Anna-Marie Tabor has been named the new director of the Pension Action Center at the McCormack Graduate School’s Gerontology Institute. Tabor, who joins UMass Boston from the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has deep legal experience defending the rights of individuals on issues related to financial services. She recently discussed her career and plans as the center’s new director. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
You’re a lawyer with a lot of public service experience. What attracted you to this particular position?
I’ve always been interested in economic justice. When I heard about the Pension Action Center, I was impressed by the enormous impact it’s had returning millions of dollars to individual clients. That’s not just a series of one-time payments but streams of income over time that can make such a difference for someone struggling to afford basic necessities. I’m also very excited about being located at UMass Boston and in the Gerontology Institute. I’m looking forward to working with the students and faculty to identify opportunities to delve into some of the systemic issues that the Pension Action Center sees with its clients.
What are your initial priorities at the PAC?
First of all, I want to ensure that the center continues its great work serving workers and retirees, and helping them access the pension benefits they’ve earned. I’ve been so impressed by the dedication of the center’s staff and volunteers. I want to do all I can to support them and to learn from them. Second, I’m really looking forward to meeting with the center’s partner organizations across our coverage area to share with them what we’re doing, to learn more about what they do, and to explore how we can work together and leverage our resources to best serve our clients.
You mentioned an interest in systemic issues. What did you mean?
One example is the work [recently retired Director] Jeanne Medeiros has been doing around the issue of recoupment. The center has seen a lot of these cases in which pension plans discover their own administrative errors led to overpayments to retirees, most of whom knew nothing about it. Often these payments took place over many years. The pension plans want to recoup their money as quickly as possible, which is a serious hardship for retirees. The center has been working hard to explain why this is such an important issue. Jeanne worked with Maria Hylton, who is a member of the PAC advisory board, to publish an academic article and has been speaking on this issue as well.
Most recently, you worked at the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. What were you doing there?
I worked in the Office of Fair Lending to make sure lenders treat consumers fairly and without illegal discrimination. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act makes it illegal for a creditor to discriminate on the basis of race, national origin, color, religion, sex, age, marital status, whether a person is a recipient of public assistance income, and the exercise of certain statutory rights. At the CFPB, my job was to enforce the law through ongoing supervision of financial institutions.
What kind of cases did you work on?
A focus of my work was mortgage lending discrimination, which includes things like pricing discrimination, underwriting discrimination and redlining. We would look for violations but also work with institutions to make sure that they could monitor their own operations and make any changes necessary. My work included other kinds of financial products as well — auto lending, credit cards, small business lending and mortgage servicing, for example.
Were there any turning points in your legal career that led you toward public service with a focus on financial issues?
Joining the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office in 2007 was a key point in my career. That was right at the cusp of the foreclosure crisis and I went to join the Civil Rights Division. The chief of division at the time was Maura Healey, who of course is now the attorney general. She was very interested in using the office’s investigative powers to understand whether discrimination played a role in what was happening.
So what did you find?
The foreclosure crisis had a terrible impact on people of all races and all ethnicities. But it had a particularly severe impact on communities of color, both because of the concentrations of foreclosure in certain communities of color and also because, for many African American and Hispanic families in particular, wealth may be concentrated in home equity. I was part of a team that filed a case against subprime lender Option One for violating consumer protection laws and also discrimination laws. That was the first time a state attorney general had included those kinds of civil rights claims in foreclosure cases arising from the crisis.
Earlier in your academic life, you were trying to make a decision about a career path. What was the issue?
When I was growing up, I really liked math. When I went to college, that interest in quantitative thinking turned toward economics. At the same time, though, I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer as well. So there was this tension between the economic and quantitative side of things and the law and writing and speaking and debating. When I graduated from college, I went to the London School of Economics and that was an opportunity for me to try out what it would be like if I went on to be a working economist. I decided petty quickly I wanted to go to law school.
So you left economics behind.
I’m glad I made that choice but my economics background has always been a part of my legal practice as well. I used it in the fair lending work that I did. That was very heavy on quantitative analysis and I think there are going to be some good opportunities to use quantitative analysis to take a look at the work that the Pension Action Center does.
How might that work?
I come from a background where I spent a lot of time thinking about disparities on the basis of race and sex and age. I want to learn about the challenges that retirees face in terms of their pensions and their financial well-being in general and understanding what that looks like across the population. What do you see when you look at different age cohorts? Are there disparities based on race or based on sex? That’s something that I’m interested to learn more about.
You also have a busy home life when you’re not at work.
I live in Weston with my husband and my three children. My kids are nine, seven, and one and they keep me really busy when I’m at home. But they’re also great at helping me maintain a sense of perspective. They inspire me every day.