Economist William E. Spriggs, an educator, racial justice advocate and public sector leader whose work saw him operate at the highest levels of American policymaking, died June 6 of a stroke. He was 68.
Spriggs was committed to challenging racial injustice in society and in economics, serving as an advocate for Black workers facing racial disparities in the labor market. He also worked toward organized labor, liberal economics and pay equity. Throughout his career, he researched concepts like the minimum wage, social security, national and international labor standards, trade, education and workforce discrimination.
In 2009, then-President Barack Obama plucked Spriggs from Howard University to be his Assistant Secretary of Labor for Policy at the Department of Labor. Spriggs held the position until 2012, and in his role with the Obama administration, he defended supporting the middle class and organized labor.
After leaving the Department of Labor, Spriggs served as chief economist at the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (known as the AFL—CIO) from 2012 until he died. He was the first Black man in that position. He also served on the board of the National Bureau of Economic Research and chaired the Economic Policy Working Group for the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
“Bill believed in economic justice; he knew that for too long, low-income and minority communities had been forgotten and neglected by our financial system. And it was his mission to strive for a fairer, more equitable economy,” said AFL—CIO President Liz Shuler. “A groundbreaking researcher and policy expert, he was respected and admired by everyone who had the privilege to know him.”
Spriggs was also a professor in the Department of Economics at Howard, and was chair of the department from 2005 to 2009.
In 2020, Spriggs wrote an open letter to economists, “ Is now a teachable moment for economists?” addressing the murder of George Floyd and the need to address racial inequality in economics.
“In the hands of far too many economists, it remains the assumption that African Americans are inferior until proven otherwise. And, in this regard, it places economists alone outside the mainstream of all other American social sciences,” the letter reads. “…Going forward, I hope that we will join other social sciences and accept that race is a social construct.”
Some of Spriggs’ other works include his 1994 book Raising the Floor: The Effects of the Minimum Wage on Low-wage Workers, and academic papers including his 2016’s “Wage Dynamics and Racial and Ethnic Occupational Segregation Among Less-Educated Men in Metropolitan Labor Markets” and his 2004’s “Negative Effects of State Welfare Policy on Recipient College Enrollment,” which both appeared in The Journal of Black Political Economy.
Spriggs earned various awards, including the Robert M. Ball Award and the Benjamin L. Hooks “Keeper of the Flame” Award. He was a member of the National Academy of Social Insurance and the National Academy of Public Administration. He was also the former president of the National Economics Association, a network of Black economists.
Born April 8, 1955, in Washington D.C., William Edward Spriggs grew up there and in Virginia. He attended Williams College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science. He then attended the University of Wisconsin, where he received his master’s degree in economics in 1979 and his doctorate in economics in 1984.
Spriggs began his career as an assistant professor at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, a historically Black university (HBCU), where he worked from 1981 until 1983. He next served as an assistant professor in the Department of Management at another HBCU – and one where his father, physicist Thurman Spriggs had once taught — Norfolk State University, from 1984 to 1990.
Pausing his career as an educator, Spriggs worked as a chair on the Healthcare Trust for UAW Retirees, a board member of the Retirement Healthcare Administration, a chair on the UAW Retirees of the Dana Corporation, a senior fellow of the Community Service Society, a senior fellow of the Economic Policy Institute and an executive director of the Institute for Opportunity and Equality League.
He went on to hold several economic policy positions, working as a senior adviser of the Office of Government Contracting and Minority Business Development at the U.S. Small Business Administration, a senior adviser at the Economics and Statistics Administration at the U.S. Department of Commerce, a senior economist on the minority staff for the Joint Economic Committee in the U.S. Congress, a director for the National Commission for Employment Policy and an economist for the Economic Policy Institute.
“Bill was a towering figure in his field, a trailblazer who challenged the field’s basic assumptions about racial discrimination in labor markets, pay equity and worker empowerment,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. “His work inspired countless economists, some of whom work for our Administration, to join him in the pursuit of economic justice.”
Spriggs is survived by his wife Jennifer Spriggs, their son William T. Spriggs and his sisters Patricia Spriggs and Karen Baldwin.