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Margaret Martin: A Leader in the Federal Statistical System

1 September 2011 3,417 views One Comment
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Margaret E. Martin is both an economist and statistician by professional and academic training. Throughout her career, she was known for her leadership and contributions to the federal statistical system.

In 1933, Martin graduated from Barnard College with a bachelor’s degree in economics. After Barnard, Martin entered graduate school at Columbia University, where she went on to earn both an MA and PhD in economics.

With the United States in the midst of the Great Depression, jobs were scarce when Martin graduated from Barnard. She contemplated going to secretarial school or becoming a teacher of economics, but it was an occupation office from Barnard that encouraged her to take a government examination. After a few years of brushing the announcements for examinations to the side to focus on graduate school and fellowships, Martin finally took a New York State examination.

In 1938, Martin was hired by the New York State Division of Placement and Unemployment Insurance as a junior economist in the office of research and statistics. The agency had been set up as part of the New Deal, a series of economic programs that focused on relief, recovery, and reform implemented in response to the Great Depression. It was here she learned statistics from the ground up. Martin’s first assignment was the industrial and geographic classification of employers covered in the unemployment insurance system. Her job was to classify the establishments and then review the accuracy of reports and write analyses of the data.

During World War II, the War Manpower Commission (WMC) was established. It took over the research and statistics offices of the different state unemployment insurance agencies and ran the rationing of the labor force for the country. Martin was offered a higher-paying job at the WMC and moved on to become a senior economist, interviewing employers about whether they had a sufficient labor force and what they were doing to economize on that labor force.

Did You Know …?
Martin’s elementary school teacher was Clara Eliot Raup, Joan Rosenblatt’s mother.

February 5, 2005, was declared “Margaret Martin Appreciation Day” by the ASA.

In late 1942, Martin was recommended for a position at the U.S. Bureau of Budget’s (now the Office of Management and Budget) Division of Statistical Standards (DSS) (now the Office of Statistical Policy). At DSS, she was responsible for the improvement and coordination of statistics and the review and approval of forms. After accepting the position, Martin moved from Albany, New York, to Washington, DC, and began her career with the federal government.

The Current Population Survey

Martin was involved in the early development of the Current Population Survey (CPS). The Works Progress Administration (WPA)—a New Deal agency—developed the survey and, by 1940, was producing estimates of employment and unemployment that differed from any other estimates of employment obtained from establishment statistics. The government needed to decide if it would publish the results.

DSS hired Gladys Palmer, a research professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania who had experience with local labor market surveys and analyzing demographic data, as a consultant to deal with the issue. Palmer led a meeting composed of representatives of concerned federal agencies to determine whether this new type of statistics should be accepted. After months of discussion, the group finally agreed to recommend publication and the Monthly Report on the Labor Force (MRLF) was available for general use.

Shortly after, an unexpected situation arose. Production demands from WWII were reducing the number of unemployed so quickly that federal government assistance was no longer needed. The WPA was on the verge of being disbanded. Now the question was, should the MRLF be saved and, if so, by whom? Palmer was brought in again to lead a meeting concerning which federal agency should take over the survey. After much debate and compromise, it was decided that the Census Bureau would operate the survey, but the interests of the other departments would be protected by setting up two committees: a policy committee of the secretaries of agriculture, commerce, and labor and a supporting technical committee. Chaired by Palmer, the technical committee went on to develop the CPS.

Martin actively worked with a subcommittee under Palmer’s technical committee. One of their main concerns was trying to understand and explain differences between estimates of employment based on population and payroll samples and between unemployment estimates and the numbers claiming unemployment insurance. Martin prepared a statement on the differences between the household survey and the establishment survey on level, trend, and seasonal patterns. When differences were found, the committee resolved them by adding questions, such as whether persons were on paid or unpaid leave, to the CPS.

Martin (left) with Helen Walker—ASA president, 1944—at the 1980 Joint Statistical Meetings in Houston, Texas

The survey was refined and enlarged several times as its focus changed from unemployment during the Great Depression to employment after World War II. Currently, the CPS is the primary source of information on the labor force characteristics of the U.S. population. The data retrieved from the CPS are used by government policymakers and legislators as indicators of the nation’s economic situation and for planning and evaluating government programs. Today, the CPS is one of the most well known and widely used of all continuing federal household surveys. Approximately 50,000 households participate in the monthly survey.

A Presidential Committee

In September of 1961, Reader’s Digest published an article criticizing the nation’s employment and unemployment statistics because unemployment had not declined as expected after the recessions of 1954 and 1958. The article claimed that the statistics were inaccurate and that the Labor Department had manipulated the figures in support of President John F. Kennedy’s social welfare program.

Wanting an investigation of the charges, Kennedy appointed an outside committee—the President’s Committee to Appraise Employment and Unemployment Statistics—to review the statistics, define what the problems were, and make a public report. Martin was assigned to work for the committee half time.

Since the committee was small, Martin did much of the research herself. She collected reports from the major federal agencies concerned with either developing or using the various employment and unemployment series and asked them to prepare papers on their use, needs, and criticisms and/or recommendations for improvements. In 1962, a full report was delivered to Kennedy.

Both the committee and the Joint Economic Committee (JEC) had hearings on the issues and the report. The JEC invited the author of the Reader’s Digest article to testify at the hearings, but he refused to appear. It was found that the statistics had not been manipulated and the president and statistical agencies were cleared. In 1968, Martin received the Director’s Exceptional Service Award, Bureau of the Budget, for her efforts with the report.

An Accomplished Career

After 30 years of service, Martin retired from the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. Her final position was assistant chief of the Statistical Policy Division, in charge of labor and income statistics. In that role, she became well known for evaluating agency proposals for collecting relevant data and coordinating their efforts toward obtaining the best available information, maintaining reasonable limit burdens on respondents, and controlling expenditures for such activities. In addition, she was active in numerous special committees, both in the U.S. and abroad, and had a strong influence on U.S. economic policies. After her retirement from the government, Martin was honored by the heads of numerous agencies for her long-term significant contributions to data-collection systems concerning labor and income statistics.

In 1973, after retiring from the DSS, Martin started a new job as the first executive director of the newly formed Committee on National Statistics (CNSTAT) of the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council. She retired from that position in 1978, but continued to work with the committee as a senior research associate and then as a consultant, contributing to CNSTAT projects such as the Survey of Income and Program Participation and sharing research data.

In addition to her career responsibilities, Martin volunteered her time to several ASA posts. She is a Fellow of the ASA, was president of the Washington Chapter in 1957 and 1958, and served as the 75th president of the ASA in 1980. Martin was also a co-chair of the ASA Building and Development Fund campaign, which helped raise enough money to purchase the first ASA headquarters building in Alexandria, Virginia. She also helped develop a manual of policies and procedures, pulling together the constitution; bylaws; and various recommendations, polices, and actions that the board had taken over the preceding 20 years into a manual to hand to new ASA officers each year. In 1989, she received the first-ever Founders Award.

Martin was also an elected member of the International Statistical Institute, an honorary lifetime member of the board of the Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics, and chair of Section U (statistics) of the AAAS in 1986.

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One Comment »

  • Margaret Cantrell said:

    In addition to her wonderful contributions to statistics, Aunt Margaret is an amazing aunt, great aunt, and great-great aunt. She is adored and respected by her family. We have spent many hours with her: reading by the fire, making jigsaw puzzles, and playing solitaire. My older brothers remember rides in her convertible. We all have many memories of time spent with her in her home in Virginia and the cottage in Vermont.