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Tag Archives: Consumer spending

BLS Data in More Than a Century of Pictures

BLS was established in 1884, and some of our programs date back nearly that far. We have more than a century of statistics on prices, employment, wages, productivity, and more. But even in those early days, we realized that pages full of numbers can be a little dull. We frequently use pictures to tell the stories behind those numbers and help readers see the important points more quickly. Let’s look at over a century of BLS price statistics, in five charts.

The first chart, which looks hand drawn, was originally presented as part of the Department of Labor’s exhibit at the Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago in 1933, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair.

Poster for Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago in 1933

The chart below depicts changes in the cost of living from 1913 to 1932, based on the BLS Consumer Price Index. Here we see market baskets (with legs) rising during World War I, then declining and holding steady during the roaring 1920s, and declining as the nation entered the Great Depression.

Chart showing changes in cost of living from 1913 to 1932, based on the Consumer Price Index

Source: What Are Labor Statistics For? A Series of Pictorial Charts, Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, No. 599, published in 1933.

The next chart, again looking hand drawn – this time perhaps with a ruler – compares wholesale prices (what we now call the Producer Price Index) in the years leading up to the United States entering World War I and World War II. It comes from the first of two BLS bulletins on Wartime Prices. The increase in the wholesale price for all commodities was nearly twice as great in the earlier period, reflecting large differences in the price change for such commodities as fuel and chemicals.

Chart showing percent changes in wholesale prices for commodities in World War 1 and World War 2

Source: Wartime Prices, Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, No. 749, published in 1944.

Now, let’s move forward about 20 years. BLS published a chart book in 1963 focusing on price changes over the prior decade. The chart book presented both consumer and wholesale prices for the nation, along with consumer price trends in the 12 largest U.S. cities. The chart shown here, perhaps produced on an early computer, tracks the change in prices for all consumer items, and separately for various categories. Prices for durable commodities, such as appliances and furniture, declined in the early part of the period and later rebounded, resulting in virtually no price change over the decade. In contrast, the price of services, such as shelter, transportation, and medical care, rose steadily throughout the period.

Chart showing changes in consumer prices, 1953 to 1962

Source: Prices: A Chartbook, 1953–62, Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, No. 1351, published in 1963.

With advances in computer software, BLS expanded the use of charts to allow readers to visualize data trends. Such charts became prominent in the BLS flagship publication, the Monthly Labor Review. In an article from 1987, data from the BLS International Price Program track price changes for selected imports.

Chart showing changes in U.S. Import Price Indexes for machinery and transportation equipment and intermediate manufactures, 1982 to 1986

Source: “Import price declines in 1986 reflected reduced oil prices,” Monthly Labor Review, April 1987.

BLS ushered in the age of interactive charts in recent years, making chart packages available with most news releases. In the chart below, readers can track a decade of consumer price changes for all items, and then click on selected categories to compare trends. Want to compare price changes for food at home with food away from home? It’s just a couple of clicks away.

Chart showing 12-month changes in the Consumer Price Index, August 2001 to August 2021

Source: Charts related to the Consumer Price Index news release.

Our charts today are a lot more sophisticated than the hand-drawn charts of the early twentieth century. They may not have amusing cartoon characters like the CPI market basket with legs, but they have interactive features that let you dig into more details about the data or choose the data you want to see. We also have several publications that focus on the visual display of data. Check out The Economics Daily and Spotlight on Statistics!

The Latest on Improving the Accuracy of the Consumer Price Index

We first reported in December 2019 on the expert panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences, Committee on National Statistics (CNSTAT), to study the U.S. Consumer Price Index (CPI). At the time, we were looking forward to the upcoming baseball season—and we didn’t know yet how different the 2020 season would be. Since then, CNSTAT assembled a panel of experts to tackle some of the biggest issues facing the CPI. The panel is chaired by Daniel Sichel, professor of economics at Wellesley College. Panel members include members of academia and experts at government agencies. Visit the CNSTAT website to review the panel members’ biographies and see the breadth of accomplishments and experiences on this team.

