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October 31, 2023 HUMAN RIGHTS

Human Rights Hero: William Spriggs

by Charles L. Betsey

William (Bill) Spriggs passed away on June 6, 2023, at age 68. Bill was an energetic, kind, and giving person and a brilliant economist who made racial and social justice a priority focus of his scholarship, advocacy, and policy work. As tributes to Bill in the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fortune, and elsewhere have noted, his research and policy interests were broad. They included macroeconomics and the role of the Federal Reserve, minimum wages, workers’ rights and trade union issues, social insurance, climate change, trade policy, and more.

I met Bill early in his first stint at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) sometime around 1990. I had recently joined the Howard University faculty as chairman of the Economics Department, and Bill had a project to study the impact of an increase in the minimum wage on a local labor market. Bill’s innovative approach, collecting original data rather than relying on secondary data to study an issue, was emblematic of his research and policy approach over his career. 

From EPI, he went on to serve in a variety of positions, including as staff to the Joint Economic Committee, the Economics and Statistics Administration of the Department of Commerce, and as senior vice president of the National Urban League directing its Washington, D.C., office. Bill joined the Howard faculty as chair of the Economics Department in 2005. He subsequently took leave to serve as assistant secretary of labor for policy in the Obama administration. After rejoining the Howard faculty in 2012, Bill became the chief economist of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and served in both positions until his death. 

Bill believed deeply in the role of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), perhaps because his father had been an HBCU faculty member. He embraced Howard and worked intentionally and diligently to improve its standing in the economics community and more broadly. He created the Center on Race and Wealth with a grant from the Ford Foundation. One of the Center’s goals was to grow the number of people of color conducting research and advocacy related to the racial wealth gap.

At Howard, Bill encouraged the economics alumni group in their efforts to support students in the department. He mentored undergraduate and graduate students as well as junior faculty. Because he was engaged in Washington policy circles, Bill attracted recognition for the department, its students, and their accomplishments. Bill brought thought leaders to campus and encouraged collaboration and student internships with organizations such as the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, the Congressional Budget Office, and others.

In his role as chief economist of the AFL-CIO, Bill chaired the Economic Policy Working Group of the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and served on the Board of Directors of the National Bureau of Economic Research.

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Bill wrote an open letter to economists challenging the assumptions and empirical approaches that many economists employ in addressing issues of racial discrimination and racial disparities. He called on economists to better understand how history and policy have shaped racial categories and to focus on studying big questions about the institutions that shape economic outcomes.

In his statement acknowledging Bill’s passing, President Joe Biden said, “I am deeply saddened by the passing of Bill Spriggs, a man who brought as much lasting brilliance to economics as he brought joy to his friends and colleagues.”

Bill’s accomplishments could not have been possible without the support of his wife Jennifer. Our prayers and condolences go out to Jennifer, their son Will, and Bill’s family and many friends. May he rest in peace and power. 

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Charles L. Betsey

Professor Emeritus at Howard University.

Charles L. Betsey is professor emeritus and former co-director of the Center on Race and Wealth at Howard University. He previously served as interim dean of the Graduate School.