Topic Archives: U.S. Statistical System

Celebrating 75 Years of BLS Regional Offices

World War II had a significant impact on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1942, the Office of Price Administration asked BLS to help them understand what was going on with prices and price controls. Price controls? Remember, this was during World War II and there was significant government intervention in markets. Shortly after that, the National War Labor Board asked BLS to conduct surveys and evaluate wage rate increases. These two projects showed the need for local information, not just national averages. Why am I writing about events from World War II? Well, the growing need for local data led BLS to create our regional offices, and we recently celebrated their 75th anniversary. I want to tell you a little about these offices and their rich history.

Today, BLS staff throughout the country collect price and wage data and more. As you can imagine, the uses of these data and the methods for collecting them have changed significantly. Our regional offices collect survey data, work closely with our state partners, and help people find and understand the information they need.

Survey data collection has changed significantly from the 1940s. Today our regional staff throughout the country work with survey respondents to make it as easy as possible to provide accurate information. Modern technology makes it easier to respond to our surveys, but even more important is the close relationships our regional staff have with survey respondents. That high-touch, high-tech approach has proven successful and helped us achieve high response rates.

BLS has a long history of working with states. We wrote about this unique and important partnership back in 2016. Our regional staff work closely with their state colleagues to provide data that are timely, accurate, and relevant to the local economy. We are proud of our partnership with the states.

Finally, each regional office has a small staff of economists dedicated to providing information to the public. These Economic Analysis and Information staff write news releases and other reports that focus on local data. The staff support our data collection efforts through outreach to local business communities and associations. The staff also provide information to people and businesses who use data to make important decisions.

What started as a way to provide analysis on government price controls and wage increases has evolved and blossomed into an integral part of BLS. The pioneering staff from our past and the dedicated staff of today allow us to produce gold standard economic statistics.

Congratulations to the BLS regional offices staff on 75 years of excellent service to the nation!

BLS Microdata Now More Easily Accessible to Researchers across the Country

I am pleased to announce that BLS is now part of the Federal Statistical Research Data Center Network.

Researchers at universities, nonprofits, and government agencies can now go to 24 secure research data centers across the United States to analyze microdata from our National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth and our Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses. Before, researchers had to visit our headquarters in Washington, D.C., to use these data.Image of researchers examining data.

Making our underlying data more accessible for researchers from coast to coast is a huge step forward, and I hope it will lead to a surge in research using BLS data. I believe that having more researchers use BLS data not only will showcase new uses of the data but improve our products by encouraging researchers from BLS and other organizations to collaborate. It also supports transparency because external researchers can analyze inputs to our published statistics.

Another key benefit to having BLS data alongside datasets from the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics is that researchers can combine data from two or more agencies. Using multiple datasets allows researchers to match data to answer new questions with no more burden on our respondents. Put simply, more data = better research = better decisions that rely on research.

Researchers are enthusiastic about adding BLS data to the research data center network.

“We at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta are excited that more BLS microdata are available to researchers. Policy questions are usually complicated. Matched data from different sources can give researchers a much better understanding of economic relationships. That will help us provide more informed policy advice,” said John Robertson, senior policy adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

Over the next year, we will add more BLS data to the research data centers based on user demand.

Researchers can also still visit us at our D.C. headquarters to access our full suite of microdata. To learn more and to apply, see our BLS Restricted Data Access page.

The Value and Influence of Labor Statistics in the 21st Century

What’s in the “DNA” of BLS—what were we born with? Not so long ago, as I prepared to become BLS Commissioner, I read the First 100 Years of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The first chapter describes how BLS was created (in 1884) during a time of severe economic upheaval and industrial unrest. Policymakers of the time realized that a key barrier to peace and shared prosperity was the lack of trustworthy information about the economy. What has struck me ever since is how we can trace some of the distinguishing features of today’s modern BLS directly back to those first days, to the vision of one of our founders. This post links that past to the BLS of today.

Carroll D. Wright, first BLS Commissioner

Commissioner Carroll D. Wright

In 1893, sometime after becoming the first Commissioner of Labor, Carroll D. Wright set forth a mission for the agency. He was a pioneer in the search for truth and a better understanding of labor statistics by the public. In his Value and Influence of Labor Statistics (later published in the 54th Bulletin of the Bureau of Labor), he described our mission as collecting “information upon the subject of labor in the United States, its relation to capital, the hours of labor, and the earnings of laboring men and women, and the means of promoting their material, social, intellectual, and moral prosperity.”

