Topic Archives: Beyond the Numbers

Up and Down the Turnpike: The Power of State Estimates of Consumer Spending

You may know New Jersey for its Turnpike, its Parkway, and ribbons of highways crisscrossing the state, but new information shows that New Jersey households have fewer vehicles than the U.S. average. New Jersey households have an average of 1.4 vehicles, compared with an average of 1.8 vehicles nationwide.

This is just one of the tidbits we can glean from experimental state weights in the Consumer Expenditure Survey just released for New Jersey. Producing state estimates is part of our continuing plan to expand the use of data on consumer spending. The first available state weights are for New Jersey. We hope to release weights for more states in the coming months.

The survey is a nationwide household survey designed to find out how U.S. consumers spend their money. It is the only federal government survey that provides information on the full range of consumer spending, incomes, and demographic characteristics. One way BLS uses the consumer spending data is to create the market basket of goods and services tracked in the Consumer Price Index. Besides the spending information, the survey also collects the demographic characteristics of survey respondents. The new state weights allow us to examine what the typical New Jersey household looks like.

New Jersey looks similar to the United States as a whole, and even more similar to the New York metro area, which encompasses much of the northern part of New Jersey. One notable difference between New Jersey and other areas is the number of vehicles. Transportation in the Consumer Expenditure Survey includes vehicle purchases and gasoline and other car-related expenses. We would expect to see lower transportation spending in New Jersey compared with the nation because of fewer vehicles present in the state and other reasons.

A chart showing income and consumer spending levels in 2016 in New Jersey, the New York metro area, and the United States.

Editor’s note: Data for this chart are available in the table below.

Now that we can produce statistically valid state estimates from the survey, we can answer all kinds of interesting questions. Many researchers look at different spending categories to examine public policies and to evaluate how certain decisions affect consumer behavior. Because we can now use the survey data to make estimates for certain states, researchers can explore these kinds of questions with more geographic detail. The chart below shows how New Jersey compares with the New York metro area and the nation in five of the broadest spending categories.

Average annual consumer spending in 2016 for selected categories in New Jersey, the New York metro area, and the United States.

Editor’s note: Data for this chart are available in the table below.

Policymakers, researchers, and other data users have often asked for data about spending habits and income for states. Many times, household surveys just do not have enough sample to provide reliable estimates for all possible user needs. With our continuing improvements to the Consumer Expenditure Survey, we are learning which states provide enough responses for us to produce statistically valid state estimates. Once we create these weights for the states that can support them, data users will be able to explore a wider range of questions about consumer spending.

You can learn more from BLS economist Taylor Wilson’s article, “Consumer spending by state: BLS puts New Jersey to the test.”

Average annual income and selected expenditures, 2016
Measure New Jersey New York
Metropolitan
Statistical Area
United States
Income $89,927 $87,212 $74,069
Total expenditures 63,100 65,764 54,157
Transportation expenditures 7,295 6,828 8,755
Average consumer spending in selected categories, 2016
Geography Housing Food Transportation Healthcare Entertainment
New Jersey $23,617 $8,641 $7,295 $5,239 $2,097
New York Metropolitan Statistical Area 24,308 9,190 6,828 4,260 2,277
United States 17,774 7,203 8,755 4,373 2,497

Visualizing BLS Data to Improve Understanding

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what’s the value of a striking, cool chart or map of some BLS data? At the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, we’re always thinking of better ways to help our users understand the information we produce. The global economy is complex, and the statistics to explain the economy can be complex too.

Data visualizations are one tool we use to present our data more clearly. What are data visualizations? They are any method of presenting numerical information visually—most commonly through charts and maps. Good data visualizations can improve understanding for all types of audiences, from students of all ages to experts with advanced degrees in economics, statistics, or other fields.

In recent years we’ve done more to include data visualizations in nearly all our publications. We have designed two of our publications to showcase data visualizations. One is The Economics Daily—or TED, as we call it. We publish a new edition of TED every business day, and we’ve done that since 1998. Each edition of TED typically includes a chart or map, sometimes two, with a few words to explain the data in the visualization.

