Personal reflections on the life and legacy of Bill Spriggs

This piece was originally published in the Review of Black Political Economy

The Economic Policy Institute’s public statement on the death of Dr. William E. Spriggs characterizes his professional legacy as follows:  

“A fierce proponent of racial and economic justice whose influence as a public intellectual and economist reached across academia, labor, think tanks, positions in the Clinton and Obama administrations, and the civil rights community. In addition to broadening discussions about race and economics within these critical institutions, Dr. Spriggs worked tirelessly behind the scenes to expand representation of people of color within the economics profession and to mentor future generations of economists.”  

At the end of his life, his resume included titles, such as chief economist of the AFL-CIO, economics professor, and former chair of the Howard University economics department. His research was frequently published in The Review of Black Political Economy, covering topics such as occupational segregation, the returns to HBCU graduation, and the impact public policies like affirmative action and welfare reform have on economic inequality. His most cited article according to Google Scholar, “What Does the AFQT Really Measure: Race, Wages, Schooling and the AFQT Score”, was co-authored with William Rodgers and published in June 1996 volume of The Review of Black Political Economy.  

This impressive but incomplete listing of professional accomplishments speaks volumes of the friend, colleague, and mentor many of us simply called Bill. In the field of economics—a discipline reputed to be impersonal, abstruse, and at times detached from reality on issues of racial, gender, and worker justice—Bill’s approach to economics was the complete opposite. His clear understanding of economic issues was always communicated with a level of honesty and in a manner that reflected Bill’s internal guiding truth and personal commitment to making life better for Black Americans and working people from all backgrounds. 

In honor of Bill’s legacy, the following are personal reflections from Larry Mishel and Valerie Wilson—two people who witnessed, learned, and benefited from that commitment throughout his career. 

A tribute to Bill Spriggs by Larry Mishel, former president, Economic Policy Institute 

I was privileged to have known Bill Spriggs for 46 years, ever since we entered the UW-Madison economic PhD program together in 1977. He was 22 years old. Together, we became labor economists, we studied for theory and labor comprehensive exams, we were officemates, we were in student-organized study groups on heterodox labor economics (learning the material that was not being taught), went on strike, played softball, and we had fun. Our lives were intertwined ever since. 

It should be noted that Bill was the only Black person in our cohort of 35-40 students and there were no other Blacks in the three classes ahead of us or in the three classes after us. That made him one out of 250 or so students over a seven-year period. 

We were colleagues during his two stints at EPI (1991–94 and 2005). Bill was deeply involved with EPI even when not on staff. He organized a workshop, held at Howard, of various scholars to provide guidance to me and Algernon Austin when EPI was starting our program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy (PREE) in 2007. He advised me to hire Valerie Wilson to lead PREE, one of my better decisions. He advised EPI as he served as an advisor to AFL-CIO presidents who chaired the board. We were comrades, labor brothers, and friends who always knew we could count on each other. 

I want to share two conclusions about Bill’s life. The first is that he was enormously successful in accomplishing what he set out to do in his career. Let me explain. Other students saw economics school as a time to gather ‘tools’, as if they were engineers, or to become replicas of some specific professor. Neither Bill nor I fit this pattern and it was a foundational bond between us. We understood economics to be about who gets what and why and how one can make things better. We wanted to study the economy not economics: that is, the point was not to master puzzles thrown up by economic theories but to study the actual economy and how it works. Bill was clear from the start that he wanted to learn economics as a tool for Black betterment and to go teach at a HBCU. Bill knew that when Black workers did well then all workers will be doing well. His analysis was worker centered. He went to teach at HBCUs, just as he said he would, first going to NC AT&T, then Norfolk State, and later to Howard. Being chair of economics at Howard, assistant secretary of policy at the Department of Labor, and chief economist at AFL-CIO signals achievement of his goals, at the highest levels. This is no small thing. I knew many people on my journey who seemed committed to economic justice but ended up as real estate agents or in some such endeavor. Bill became a leading public intellectual articulating the necessity of racial and economic justice. And, he was not yet done. Job well done, Bill! 

My second conclusion is that Bill was a giant walking amongst us, even if we did not recognize this. Bill was a reserved person. Not loud. But Bill was determined, focused, courageous, and never afraid to speak his truth. I have many mental pictures of Bill rising in an audience or in a workshop challenging the discussion at hand. He was sometimes an outlier, and he was usually spot on. He was ambitious, in a good way. He was also kind of stubborn. 

