Democracy’s Statistician: Janet L. Norwood, 1923-2015

Janet Norwood
Janet Norwood
“I believe strongly,” said economist Janet L. Nowood, “that an objective, scientifically created system of data is essential for a democracy to flourish.” And as a the first female head of the United States government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, and a leader who served with distinction and non-partisanship in both Democratic and Republican administrations, she held up her end of the bargain for 13 years.

“Objective, methodical, unflappable under sometimes hostile congressional questioning, Norwood measures our prosperity and tells the man on the street whether the next line he stands in is likely to be at the bank-teller window or the unemployment office,” The Washington Post Magazine wrote in 1983 profile after her first of three terms as BLS commissioner. All told she hiked up Capitol Hill 137 times to give testimony, and earned a reputation for delivering nothing but objective, unspun facts in sessions she compared to “fencing matches.”

Norwood died on March 27 at her Austin, Texas home of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. She was 91.

“As one of few women serving in the Bureau of Labor Statistics at the time and the first to lead the agency, Norwood was an inspiration and mentor to many professional women in Washington,” read one tribute in the newsletter of the Consortium of Social Science Associations, or organization she was president of from 2001-02. That inspirational role was apparent even beyond the professional ranks, as a middle-schooler named Holly reported after Norwood visited her school in 2003: “When I grow up, I want to be like Janet Norwood because she was a past president of [the] American Statistical Association. …She’s actually pretty neat.”

Janet Lippe was born in New Jersey on Dec. 11, 1923 and grew up and was educated in Jersey, receiving a bachelor’s degree from the New Jersey College for Women (now the Douglass College of Rutgers University) in 1945. She earned her master’s and Ph.D. in economics from the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Massachusetts Janet Norwood taught at Wellesley College and conducted research in international economics at nearby Tufts.

She married as a sophomore at Rutgers. Her husband, Bernard, who survives her, proved a true helpmate, someone, she later said, who “has always encouraged me to strive for more and to do more. … I think that for a married woman to have a career, she needs to have a husband who is very secure and not competitive with her.”

She began working at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1963, and by 1972 was named associate deputy commissioner for data analysis and deputy commissioner of BLS three years later. When a terminal illness kept Commissioner Julius Shiskin from completing his duties in 1978, Norwood was appointed as acting commissioner. In March 1979, President Jimmy Carter nominated her to a four-year term as permanent head of the bureau. She served under the Democrat Carter, and was re-nominated twice by his Republican successor, Ronald Reagan.

When she stepped down in 1991, the New York Times wrote glowingly of Norwood’s “near-legendary reputation for nonpartisanship.” That’s not the same as non-belligerence – she sparred with presidents Nixon and Reagan over attempts to either politicize the data, or spin the BLS numbers, in her tenure at the bureau. As she told the New York Times in 1984 about the Nixon kerfuffle, “There was a clear feeling on the part of the White House, that the bureau should be emphasizing employment rather than unemployment.”

That spat, in fact, paved her path to all those Capitol Hill appearances. The Joint Economic Committee of Congress started asking for briefings in 1971 after Nixon ended BLS’ new conferences.

She also stood up for the BLS’ independence within the Department of Labor, in particular on reporting the scientifically collected data that underlay BLS news releases. She also brought the National Longitudinal Survey under the bureau’s wing when it was threatened with the ax and developed the quarterly Employment Cost Index.

Norwood was also staunchly behind bring all the benefits of good social and behavioral science to bear on the wicked problems that faced BLS, and originated a ‘cognitive laboratory’ within the agency to increase its efficiency and the quality of its output. “It seems to me that we can vastly improve our surveys when we bring together the expertise of many different fields, for example, psychology, linguistics, economics and statistics,” she told Stephen E. Fienberg in a 1994 interview with Statistical Science.

“Her legacy lives on here in the halls of BLS—and on our website—where the tangible results of her many accomplishments can still be seen,” wrote the current BLS commissioner, Erica L. Groshen. “Simply put, all U.S. policymakers, businesses, and families‎ can make better decisions every day because of Janet Norwood’s work at BLS.”

In 1991, at the conclusion of her third term she moved toward a more advocacy-oriented role, serving as a fellow for the Urban Institute — and again wrote papers and testified before Congress.

After stepping down as commissioner, she served on an advisory committee on unemployment compensation and did research for organizations including the Urban Institute. In 2002 the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham debuted the Janet L. Norwood Award for outstanding achievement by a woman in the statistical sciences.

Even in retirement she paved the way for others, becoming the first female president of Washington, D.C.’s Cosmos Club in 1995 – seven years after the venerable institution admitted its first-ever female members.

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