Another publication geared toward data visualizations is Spotlight on Statistics. Spotlight tells a longer, more detailed story about a topic through a series of visualizations presented in a slideshow format. As with TED, Spotlight includes brief written analysis to explain more about the data.

Even our publications that feature mostly written analysis often include visualizations to tell a more complete story. Our flagship research journal, the Monthly Labor Review, has evolved a lot over its 100 years of publication to serve readers better; that evolution includes more and better data visualizations. Beyond the Numbers and BLS Reports often include visualizations as well.

We take pride in crafting our words carefully, but good data visualizations can complement the words. For example, during and after the Great Recession, the monthly Employment Situation news release has discussed the historically high levels of long-term unemployment. The number of long-term unemployed—those jobless 27 weeks or longer—has remained high years after the recession ended in June 2009. It’s one thing to read about long-term unemployment, but a good chart can tell the story even more clearly. long-term-unemployment

For an even broader perspective, we have a Spotlight on Statistics that examines long-term unemployment more fully.

Not only have we presented more data visualizations in recent years, but our visualizations also have gotten more sophisticated. A basic image can present information effectively. Take this simple map that shows the proportion of each state’s population age 16 or older that had a job in 2014. state-employment-population ratios

Now check out the interactive version of this map that we published in the March 9, 2015, edition of TED. When you hover over each state, more information pops up to show the state’s employment–population ratio in 2014 and how much it changed from 2013. When you hover over the items in the map legend, the states in each category light up more brightly to help you see the states with similar employment–population ratios. When you click on each state, you go to a webpage that provides even more information about the state’s labor market. Interactive features in our charts and maps give you the power to choose what information you want to see.

If you like the interactive features in our charts and maps, I think you’ll love the animation in some of our visualizations. Animation adds a time dimension to our data to let you see how measures change. For a great example of animation, see a TED we published last year that shows state unemployment rates before, during, and after the Great Recession.

The BLS website will feature even more data visualizations soon. Watch this space to learn more about them.

We share many of our data visualizations on Twitter, so follow us @BLS_gov. You also can sign up to receive email alerts for TED, Spotlight on Statistics, and our other publications.

And if you have created a great visualization of BLS data, please share it with us and the readers of this blog!

Seeking an expert to speak about the labor market and economy?

If you’ve ever visited the Bureau of Labor Statistics website or seen a news story about unemployment, inflation, wages, or some other economic topic, you know that BLS collects and publishes a huge volume of statistics to help inform businesses, workers, policymakers, households, and journalists about labor market and economic conditions in the United States. You also probably know that BLS has many publications that provide analytical insights about the mountains of statistics BLS produces. These publications include hundreds of news releases issued each year from the BLS national office and our regional offices. We also publish the Monthly Labor Review, Beyond the Numbers, our daily feature The Economics Daily, Spotlight on Statistics, and more.

Even if you are an experienced user of BLS data and publications, you may not know about another valuable service we provide: BLS can send an expert to speak at your conference, meeting, or classroom. If you are looking for a knowledgeable person to provide informative presentations about the U.S. labor market and economy, see our BLS Speakers page. Staff from our national office and our eight regional offices are happy to speak about such topics as the following examples:

  • How the government measures unemployment
  • Trends in labor force participation and long-term unemployment
  • How BLS calculates consumer, producer, and import and export prices
  • How many hours Americans work and how they spend their time outside of work
  • How local labor markets fared during and after the 2007–2009 recession
  • Trends in pay and benefits
  • Trends in workplace injuries, illnesses, and deaths
  • What labor productivity can tell us about the U.S. economy

Our experts can cover many other topics besides these and even customize topics to meet your needs.

I frequently speak at events myself. For example, in mid-July, I had the pleasure of participating in a lively conference at my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The topic of the conference, organized by the Institute for Research on Poverty, was “Building Human Capital and Economic Potential.” My talk described the ways in which BLS statistics inform us about the labor market, reviewed our resources for researchers, and told participants how they can help us.

