that ‘objective research’ to point to when they make their case.”

Another core belief for Simms is that diverse perspectives make for better research and better policy. A previous member of the AEA Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession and one-time Chair of the AEA Committee on the Status of Minority Groups in the Economics Profession, Simms was also President of the NEA, editor of the Review of Black Political Economy, Board Chair at the Institute for Women's Policy Research, Vice President at the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management, and President of the National Academy of Social Insurance. Simms comments, “Those were all structures that in different ways provide for more diverse perspectives on economic issues. …When we bring different perspectives to the task we get richer conversations, better policy, and better research.” She also notes the success of the AEA summer program as evidenced at economics meetings. “It’s had a real impact on the diversity of the meetings…on what issues are studied and how they are studied.”

Simms looks to today’s economics students to take on the burning issues of their own times. “Poverty hasn’t gone away; in fact, in some ways, income inequality is a bigger issue than it was in the past.” She gives other examples, “the balance between the public sector and the private sector. …How do you tame the deficit? The debt? How do you think about the federal budget and its shape and its outcomes? What about entitlement programs and how we manage with those going forward? …technology and its impact on the economy and on the labor markets, shifting economic power in a global context…” The list is extensive, and Simms encourages students to begin blazing their own exceptional careers by choosing what matters most to them.

Proust Questionnaire

A salon and parlor game of the 19th century, made most famous by Marcel Proust's answers, the Proust Questionnaire (adapted here) gets to the heart of things....

What is your idea of a perfect day?
A sunny but not too hot day spent exploring a city I have never been to before.

What’s on your nightstand?
A mystery set in 19th century Istanbul and a history of the French Revolution.

What is your greatest regret?
I try not to dwell too long on regrets unless I can learn something that will help me going forward. Life is too short.

What was the last book you read?
1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West.

For a vacation, beach or mountains?
Neither beach or mountains. Cities.

What is your favorite city?
Lots of them – Paris, Florence, Cape Town, among those outside the US.  Washington, DC, San Francisco, and New Orleans in the states.

If you weren’t in economics, what would you want to do?
If pay were not a consideration: photographer, travel writer, genealogist, and museum docent would be among the possibilities.