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The Value and Influence of Labor Statistics in the 21st Century

What’s in the “DNA” of BLS—what were we born with? Not so long ago, as I prepared to become BLS Commissioner, I read the First 100 Years of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The first chapter describes how BLS was created (in 1884) during a time of severe economic upheaval and industrial unrest. Policymakers of the time realized that a key barrier to peace and shared prosperity was the lack of trustworthy information about the economy. What has struck me ever since is how we can trace some of the distinguishing features of today’s modern BLS directly back to those first days, to the vision of one of our founders. This post links that past to the BLS of today.

Carroll D. Wright, first BLS Commissioner

Commissioner Carroll D. Wright

In 1893, sometime after becoming the first Commissioner of Labor, Carroll D. Wright set forth a mission for the agency. He was a pioneer in the search for truth and a better understanding of labor statistics by the public. In his Value and Influence of Labor Statistics (later published in the 54th Bulletin of the Bureau of Labor), he described our mission as collecting “information upon the subject of labor in the United States, its relation to capital, the hours of labor, and the earnings of laboring men and women, and the means of promoting their material, social, intellectual, and moral prosperity.”

Today, our mission is much the same as it was then. Commissioner Wright established a modern statistical agency long before the Internet made it possible for anyone to access our data and read our publications on demand. These days we say that our mission is “to collect, analyze, and disseminate essential economic information to support public and private decision-making.” While the wording has evolved with the times, the core meaning remains the same. Furthermore, in support of our mission for the past 132 years, BLS has practiced what Commissioner Wright termed “the fearless publication of the facts without regard to the influence those facts may have upon any party’s position or any partisan’s views.”

Wright developed much of the vision and practices that he instilled here while working for the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor from 1873 to 1878. There he launched several studies to provide the people of Massachusetts with accurate labor market data. One of the largest studies was to find out the true unemployment level in Massachusetts. At the time, many people believed there were 200,000–300,000 people unemployed in the state and 3,000,000 unemployed in the entire country. Alarmists spread word through newspapers, speeches in Congress, and political resolutions until these figures were widely believed as fact, despite no previous attempt to measure unemployment. Wright’s staff canvassed the state twice to discover if the rumored number was accurate. The Bureau of Statistics of Labor of Massachusetts determined the true number of unemployed in the state was 28,508 skilled and unskilled laborers in June 1878; by November there were fewer than 23,000 unemployed, while the national number could not have been more than 460,000 unemployed. Wright explained that “The figures published by the report were used all over the country, and completely reversed the popular belief relative to the vast number of the alleged unemployed in the country.”

Today, you can see a parallel between Wright’s efforts to learn and classify the number of unemployed workers in Massachusetts and how BLS has expanded its offering to include six alternative measures of unused or underused labor. We call these measures U-1 through U-6. BLS not only calculates these alternative measures nationally, but also for each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and two large metro areas. This ensures that the American public, researchers, and policymakers have a wide range of data to understand the health of the labor market and make important decisions.

Also similar is our enduring focus on specific populations in the workforce. Under Wright’s leadership, state Bureaus of Labor investigated the use of child labor and uncovered the “evils it entailed upon the community.” The Bureaus published the number of young children (those under 10 years old) who worked in factories and workshops. Because of these studies, the numbers declined significantly. Time and again, Wright sought out the facts and ensured the American people had the information they needed to make decisions. Wright said, “It is only through rigid, impartial, and fearless investigations that any community can know itself in many directions.”

Today, we continue to seek new and better measures about particular groups in our economy and society. For example, in recent years BLS expanded the scope of the Current Population Survey to include six new questions to identify people with disabilities. These data provide insight into the labor market challenges of people with disabilities. The data aid individuals, nonprofit organizations, employers, and policymakers in making decisions affecting the lives of Americans with disabilities. Our monthly Employment Situation report now includes information about the employment status and labor force participation of the more than 30 million Americans age 16 and older living with a disability.

Our “DNA,” that is, our mission, our vision, and our understanding of the value of the statistics we produce, is as important today as it was in 1884. We continue our determined work to impartially collect, analyze, and publish essential economic information to support private and public decision-making. Today BLS provides a wide variety of information that benefits all Americans. I am certain that Commissioner Wright would be pleased that our reports, charts, and data are far more accessible than he ever could have imagined. Whether you’re exploring a new occupation, starting a business, looking for the change in consumer and producer prices, identifying average wages by occupation, or learning how Americans spend their time, there’s a stat for that. For all these situations and many more, BLS helps Americans make smart decisions in their lives. The cost of providing this valuable information may come out to less than $2 per person each year, but its positive impact remains priceless.