CSMGEP Profiles: William Spriggs, Howard University

No Economy without Equality

William Spriggs, Chief Economist to the AFL/CIO, Professor and Former Chair, Department of Economics at Howard University, Washington, D.C.

Feminist and freethinker Fanny Wright once said, “Equality is the soul of liberty; there is, in fact, no liberty without it.” Economist William Spriggs would say equality is the soul of a healthy economy; there is no healthy economy without it.

Those who most influenced his quest for equality include his father, a Tuskegee Airman who earned his PhD in physics and taught for many years, and his mother, who was a World War II veteran and school teacher. Spriggs was in elementary school at the same time his mother was finishing college, and he often read children’s books on the same topics she was studying. Growing up in Washington, DC during the ‘60s, he was inspired by leaders in the Civil Rights movement. Spriggs took his career cue from the movement’s lawyers who helped him see that there was a lack of economists who dealt with issues of equal economic rights.

Spriggs decided to help fill that gap, and his career developed into an expression of his commitment to economic justice. He earned his PhD in economics from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and was co-president of the local Teaching Assistants’ Association of the American Federation of Teachers. He taught economics at North Carolina A&T State and Norfolk State University in Virginia, both Historically Black Universities. Since 2005, Spriggs has been an economics professor in, and former chair of, the Department of Economics at Howard University. He took leave from 2009 to 2012 when President Obama appointed him to serve as Assistant Secretary for the Office of Policy at the U.S. Department of Labor. Currently, along with teaching at Howard, Spriggs is chief economist to the AFL/CIO.

Indeed, he has been a leader in several Washington, DC-based institutions. He was a senior fellow and economist at the Economic Policy Institute, Director Designate of the National Commission for Employment Policy, Senior Economist, Minority Staff for the Joint Economic Committee in the U.S. Congress, senior adviser and economist in the Economics and Statistics Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, and senior adviser in the Office of Government Contracting and Minority Business Development at the U.S. Small Business Administration. For six years, he was Executive Director of the National Urban League’s Institute for Opportunity and Equality where he had opportunities to work with civil rights leaders like Dr. Dorothy Height and Reverend Joseph Lowery.

Many of Spriggs’ major career achievements revolve around the concept of economic justice. In the mid-‘90s he organized a campaign that compelled President Clinton to appoint an African American member to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Also under the Clinton administration, Spriggs was a principal lead in the economic study behind the “mend but not end” affirmative action in federal minority procurement. In 1995, he was part of the team that raised the minimum wage from $4.75 to $5.15.

Spriggs links some of his favorite moments with those who inspired him. He says, “I am so awestruck working around my heroes—alongside John Lewis, Bobby Rush, Julian Bond, and Jesse Jackson. I always find that amazing.” In fact, Spriggs says that the greatest moment in his career occurred when he was Assistant Secretary for Policy at the Department of Labor as he was briefing the Black Leadership Forum in the basement of the National Council for Negro Women’s building. At one point, Dorothy Height insisted that the group be quiet so she could hear him speak. Spriggs says, “Having sat in that room so many times, and soaking up the wisdom of her leadership, it was the highest tribute ever to have her say that.”

Just as he was inspired, so Spriggs inspires others. He was instrumental in the careers of some of the nation’s top young economists including Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, Cheryl Hill Lee, and Valerie Wilson. Having been their boss at the National Urban League, Spriggs made sure they were exposed to hot-topic issues at the start of their careers. He believes that “the most impact [on the economics field] and the real legacy comes from teaching and mentoring the next generation.” In fact, it is the next generation of economists that he trusts to change the status quo of the current economic situation, which he thinks is failing due to leaders who refuse to consider the impact of inequality. Spriggs says, “I hope that a new generation will rise that is appropriately skeptical of the orthodoxy and challenge the premises of those who currently dominate the field. Among those challenges should be the continued attempts to treat discrimination as a side show, and take seriously modeling discrimination as a real phenomenon.”

Actually, in an article published shortly after this year’s AFL/CIO convention, Spriggs claims that discrimination is the reason for the current shape of the economy. Speaking of the loss of jobs and wages for the bottom 99 percent, Spriggs asserts, “If we understand the cause was inequality we can fix this economy, but if we continue to create more inequality we will break the economy. Shared prosperity, not this weak recovery, is what will get us to sustainable growth.”

Today Spriggs continues to defend the same rights and principles for which his heroes stood: an economy based not on discrimination but on diversity and equal access. Perhaps, in the future, some of the 2,100 African American students to whom Spriggs has taught economics will not have to defend these rights. Maybe they will be able to turn their attention and expertise elsewhere because equality in our economy will no longer be an issue. If that happens, it will be partly because Spriggs continued to fight long after the Civil Rights movement was “over.”

Proust Questionnaire

A salon and parlor game of the 19th century, made most famous by Marcel Proust's answers, the Proust Questionnaire (adapted here) gets to the heart of things....

What is your idea of a perfect day?
    Watching my son win an award

What’s on your nightstand?
    My cell phone

What’s your favorite indulgence?
    A cheeseburger—which I should limit

Whom do you most admire?
    My Dad

What is your greatest regret?
    Not seeing more of my Mom

What is your greatest achievement?
    Raising a son who loves God and has a sense of justice

If you weren't in economics, what would you do?
    Be a civil rights litigator

What do you value most in your friends?
    Their sense of justice

What is your favorite movie or book?
    DuBois, The Philadelphia Negro (amazing quantitative work for an age of no computers in an era of little empirical social science)

What would be your dream job?
    U.S. Ambassador to the OECD

What misconceptions do people have about economists?
    We are nerds

What is your most treasured possession?
    A letter from Senator Kennedy thanking me for my work on the minimum wage increase in 1995 with his signature on the copy of the Senate roll call vote