Cecilia Rouse was 4 years old when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed and riots tore through Washington, decimating Black businesses and neighborhoods. In a family photo, a tiny Rouse and her younger sister stand in front of a boarded-up storefront, the plywood painted with the words: “Soul brothers & sisters work here. Don’t put us out of work!”

Rouse was too young to know it in 1968, but that message of economic opportunity would become a key feature of her decades-long career as a labor economist. And that message has come into even sharper focus since Rouse was tapped by President-elect Joe Biden to be the first Black official to lead the White House’s internal economic think tank, where she will help steer the economy beyond the most unequal recession in modern U.S. history.

Rouse is “one of the most distinguished economists in the country, an expert on labor economics, race, poverty and education,” Biden said when Rouse was formally nominated last month to lead the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA).

Through two previous Democratic administrations and nearly 30 years in academia — most recently as dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs — Rouse has built her career around studying the economics of education, from community colleges to student loans to school vouchers. Her work has also focused on the ways women and people of color are disadvantaged in the labor force, and her colleagues credit her with helping identify problems around long-term unemployment and widening income inequality in the wake of the Great Recession.

If confirmed by the Senate, Rouse would be only the fourth woman to lead the CEA.

Rouse and the Biden transition team declined to comment for this article.

Helping guide the Biden administration’s response to a crisis that has left millions unemployed, has shuttered thousands of small businesses and is altering the economy’s future will be the next and perhaps greatest challenge of Rouse’s career.

“She is someone who’s devoted much of her research life to the very workers and families that are the most likely to be at risk in what has so far been a very K-shaped, or uneven, recovery,” said Gene Sperling, who led the National Economic Council in the Clinton and Obama administrations and hired Rouse to the NEC in 1998. “I think she is the right person at the right moment with the right skill set.”

Still, some economists have noted that Rouse will lead a team with deep experience in labor economics but more limited expertise in areas that have become increasingly pressing throughout the coronavirus crisis, including health care, housing, financial reform and international issues. Biden’s nominees to work with Rouse at the CEA, Jared Bernstein and Heather Boushey, have also focused much of their research on wage and inequality issues.

Rouse, Boushey and Bernstein “make an incredibly strong team for wage and inequality issues. But not as diversified (in terms of subject matter) as the usual CEA,” tweeted William Gale, an expert in federal economic policy at the Brookings Institution. “They will have to figure out a way to deal with competition issues, financial reform.”

Rouse’s upbringing helped shape her path to this moment. Her father, Carl A. Rouse, was the first African American to earn a doctorate in physics from the California Institute of Technology, and only the fifth to earn the degree from any American university. Rouse’s mother was a school psychologist. In an interview with Career Girls, Rouse said her parents’ professional achievements shaped her own path as an “economist where I do mathematical thinking, but it’s about societies and groups of people.”

Rouse’s father sought academic postings at larger research institutions, said Carolyn Rouse, Cecilia’s sister. But in the 1950s and 1960s, Black scientists were routinely turned away from jobs in higher education, and Carl Rouse’s advisers often directed him toward positions at smaller, historically Black colleges.

When the family moved from Washington to Del Mar, Calif., Black families were still barred from owning property in nearby Rancho Santa Fe. Carolyn, who is chair of Princeton’s anthropology department, said only one real estate agent would work with the Rouses to buy a property, a slight the family never forgot.

Always in the backdrop was her family’s focus on education, Carolyn said, adding that their parents “believed deeply in equality.”

“We’re of that generation that was just on the edge of trying to push our way into middle-class America,” Carolyn told The Washington Post. “Of our friends, a lot of them were immigrants. I think in some ways, we felt a lot like first-generation American immigrants because this was new for Black folks. … I often think about Kamala Harris and her parents breaking through. There were similar stories in that sense — generational stories.”

Rouse, 57, has two teenage daughters with her husband, Harold Ford Morrison, an architect for the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Her mother-in-law was Toni Morrison, who transformed American literature and was the first Black woman to receive the Nobel Prize in literature.

It was Rouse’s mother who encouraged her to take her first economics course as a freshman at Harvard University. At that time, the recession of the early 1980s was driving the country’s unemployment rate to one of its worst spikes since the Great Depression.

“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 upon being nominated last month. “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.”

Those questions have become even more urgent amid the pandemic. Pressure is building on the incoming Biden administration and what will be a Democratic Congress to pass a bold economic agenda, especially as economists warn that the recovery will need more help beyond the $900 billion stimulus package that lawmakers passed last month. That deal included unemployment benefits that are set to expire in mid-March and left out direct aid to cash-strapped cities and states.

