Dr. William E. Spriggs. Photo from the Minneapolis Fed.
The loss of a giant
by Kelsey Moore — Center for Economic and Policy Research
CEPR was deeply saddened to learn about the passing of Bill Spriggs on June 6. His impact on the economics profession and economic policy will continue to be felt for many years to come. Bill dedicated his life to the passionate pursuit of racial and economic justice.
Bill graduated from University of Wisconsin’s economics program when Black Ph.D.s in economics were few and far between. Unfortunately, this is still the case. Bill felt a serious responsibility to try to address this problem, spending much of his career teaching at historically Black colleges or universities, including a long stint as the chair of the Economics Department at Howard University. He acted as a mentor to many aspiring Black economists.
He also sought to promote policies that improved the economic plight of Black people and working people more generally. He wrote numerous academic and policy pieces examining the causes of inequality and racial disparities. From 2009 to 2012, he served as the Assistant Secretary of Labor for policy and later spent many years as the chief economist at the AFL-CIO.
His influence expanded in these years as Bill grew into the role of public intellectual, speaking widely about the barriers facing Black workers and Black communities. His disarming manner put even those he was challenging at ease, and made space for uncomfortable conversations about the real causes and consequences of high Black unemployment and the disproportionate representation of Black workers in low-paying jobs. He could be a charming speaker, but he drove his points home with arguments grounded in a deep understanding of the economy and how it was shaped by policies that operated to the detriment of Black workers and, indeed, all workers.
In particular, Bill was one of the leading economists in the effort to get the Federal Reserve Board to reconsider its approach to monetary policy, arguing that the Fed had to give its mandate to promote full employment at least equal importance to its commitment to price stability. Bill pointed out that African-Americans and other disadvantaged groups were disproportionately the victims of the increased unemployment that results when the Fed focuses on price stability with insufficient regard for the other part of its dual mandate, full employment.
Bill’s views were at least partially vindicated in recent years, when Fed Chair Jerome Powell began using language very similar to Bill’s when speaking about the Fed’s mandate in the years leading up to the pandemic. Neel Kashkari, the Minnesota Fed Bank president, began reading out the unemployment rates for Black people and other minorities at every Fed meeting. In this respect, it’s worth pointing out that Black unemployment reached its lowest level on record just two months ago.
Bill was an invariably kind and generous person. He recognized the importance of keeping racial equity at the forefront of economic policymaking to ensure discussions about the working class included all workers. He was a friend and champion of CEPR. Those of us who had the honor of working with him personally have lost a dear friend and mentor. His contributions, wit and passion will be deeply missed.
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