Topic Archives: The Economics Daily

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!

Time spent volunteering in 2013

In contrast to the usual BLS focus on paid employment (counting how many people are employed, their pay and benefits, and characteristics of workers and their jobs), this week we have a new BLS report about the important unpaid work that Americans do through volunteer activities. About 62.6 million people volunteered through or for an organization at least once between September 2012 and September 2013. The volunteer rate in 2013 was 25.4 percent, the lowest it has been since BLS began collecting comparable statistics about volunteers in 2002. Volunteers spent a median of 50 hours on volunteer activities from September 2012 to September 2013. Time spent on volunteer activities was similar for women and men. Among those who volunteered, median annual hours spent on volunteer activities ranged from a low of 36 hours for people 25 to 34 years old to a high of 86 hours for people age 65 and older.

In 2013, the organization for which the volunteer worked the most hours was most frequently religious (33.0 percent of all volunteers), followed by educational or youth service related (25.6 percent) and social or community service organizations (14.7 percent). Among volunteers with children under 18 years old, 44.5 percent of mothers and 38.3 percent of fathers volunteered mainly for an educational or youth service organization, such as a school or scouting group. Volunteers without children under age 18 were more likely than parents to volunteer for other types of organizations, such as social or community service organizations and religious organizations.

The activities that volunteers performed most frequently for their main organization were collecting, preparing, distributing, or serving food (10.9 percent), fundraising (10.0 percent), and tutoring or teaching (9.8 percent). Men and women tended to engage in different main activities. Men who volunteered were most likely to engage in general labor (11.4 percent) or coach, referee, or supervise sports teams (9.9 percent). Women were most likely to collect, prepare, distribute, or serve food (12.5 percent), fundraise (11.5 percent), or tutor or teach (11.4 percent).

The daily feature The Economics Daily includes some eye-catching interesting graphics on the characteristics of volunteers and their volunteer activities.

In closing, I want to mention that this week we posted a notice about the 2014 Budget Enacted for Bureau of Labor Statistics. In order to achieve the necessary savings for this funding level and protect core programs, the BLS will curtail the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages and the International Price Program. Through these measures, BLS will be able to preserve the quality of its remaining products.

Unpaid eldercare in the United States

There are more than 43 million people age 65 or older in the United States in 2013. That number has grown by more than 40 percent in the last 20 years, and the U.S. Census Bureau projects that the population of older Americans will continue to grow rapidly. As the population of older Americans has grown, so too have concerns about providing care to people who need help because of a condition related to aging. On Wednesday, BLS published a news release on unpaid eldercare in the United States. Eldercare providers are defined as individuals who provide unpaid care to someone age 65 or older who needs help because of a condition related to aging. This care can be provided to household or nonhousehold members, as well as persons living in retirement homes or assisted care facilities. Eldercare can involve a range of care activities, such as assisting with grooming, preparing meals, and providing transportation. Eldercare also can involve providing companionship or being available to assist when help is needed, and thus it can be performed simultaneously with nearly any other activity. Sixteen percent of the U.S. population age 15 and over (39.6 million people) provided unpaid eldercare in 2011–2012. Nearly one-fourth of eldercare providers engaged in unpaid eldercare on a given day, spending an average of 3.2 hours providing this care. The feature The Economics Daily includes a graphic on the characteristics of eldercare providers.

Consumer expenditures in 2012 and related articles

This has been an eventful week for the BLS Consumer Expenditure Survey. On Tuesday, BLS published a news release on consumer expenditures in 2012. Average expenditures per consumer unit in 2012 were $51,442, an increase of 3.5 percent from 2011 levels. The 2012 increase in spending outpaced the 2.1-percent increase in the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers. Most of the major components of household spending increased in 2012. The 11.2-percent rise in cash contributions (including payments for support of college students, alimony and child support, and giving to charities and religious organizations) was the largest percentage increase among all major components. Spending on transportation and health care rose significantly, while spending on housing and entertainment increased modestly. The feature The Economics Daily includes some graphics on trends in consumer spending over the last decade and on spending by category in 2012.

BLS also published a new Monthly Labor Review article this week about the ongoing research on the best ways to improve the Consumer Expenditure Survey. The survey collects information on spending, income, and household characteristics. This information is used by BLS in computing the Consumer Price Index. Information from the survey also is used by economic policymakers, businesses, academic researchers, and various federal agencies. The project to redesign the survey began in 2009 with the goal of reducing measurement error, particularly error associated with underreporting. Other goals of the redesign were to halt or reverse the decline in response rates while also managing operational costs. The article discusses the motivation, challenges, and accomplishments of the redesign initiative.