Today, our mission is much the same as it was then. Commissioner Wright established a modern statistical agency long before the Internet made it possible for anyone to access our data and read our publications on demand. These days we say that our mission is “to collect, analyze, and disseminate essential economic information to support public and private decision-making.” While the wording has evolved with the times, the core meaning remains the same. Furthermore, in support of our mission for the past 132 years, BLS has practiced what Commissioner Wright termed “the fearless publication of the facts without regard to the influence those facts may have upon any party’s position or any partisan’s views.”

Wright developed much of the vision and practices that he instilled here while working for the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor from 1873 to 1878. There he launched several studies to provide the people of Massachusetts with accurate labor market data. One of the largest studies was to find out the true unemployment level in Massachusetts. At the time, many people believed there were 200,000–300,000 people unemployed in the state and 3,000,000 unemployed in the entire country. Alarmists spread word through newspapers, speeches in Congress, and political resolutions until these figures were widely believed as fact, despite no previous attempt to measure unemployment. Wright’s staff canvassed the state twice to discover if the rumored number was accurate. The Bureau of Statistics of Labor of Massachusetts determined the true number of unemployed in the state was 28,508 skilled and unskilled laborers in June 1878; by November there were fewer than 23,000 unemployed, while the national number could not have been more than 460,000 unemployed. Wright explained that “The figures published by the report were used all over the country, and completely reversed the popular belief relative to the vast number of the alleged unemployed in the country.”

Today, you can see a parallel between Wright’s efforts to learn and classify the number of unemployed workers in Massachusetts and how BLS has expanded its offering to include six alternative measures of unused or underused labor. We call these measures U-1 through U-6. BLS not only calculates these alternative measures nationally, but also for each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and two large metro areas. This ensures that the American public, researchers, and policymakers have a wide range of data to understand the health of the labor market and make important decisions.

Also similar is our enduring focus on specific populations in the workforce. Under Wright’s leadership, state Bureaus of Labor investigated the use of child labor and uncovered the “evils it entailed upon the community.” The Bureaus published the number of young children (those under 10 years old) who worked in factories and workshops. Because of these studies, the numbers declined significantly. Time and again, Wright sought out the facts and ensured the American people had the information they needed to make decisions. Wright said, “It is only through rigid, impartial, and fearless investigations that any community can know itself in many directions.”

Today, we continue to seek new and better measures about particular groups in our economy and society. For example, in recent years BLS expanded the scope of the Current Population Survey to include six new questions to identify people with disabilities. These data provide insight into the labor market challenges of people with disabilities. The data aid individuals, nonprofit organizations, employers, and policymakers in making decisions affecting the lives of Americans with disabilities. Our monthly Employment Situation report now includes information about the employment status and labor force participation of the more than 30 million Americans age 16 and older living with a disability.

Our “DNA,” that is, our mission, our vision, and our understanding of the value of the statistics we produce, is as important today as it was in 1884. We continue our determined work to impartially collect, analyze, and publish essential economic information to support private and public decision-making. Today BLS provides a wide variety of information that benefits all Americans. I am certain that Commissioner Wright would be pleased that our reports, charts, and data are far more accessible than he ever could have imagined. Whether you’re exploring a new occupation, starting a business, looking for the change in consumer and producer prices, identifying average wages by occupation, or learning how Americans spend their time, there’s a stat for that. For all these situations and many more, BLS helps Americans make smart decisions in their lives. The cost of providing this valuable information may come out to less than $2 per person each year, but its positive impact remains priceless.

Honoring Two Fearless BLS Visionaries

In January 2013, when I was sworn in as the 14th Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I couldn’t help thinking about my predecessors in the position. Each of the previous 13 commissioners has played a unique and pivotal part in the development of this agency in pursuit of our mission to produce data vital to the economic health of our country. I often focused on the first commissioner, Carroll D. Wright, and the 10th, and first female commissioner, Janet L. Norwood. They both played extraordinary roles in making BLS today one of the preeminent statistical agencies in the world.

For this reason, yesterday was an extremely special day for BLS and for me. U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Tom Perez inducted Carroll Wright and Janet Norwood into the Labor Hall of Honor—on World Statistics Day, no less!

Commissioner Erica Groshen speaks at the Labor Hall of Honor with Labor Secretary Tom Perez, Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen, and Clark University president David Angel

Commissioner Erica Groshen speaks at the Labor Hall of Honor induction ceremony with Labor Secretary Tom Perez, Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen, and Clark University President David Angel.

