Published by EH.NET (August 2006)


Susan B. Carter, Scott Sigmund Gartner, Michael R. Haines, Alan L. Olmstead, Richard Sutch, and Gavin Wright, editors, Historical Statistics of the United States, Volume Two: Work and Welfare. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xiv + 964 pp. $825 (for the five-volume set), ISBN: 0-521-58540-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Thomas N. Maloney, Department of Economics, University of Utah.

This book distills into one massive but handy volume the efforts of an inestimable number of researchers to quantify the development of labor market outcomes and living standards in U.S. history. It contains nearly ten thousand data series (or columns of data), spread across nearly one thousand pages, covering the following topics: “labor,” including labor force participation, occupations, wages, hours and working conditions, union participation, and household production; slavery; education; health; economic inequality and poverty; social insurance and public assistance; and nonprofit, voluntary, and religious entities. (The other four volumes in the Historical Statistics project cover “population,” “economic structure and performance,” “economic sectors,” and “governance and international relations.”)

While the agglomeration of all these data series is the obvious purpose of this project, the book also contains a series of essays introducing the data on each topic and providing context. These essays are uniformly well-written and useful. They are also quite accessible, which should make this volume an important resource for interested groups beyond the scholarly community. While the essays share these qualities, they also vary in their purposes and strengths.

A few of the essays provide an extensive amount of analytical discussion in addition to introducing the data series on a given topic. Susan B. Carter’s essay on “Labor” is practically a short course in U.S. economic history, examining the rise in living standards over time as it relates to increases in labor force participation and increases in the productivity of employed workers. Linda Barrington and Gordon M. Fisher’s essay on “Poverty,” while narrower in its focus, is similar in that it provides a very extensive, analytical discussion of changes in the concept of poverty over time and the implications of these changes for the measurement of poverty.

One of the main virtues of a reference work like this is that it can integrate related material that exists in many disparate and perhaps obscure original sources. A few of the essays (and their related data series) are especially valuable in this way, including Robert A. Margo’s contribution on “Wages,” William A Sundstrom’s piece on “Hours and Working Conditions,” Lee A. Craig’s essay on “Household Production,” Stephen T. Ziliak and Joan Underhill Hannon’s “Public Assistance: Colonial Times to the 1920s,” and Peter Dobkin Hall and Colin B. Burke’s essay on “Nonprofit, Voluntary, and Religious Entities.”

In other chapters, the data come largely from well-known sources. Nearly all of the material on occupations, for instance, comes from the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) Census samples, and much of the information on social welfare and social insurance programs in the twentieth century comes from the Social Security Bulletin. Even in these cases, though, the essays (by Matthew Sobek on “Occupations” and by Price V. Fishback and Melissa A. Thomasson on “Social Welfare: 1929 to the Present”) provide very useful insights into the proper interpretation of the numbers and changes in their meaning over time.

I would single out Claudia Goldin’s essay on “Education” as being particularly valuable as a guide to the use of the included data. Goldin provides an appendix to her essay in which she consolidates her discussion of sources, comments on how these series relate to those provided in prior editions of Historical Statistics, and also guides researchers to the best sources for future updates of these series. I hesitate to suggest this, having some sense of the gargantuan effort already expended on this work, but if any ongoing revisions are planned for the online version of this project, a brief appendix for each section, following Goldin’s model, would be a nice addition.

I obviously can not comment in detail on all of the included data series. I will note that I was struck by the breadth of the material included, even given my high expectations (and the thickness of the volume). The material on “Health,” overseen by Richard H. Steckel, goes well beyond the measures of well-being associated with anthropometric work and includes information on health care expenditure, the availability of hospitals and other health care facilities (and their use), insurance coverage, the supply of physicians and nurses, the prevalence of smoking and drug use, the composition of diets, and a number of other related phenomena. Similarly, Goldin’s chapter on education incorporates a wealth of detail not only on educational attainment but on subjects studied in school, faculty and staff numbers, standardized test scores, and higher education costs.

As inclusive as the volume is, though, there are some probably unavoidable holes. By design, national totals are emphasized, and very few of the series are presented in a geographically disaggregated way. In addition, some series that one might expect to find in this volume are presented elsewhere in the five-volume set and not repeated here. For instance, much of the material related to colonial-era slavery apparently appears in volume 5 (“Governance and International Relations”), chapter Eg (“Colonial Statistics”), and not in the “Slavery” chapter of this volume. This obviously should not be too great an inconvenience for individuals at institutions that acquire the complete five-volume set and the online version. I am certainly urging my university’s library to do so.

Thomas N. Maloney is an Associate Professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Utah. His research focuses on race, migration, and labor markets in the U.S. His recent work includes “Ghettos and Jobs in History: Neighborhood Effects on African American Occupational Status and Mobility in World War I-Era Cincinnati,” Social Science History 29:2.