Topic Archives: Monthly Labor Review

Why This Counts: Maximizing Our Data Using the Consumer Expenditure Survey

Almost all BLS statistical programs are based on information respondents voluntarily give us. We want to squeeze as much information as we can out of the data respondents generously provide. Limiting respondent burden while producing gold-standard data is central to our mission.

Let’s take a look at how one program, the Consumer Expenditure (CE) Survey, squeezes every last drop of information from the data to provide you, our customers, with more relevant information.

What is the Consumer Expenditure Survey?

The CE survey is a nationwide household survey that shows how U.S. consumers spend their money. It collects information from America’s families on their buying habits (expenditures), income, and household characteristics (age, sex, race, education, and so forth). For example, we publish what percentage of consumers bought bacon or ice cream and how much they spent on average.

A little back story: The first nationwide expenditure survey began in 1888. BLS was founded in 1884, so the CE Survey is one of our first surveys! It wasn’t until 1980 that we began publishing CE data each year, however. A 2010 article, The Consumer Expenditure Survey—30 Years as a Continuous Survey, provides more historical information.

How is the CE program doing more with what we have?

We’ll briefly look at four different areas, starting with the most recent improvements:

  • Limited state data
  • Higher-income data
  • Generational data
  • Estimating taxes

Limited State Data – Starting with New Jersey

  • Regarding geographical information, the CE survey is designed to produce national statistics. Enough sample data are available to produce estimates for census regions and for a few metropolitan areas.
  • Up to now, however, we did not produce state data. The CE program recently published state weights for New Jersey, which will allow for valid survey estimates at the state level for the first time.
  • State-level weights are available for states with a sample size that is large enough and meet other sampling conditions.
  • Right now, the state-level weighting is experimental. We provide state-level weights to data users to gauge interest and usefulness.

 Higher-Income Table

  • We evaluated the income ranges of the published tables and found that over time more and more households were earning more, and the top income range had not increased to keep pace. To provide greater detail, we divided the existing top income range of “$150,000 and over” into two new ranges: “$150,000 to $199,999” and “$200,000 and over.” We integrated these changes into the 2014 annual “Income before taxes” research table, allowing more robust analysis for our data users.
  • In addition, we added four new experimental cross-tabulated tables on income without the need for additional information from our respondents.

Generational Table

Grouping respondent information by age cohort can be helpful, since a person’s age can help to predict differences in buying attitudes and behaviors. The CE program has collected age data for years, but never grouped the data into generational cohorts before. A Pew Research Center report defines five generations for people born between these dates:

  • Millennial Generation: 1981 or later
  • Generation X: 1965 to 1980
  • Baby Boomers: 1946 to 1964
  • Silent Generation: 1928 to 1945
  • Greatest Generation: 1927 or earlier

The 2016 annual generational table shows our most recent age information for the “reference person” or the person identified as owning or renting the home included in the CE Survey. In 2016 we wrote a short article on Spending Habits by Generation, including a video, which used 2015 data. We’ve updated the chart using 2016 data:

A chart showing consumer spending patterns by generation in 2016.

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

Estimating Taxes

CE respondents used to provide federal and state income tax information as part of the survey. These questions were difficult for respondents to answer.

Starting in 2013, the CE program estimated federal and state tax information using the TaxSim model from the National Bureau of Economic Research and removed the tax questions from the survey. As a result, the quality and consistency of the data increased, and we have reduced respondent burden!

If you have any questions or want more information, our staff of experts is always around to help! Please feel free to contact us.

This is just one example of how we at BLS are always looking for ways to maximize our value while being ever mindful of the costs—and one of those important costs is the burden our data collection efforts place on our respondents. Maximizing our data means providing gold-standard data to the public while reducing the burden on our respondents—a true win-win!

Annual consumer spending by generation of reference person, 2016
Item Millennials, 1981 to now Generation X, 1965 to 1980 Baby Boomers, 1946 to 1964 Silent Generation, 1928 to 1945 Greatest Generation, 1927 or earlier
Food at home $3,370 $4,830 $4,224 $3,450 $2,023
Food away from home 2,946 4,040 3,100 2,042 1,095
Housing 16,959 22,669 18,917 14,417 17,858
Apparel and services 1,753 2,577 1,602 920 615
Transportation 8,426 10,545 9,762 5,952 3,142
Healthcare 2,473 4,492 5,492 6,197 5,263
Entertainment 2,311 3,613 3,144 2,114 1,223
All other spending 10,338 15,766 14,963 6,671 4,125

Why This Counts: Celebrating 100 years of Current Employment Statistics

You’re only as old as you feel, or so the saying goes. Here at BLS, we agree that age is only a state of mind. I’m proud to say the Current Employment Statistics (CES) survey—which some call the “payroll survey” or the “establishment survey”—is still going strong as it turns 100 years old this month. To celebrate, BLS is hosting a free public event with exciting guest speakers and topical booths staffed with economists ready to answer your questions. We will hold the 100 Years of CES Symposium on October 19, 2015, in Washington, DC. You need to register to attend. We hope to see you there.