It certainly was great to be back in Madison, and my BLS colleagues and I always enjoy the talks we give around the country. So if you need a speaker, we’re at your service!

New Producer Price Index methodology and latest editions of Beyond the Numbers

I want to tell you about three things this week: A major advance in a BLS Principal Federal Economic Indicator and two analyses that showcase some of the breadth and relevance of the work of BLS.

First, I call your attention to the culmination of a challenging effort to reconfigure and broaden an important economic series so that it can adapt to structural changes in the economy. BLS reported this past Wednesday that the Producer Price Index (PPI) for final demand increased 0.2 percent from December 2013 to January 2014 and by 1.2 percent over the 12 months ended in January. This release was the first to present data using new methods to calculate the PPI estimates. The PPI has now transitioned from the Stage of Processing (SOP) to the Final Demand-Intermediate Demand (FD-ID) aggregation system. This new system is the result of a longstanding objective to improve the measures by incorporating indexes for services, construction, government purchases, and exports. In comparison to the SOP system, the FD-ID system more than doubles current PPI coverage of the U.S. economy to over 75 percent of in-scope domestic production. Final demand includes goods, services, and construction which are sold for personal consumption, capital investment, government purchases, and export. Intermediate demand includes goods, services, and maintenance and repair construction sold to businesses, excluding capital investment. You can learn more about the new PPI aggregation system from two articles published recently in the Monthly Labor Review:

BLS also published two very interesting new editions of Beyond the Numbers this week. One examines the persistence of a high unemployment rate in New York City during the recovery from the 2007–2009 recession. From the end of the recession in June 2009 to the end of 2012, the unemployment rate in New York City declined by only 0.6 percentage point, to 8.8 percent. This relatively small drop in the New York City unemployment rate occurred during a period of robust growth in payroll jobs in the city (up 6.2 percent). This article examines the behavior of New York City’s unemployment rate from several perspectives.

The other edition of Beyond the Numbers published this week looks at the extent to which occupations are concentrated within industries. Some occupations are found in nearly every industry in the United States, while others are specific to one or only a few industries. Occupations concentrated in a single industry may require skills that are highly specific to that industry. If workers in these occupations become unemployed, it may be difficult for them to use their skills in other industries. However, workers in more widely distributed occupations may find it easier to transfer their skills in response to job loss. Occupational composition also may affect a growing industry’s ability to attract workers from elsewhere in the economy. For example, industries that rely on specialized, highly qualified workers may find that the high skill and training requirements act as a barrier to entry for displaced workers from other sectors.

Long term unemployment among men; employment trends among youth in summer 2013

As the U.S. labor market continues to recover following the 2007–2009 recession, many observers have expressed concern about the large number of people with long durations of unemployment. The long-term unemployed—those unemployed 27 weeks or longer—peaked at 45 percent of total unemployment in the spring of 2010, nearly a year after the recession ended in June 2009. The percentage has fallen since then, but the long-term unemployed still accounted for 37 percent of total unemployment in July 2013. This week BLS published a different perspective of long-term unemployment in a new edition of Beyond the Numbers. The report examines long-term unemployment over men’s careers. The report looks at men who were born in the years 1957 to 1964, the latter years of the baby boom. The analysis covers the mid-1980s through 2009, focusing on men’s employment histories from their mid-20s until their middle to late 40s and early 50s. The report examines the proportion of these men who had a long-term unemployment spell over their career, how long it took to find a job after their first long-term unemployment spell, and how the spell affected wages over time.

Also this week, BLS published a news release on employment and unemployment among youth in the summer of 2013. The youth labor force grows sharply between April and July each year. During these months, large numbers of high school and college students search for or take summer jobs, and many graduates enter the labor market to look for or begin permanent employment. This summer, the youth labor force ages 16 to 24 grew by 2.8 million, or 13.4 percent, to a total of 23.5 million in July. The labor force participation rate for all youth—the proportion of the population 16 to 24 years old working or looking for work—was 60.5 percent in July, the same as a year earlier. The feature The Economics Daily includes some graphics on summer youth labor force participation.