 

The power of statistics and how they help people make informed decisions was certainly on display. The induction ceremony also showed the outsized influence these two extraordinary statisticians and public servants have had on BLS and the country.

For example, did you know that Carroll Wright was self-trained as a statistician, yet served as BLS Commissioner, Chief of the Massachusetts Bureau of Labor Statistics, Superintendent of the Decennial Census, and President of the American Statistical Association? Even so, I believe his greatest accomplishment was his profound commitment that statistics produced by BLS would be devoted to “the fearless publication of the facts without regard to the influence those facts may have upon any party’s position or any partisan’s views.” I love the word “fearless” here—an unusual but totally apt tribute to BLS data nerds!

Wright’s work to ensure the impartiality of government statistics is still the bedrock of our agency and his greatest legacy. Articulating this doctrine and fashioning the steps to achieve it (as obvious as they might seem today) were key innovations when he introduced them.

Labor Secretary Tom Perez speaks at the Labor Hall of Honor with Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen, Clark University president David Angel, and Commissioner Erica Groshen.

Labor Secretary Tom Perez speaks at the Labor Hall of Honor induction ceremony with Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen, Clark University President David Angel, and Commissioner Erica Groshen.

 

Almost 100 years later, Janet Norwood carried on in Wright’s tradition. After rising through the ranks as a career employee at BLS, she was nominated to be the 10th Commissioner. Janet served as BLS Commissioner for 13 years, spanning three Presidential administrations. When she retired in 1991 after 28 years of service at BLS, the New York Times said she had a “near-legendary reputation for nonpartisanship.”

She was also responsible for making BLS what it is today—a model workplace with professional, dedicated employees fearlessly (!!) producing quality statistics for U.S. policymakers, businesses, and families. BLS rose to new heights of prominence as a result, with Janet testifying before Congress an amazing 137 times during her 13 years as Commissioner!

Both Carroll Wright and Janet Norwood set new standards for BLS Commissioners, and it was truly a highlight of my time as Commissioner to see them inducted into the prestigious Labor Hall of Honor.

Experimental Disease-Based Price Indexes Now Available

I am extremely pleased to announce that BLS has released a new data product, experimental disease-based price indexes.

These indexes will give data users better ongoing information about the evolution of the nation’s healthcare system. Because healthcare is such a large part of our economy, it is incredibly important we produce timely, accurate, and reliable medical statistics.

Currently, all federal statistical agencies report healthcare data by what’s called the “medical goods and services categories.” However, this approach doesn’t tell us one important thing: Which diseases have the greatest effect on healthcare spending over time?

After identifying the diseases that affect spending the most, we can drill down to learn the reasons for their growth. With disease-based price indexes, we can break down the growth into categories, such as the parts that come from inflation, population growth, growth in disease prevalence, and real per capita output growth. We can’t do any of this with our traditional medical goods and services categories, such as physician services, pharmaceuticals, and hospitals.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis now reports spending by disease in their national healthcare satellite accounts, so we also need disease-based price indexes to adjust for inflation. Disease-based price indexes measure healthcare inflation differently and capture the effects of innovations that our traditional medical goods and services price indexes do not. For example, better surgical procedures have enabled doctors to perform many types of surgery using a less expensive outpatient setting, instead of an expensive inpatient hospital. The disease-based price indexes allow us to measure the effect of this shift.

I am incredibly proud of the team who produced these experimental disease-based price indexes. These indexes fulfill our BLS mission to continuously improve our products and provide timely, accurate, and relevant data to our users. These indexes also come at no additional cost because of the team’s innovative use of existing data, such as the freely available Medical Expenditure Panel Survey. We at BLS strive every day to provide the best value for your taxpayer dollars, and this is a shining example of that effort!

We also could not provide gold-standard data such as these indexes without the help of our survey respondents. I deeply appreciate all the medical providers who voluntarily participate in our survey. Their cooperation is essential for generating our medical price indexes and ensures our healthcare data are accurate.

Disease-based price indexes are still in their infancy, and we have much to learn, including the best way to incorporate them into overall price indexes. That’s why we describe them as experimental. We hope data users will find them helpful. We invite you to share your thoughts and ideas to help us continue to develop these indexes. And, as Commissioner, I hope you can see why I am so proud of this key contribution BLS has made to ensuring better medical statistics now and in the future.