Throughout its 100 years, many things about the CES have remained the same, while others bear no likeness to the survey’s origins. Instead of the monthly news releases and web updates we post rapidly today, the start of the modern CES program was one table called the “Number of employees and amount of earnings in identical establishments in certain industries during one week of October and November, 1915,” published in the January 1916 Monthly Labor Review. Interestingly enough, when the survey began, many analysts viewed the amount of earnings as more useful than a count of employees because they believed earnings were more closely tied to changes in production. Employers were more likely to reduce hours worked and therefore pay than lay people off. Today, the headline number on the monthly jobs report is the number of jobs added or lost each month.

One crucial feature that remains unchanged is the survey’s reliance on voluntary reports from US employers. So, I thank CES survey respondents for your cooperation then and now, because the survey could not succeed without you. The U.S. labor market is fueled by business of all sizes and industries. The experience of each employer tells an important story, so I encourage you to say “yes” when we call to ask for your participation.

The states have always played an especially important role in making, publishing, and explaining CES estimates. I thank our state partners for their continued support of the CES program.

I encourage all our readers to check the Monthly Labor Review regularly in the coming months because we will publish several articles that highlight the survey throughout the decades. As always, your source of the most up-to-date information about national and state and metro area employment, hours, and earnings estimates is

Have a question about the survey? Staff economists are available Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Eastern time. For questions about national estimates, call (202) 691-6555 or send us an email. State and metro area economists are available at (202) 691-6559, and you also can email them.

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!

Recent publications and new K-12 Chart Maker tool

It has been another busy week with interesting new BLS publications and products. One item I want to draw your attention to is a Monthly Labor Review article that examines the rise in women’s share of nonfarm employment during the 2007–2009 recession. Back in January 1964, women held 31.7 percent of total nonfarm jobs. Women’s employment has continued to expand over the past half century and accounted for an unprecedented 50.0 percent of all payroll jobs in the last month of the 2007–2009 recession. Women’s share of payroll jobs held at that level for 11 consecutive months and then edged down; as of December 2013, however, that share was still high, at 49.5 percent. The author of the article, BLS economist Catherine Wood, examined trends in women’s and men’s employment during all previous recessions back to the 1969–1970 recession and found that men’s employment always declined at a greater rate than women’s employment. In fact, women’s employment even continued to increase during some recessions, although that was not the case during the 2007–2009 recession. Nevertheless, job losses among men outnumbered those among women by 2.6 to 1 during the most recent recession.

BLS also published a new edition of Spotlight on Statistics this week that presents a series of graphics on trends in income and expenditures during and after the 2007–2009 recession. In 2011, average household income exceeded the 2008 level in nominal terms (that is, without adjusting for price inflation). Similarly, in 2012, average consumer expenditures exceeded 2008 levels. While average income and expenditure levels have returned to prerecession levels, the gains have been distributed unevenly across income quintiles. (Income quintiles are five equally sized groups of households that have been divided from lowest to highest according to their annual income.) Between 2008 and 2012, the highest income quintile accounted for more than 80 percent of the total increase in household income in the United States, while the expenditure increases of the highest income quintile accounted for almost half of the total spending gains across all five quintiles during the same time period.

Last October I highlighted the new BLS K-12 pages, which provide classroom activities, games, quizzes, and more to make learning economics and statistics fun. The pages also provide information to help students learn more about career options. I mentioned that new material would be added to these pages regularly. This week we added a new Chart Maker tool that offers students and teachers a fun way to create interactive line, column, and bar charts.

Finally, I want to mention that we posted new information this week about the fiscal year 2014 budget enacted for BLS. I announced in late February that BLS will curtail the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages and the International Price Program in order to achieve the necessary savings for the 2014 funding level and protect core BLS programs. Since that announcement, discussions have been initiated to explore alternative federal sources of funding to continue producing and publishing the International Price Program export price indexes. BLS will continue to produce and publish these indexes through the first quarter of fiscal year 2015. Once the discussions to explore alternative funding sources are concluded, an announcement will be made concerning how the necessary data will be produced to avoid any disruption to the calculation of real Gross Domestic Product, which relies on the export price data.