Consider the extraordinary range of positions he held. He was an academic and published technical papers. He also did policy analysis in government and at think tanks. He was the chief economist at a civil rights group, the National Urban League, as well as at the AFL-CIO. He was co-president of our grad student union, the TAA, the year following our 1980 strike. He worked at the Departments of Labor and Commerce, and at the Small Business Administration during the Clinton and Obama administrations. He worked for Congress at the Joint Economic Committee. He was a president of the National Economic Association, the association of Black economists, and passed away as he was just becoming the president of the Labor and Employment Research Association, the association of academics and practitioners focused on labor and industrial relations. 

Bill’s research and writing was impressive for its breadth and depth. For instance, he came to EPI in 1991 and in two years he edited a volume of papers on the striker replacement issue (the premier labor law reform issue at the time) and contributed his own paper using late 19th century Massachusetts strike data. He also co-wrote a groundbreaking paper documenting that the minimum wage helped those with wages above the new threshold—showing that there were spillover effects. Another paper critiqued the economic models claiming that NAFTA would increase employment. His career included engaging top staff and officials at the Federal Reserve Board on monetary policy. He worked with leading union economists from around the world to promote good policy at the OECD. He worked on social insurance issues such as Social Security and unemployment insurance. He researched the economic returns to HBCU education, the impact of discrimination on Black wages, and documented occupational segregation.   

Bill attained an even greater public presence after publishing his open letter to economists following George Floyd’s death in 2020. He called out the racist past of economics and economists’ refusal to acknowledge discrimination and instead focus on alleged Black deficiencies of skill or behaviors. Bill rightly referred to this as committing microaggressions against Black researchers. This analysis opened eyes. What should be appreciated is that his analysis was the product of four decades of thinking about this and how to express it. 

We lost a great one. I had so much more I needed to learn from Bill, so many more happy moments to share.  

As we Jews say, May his Memory be a Blessing, zikhrono livrakha. 

A Tribute to Bill Spriggs by Valerie Wilson, director, Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy, Economic Policy Institute 

There is no exaggeration in saying that I owe my career as an economist to my friend and mentor, Bill Spriggs. Not only did he convince me to finish graduate school, but when Bill hired me for my first job as a research analyst at the National Urban League, he would often tell me that I was his retirement policy. Bill gave meaning to those words by selflessly giving of his time, incredible intellect, wisdom, and personal connections while advocating for me on numerous occasions. I learned so much of what I know about economics and economic policy from Bill Spriggs, but more than that, I learned to lead with principles and purpose.  

When I first met Bill in August 1999, one of my earliest impressions of him was as a rare person in the Washington, D.C. world of power and politics. While he was incredibly smart, accomplished, and well-respected, he wasn’t content to leverage those qualities just for personal gain or to position himself as someone who was inaccessible. Instead, he was relatable and more than willing to use his influence to open doors and make room for others.  

During the brief two years that I worked for Bill at the National Urban League, we published research on Social Security, disparities in job training, pay inequities by gender and race, and updated work on occupational segregation that he had he co-authored with the late Rhonda Williams. I left that job with a stronger CV, and a much-needed boost of confidence to return to grad school thanks to the central role Bill allowed me in his efforts to restore the League’s research presence. Bill’s mentorship, guidance, and advocacy not only convinced me that a meaningful and impactful career as an economist was possible for me, he also convinced others that I deserved a chance to prove it. On more than one occasion I have been in meetings with people I admittedly felt intimidated by, knowing I was there and would be heard because of Bill’s influence.  

Bill’s tremendous investment in my career and those of countless others demonstrated a realization that one of the most important things he could do in service to racial, economic, and social justice was to inspire, prepare, and lay a path for the next generation of economists interested in those same issues. He embodied the principle that economics could and should be used to make people’s lives better. Specifically, he modeled a conviction that Black economists have a right, if not a responsibility, to use the tools of economics to be truth tellers regarding racism and racial economic inequality. When I worked for him, I often had a front row view of the masterful way he was able to cut through the technical jargon and political ambiguity to speak about economic issues and draw conclusions that should have been obvious to all but were rarely so clearly stated. One of the most memorable examples was his defiance of the notion that some sort of cultural pathology was to blame for higher rates of poverty among Black people. His simple, but impassioned answer: “People are poor because they don’t have enough money! Period!” That moment, and others like it, provided a model that I wanted to emulate.  

There will never be another Bill Spriggs. But, I am grateful to be among the beneficiaries of his remarkable legacy as an unapologetic advocate for racial and economic justice. That legacy lives on in those of us who were directly taught and inspired by him and as we pay forward all that he imparted to us.