An economic rescue plan that Biden unveiled last week would direct $1.9 trillion toward a national vaccine program, relief to struggling households, and aid to businesses and local governments. Whether that proposal, or anything close to it, will pass the Senate is unclear.

Meanwhile, the pandemic that has killed nearly 400,000 Americans continues to bear down on the economic recovery. December marked the first month of job losses since the recovery began in May, with the leisure and hospitality industries, restaurants and bars suffering especially.

“Millions of families have had their lives turned upside down,” Rouse said last month. “The safety net has frayed, leaving vulnerable Americans to slip through into hardship and hopelessness, and structural inequities that have always existed in our economy are being exacerbated like never before.”

Rouse’s last test in Washington came during the Great Recession, when she served as a member of the CEA between 2009 and 2011. At the start of the Obama administration, an average of 700,000 American workers were losing their jobs each month, and the global financial system was on the brink. Rouse was part of a team that worked with Congress to quickly pass the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and she then led efforts to reduce unemployment and encourage firms to hire workers.

During that crisis, Rouse was also part of an effort to adopt the gainful-employment rule, an Obama-era regulation that sought to penalize programs that produced too many graduates with excessive student debt. (Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s former education secretary, repealed the rule in 2019.)

She also took charge of issues tied to long-term unemployment, said Austan Goolsbee, a CEA member alongside Rouse in the Obama administration. Rouse’s focus on how recessions affect women, or on how the changing labor market has hindered gig workers, are even more relevant as the economy weathers the coronavirus downturn, Goolsbee said.

“Ceci was raising, well ahead of really anybody, the issues of long-term unemployment and saying, ‘We better start thinking about how we are going to get people who fell out of the labor force back into jobs,’ ” said Goolsbee, an economics professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “After a year, that became obvious to everyone and became a huge area of focus. But I mostly attribute it to her having been such an expert on those topics beforehand.”

For example, many economists during the Great Recession were focused on job losses among men, including in manufacturing and construction. But speaking at a 2012 White House forum on women and the economy, Rouse pointed out that men’s employment was, in fact, recovering much faster than women’s. She also noted that women were spending longer periods on unemployment insurance and were more likely to have lost public-sector jobs that would be slow to return.

The economy is facing similar challenges today. In 2020, women lost more jobs than men following historic gains in female employment the year before. Women are also expected to take longer to reenter the labor force, with many held back over a lack of child care.

“Most of what you do as an economist in government is prevent bad things from happening … and you don’t need to move all that fast. But this is an exception, and she’s lived through the most recent exception,” said Andrew Metrick, a CEA economist at the start of the Obama administration and a professor at the Yale School of Management. “There are not too many economists who have that policy experience. … It’s a pretty small group of people who have been through this war before.”

Among economists, Rouse is perhaps most known for co-authoring a groundbreaking and widely cited paper that examined “blind” auditions for symphony orchestras, which kept the genders of musicians hidden. Rouse and her longtime mentor and collaborator, Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, mined rosters and orchestra records from across the country. They ultimately found that women were much more likely to be hired for orchestras when they took part in the blind tryouts.

That work has not been without pushback. Christina Hoff Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute criticized the paper for not providing sufficient evidence to substantiate its conclusions. “None of the findings were strong enough to draw broad conclusions one way or the other,” she wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2019.

Goldin defended the research and said the paper made clear that data was hand-collected and didn’t draw from sweeping sample sizes. The duo worked on the paper for eight years, and it went through several waves of close edits and peer reviews, Goldin said.

“We have always welcomed anyone who has criticisms,” Goldin said. “I certainly went into this as I go into all of my projects, with a sense of discovery. And if it says one thing, fine, if it says another thing, fine. We let it speak.”

Drawing from her academic and government experience, Rouse will be at the forefront of White House efforts to straddle the demands of moderates and liberals on key policy priorities, such as the elimination of student debt.

In a 2007 paper, Rouse found that high levels of student debt cause graduates to choose higher-paying jobs over lower-paying public interest jobs. Another paper concluded that more low-income minority students enrolled after a university replaced loan packages with grants. In a 2013 paper, Rouse found that college students with scholarships that carried financial incentives to meet performance and attendance benchmarks tended to invest more time in their education.

“There are going to be important questions about long-term higher-education issues, funding problems because of state budgets and spillovers into K-12 education,” said Lisa Barrow, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and a co-author with Rouse. “Our potential growth is higher when we have a high-quality skilled and educated workforce. It’s going to be important that we’re not losing generations of individuals.”