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Abraham, Katherine

Published onJul 30, 2021
Abraham, Katherine

(1954 -)

Quick Facts

A graduate of economics, Katharine Abraham served for 8 years as the Commissioner for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, improving consumer and producer price indexes and other statistics used to influence the economy.


Katharine Abraham was born in 1954 to two long-time Iowa State faculty members: her father Bill (Chemical Engineering) and her mother Roberta (English). At that time her father was working toward his doctorate at Purdue University.  Her father initially took a job with DuPont in Wilmington, Delaware, but the family moved to Ames, Iowa in 1962.  As an eight-year-old, she expected Ames to be like the westerns on TV: “Bonanza,” “Maverick,” “Sky King” and “Rawhide.” Ames proved to be more like “Growing Pains.”

 Other than a 2-year stay in the Philippines during a faculty leave, Katharine received her education in the Ames public school system.  She credits Ames High School debate coach Marvin Scott with teaching her how to formulate and defend an argument.  Mr. Scott drove the debate team all over Iowa for weekend tournaments.  She was so nervous, she could not eat before speaking in front of people, but she improved and the experience was enormously valuable professional preparation.

She started her undergraduate career at Carleton College.  After having spent a summer working for Tom Harkin’s first campaign for Congress, she intended to major in political science and then go on to law school, but she fell in love with economics.  With four siblings and their college tuitions looming, she transferred to Iowa State to lower expenses.  She continued competing in debate in college and continued to pursue economics, taking the graduate economic theory sequence as an undergraduate. She credits Wallace Huffman (1943-2020) with giving her the training necessary to prepare for the rigors of graduate school and Raymond Beneke (1919-2005) with convincing her that she had the ability to succeed.

Katharine graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Iowa State in 1976.  She earned a National Science Foundation Fellowship to attend Harvard University, where she worked with Professors James Medoff (1947-2012) and Richard Freeman (1943- ), who were starting off on what was to be viewed later as the Harvard approach to labor economics.  Their aim was to combine the rigor of microeconomic theory and econometric methods with policy-relevant applications.  After graduate school, she moved down Massachusetts Avenue to start her career on the faculty at MIT.  Her early research examined worker productivity, job tenure and wages within firms; the use of flexible staffing or outsourced work; and investigating the relative importance of demand-side versus supply-side explanations for unemployment. 

In 1987, she moved to the University of Maryland.  In 1993, only 11 years after completing her dissertation, she was nominated by President William Clinton to be the 11th Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).  She served two terms, 1993-2001.  During her 8-year tenure at the BLS, Dr. Abraham oversaw numerous improvements to the consumer and producer price indexes and to the survey methodology for the Current Employment Statistics, the development of the American Time Use Survey and the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey.  Her time at BLS influenced many of her more recent research papers that focus on issues of labor market measurement and data quality.

Dr. Abraham returned to the University of Maryland after leaving the BLS, where she is currently Professor of Economics and Survey Methodology and Director of the Maryland Center for Economics and Policy.  In 2008, she served as Vice President of the American Economic Association, the leading professional association for economists.  She returned to government service as a member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers from 2011-13.  Her resume includes a visiting position at Princeton and a 3-year stint as a research associate at the Brookings Institution.  Her academic and government work has garnered numerous accolades including elected Fellow status in the American Statistical Association and the Society of Labor Economists.  She serves as an adviser to the Congressional Budget Office, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.  She is also a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. 

 Iowa State has recognized Dr. Abraham’s accomplishments three times since graduation.  In 1988, she was named an Outstanding Young Alumnus.  In 1999, she was awarded the Distinguished Achievement Citation.  In 2002, she was presented with an honorary Doctor of Sciences.  Her citation from the Board of Regents concluded, [Dr. Abraham] “addresses questions that are central to economic science as well as to the lives of real people in the economy.”


Selected Sources

Abraham, Katharine G. Working to improve the nation’s economic health: Some reflections from Washington. Osher Lifelong Learning Institute Lecture, Iowa State University, April 15, 2014.

Abraham, Katharine G. “An Academic Economist in the Federal Bureaucracy.” Newsletter of the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession. Fall 2004

Abraham, Katharine G. “An Academic Economist in the Federal Bureaucracy.”  Newsletter of the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession.  Fall 2004

Hearing before the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, United States Senate 112th Congress, First session on the nominations of:  Katharine G.

Abraham, of Iowa, to be a member of the Council of Economic Advisers   March 8, 2011.

Hearing before the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, United States Senate 112th Congress, First session on the nominations of: Katharine G. Abraham, of Iowa, to be a member of the Council of Economic Advisers March 8, 2011 hrg65828.htm

Personal correspondence with Wallace Huffman, Roberta Abraham and Katharine

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