While the future of the baseball season that spring was uncertain, the CNSTAT panel on Improving Cost-of-Living Indexes and Consumer Inflation Statistics in the Digital Age forged ahead. The panel held a public meeting virtually on May 27, 2020, and invited BLS staff and luminaries from across the statistical community to clarify the study’s scope. The discussion centered on how we can harness new sources of data to improve CPI methods and produce accurate, timely, and relevant measures of consumer price change.

The baseball season finally got underway over the summer of 2020, and the CNSTAT panel continued its work. They held closed sessions to discuss the issues and to plan the gathering of information. The panel envisioned a series of public workshops designed to gather information from top experts in the field. Unlike the fate of the 2020 Major League All-Star Game, this gathering of experts would go on—as a series of virtual sessions rather than the typical one- or two-day event.

With the Washington Nationals out of playoff contention, everyone focused on the first workshop session held October 2, 2020. At this session, the panel discussed the challenges of measuring price change for different population groups. The CNSTAT panel added this topic to their scope of work in the May meeting. The panel heard from presenters in academia who use highly granular data and uncover measurement issues when combining information across households. The panel also heard from the United Kingdom’s Office for National Statistics and BLS about each agency’s efforts to improve price measurement for different population groups. Staff from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) also discussed potential uses for these indexes.

The next two workshop sessions (October 7, 2020 and October 30, 2020) centered on new data sources as an alternative to data from traditional surveys. The panel brought together experts from the Office for National Statistics, Statistics Canada, Statistics Belgium, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics. A benefit of a virtual meeting was the ability to convene people from so many countries without the cost of travel—although it was a challenge to coordinate a meeting over so many time zones. It is both reassuring and enlightening to hear that other countries face similar challenges and opportunities regarding new data sources. To give another perspective, the panel also convened experts from academia and the private sector to review research conducted outside of the statistical agencies. The panel heard about automated data collection efforts and methods to address quality change using new sources of data.

The final sessions (December 15, 2020 and March 31, 2021) tackled housing and medical care, arguably the most difficult areas to measure in the CPI market basket. Measuring the change in the cost of shelter for homeowners is a longstanding challenge. Since the late 1970s, BLS has used an approach called owner’s equivalent rent, which aims to isolate homeowners’ consumption of shelter services from their capital investment in a home. This method has been as hotly debated as baseball’s addition of the designated hitter around the same time. Presenters from BLS, BEA, Statistics Canada, and academia discussed potential improvements to owner’s equivalent rent and alternatives such as a user cost approach (how much it costs a homeowner to own their home).

Measuring price change for medical care services and health insurance is another longstanding challenge. While the panel’s scope is limited to health insurance, any changes to the BLS approach affect the larger scope of measuring price change for medical care services. The panel invited experts in health economics from government, academia, and nonprofits to discuss critical questions about quality change—such as medical care outcomes, utilization rates, and risk premiums.

With the All-Star public sessions now complete, the panel is weighing the information it has gathered. The panel originally planned to deliver its final report around the start of the 2021 baseball season, but the broader scope pushed back their timeline. We now expect the final report to coincide roughly with the beginning of the 2021 World Series. A truly global series of meetings produced a wealth of information for the panel to sift through. As they deliberate, we will enjoy the baseball season and report back on their recommendations in the fall.

Improving the Accuracy of the Consumer Price Index

We are in the “hot stove” months of the baseball year, when teams make trades and other decisions to improve their prospects for next season. Even the best teams, like the World Champion Washington Nationals, can’t rest on their laurels. In much the same way the Nationals continue to tinker with a good thing to make it better, we constantly work to improve our gold standard products, including the Consumer Price Index (CPI). There’s a lot going on with the CPI these days, and we’ll use this blog and other publications to share the latest information. You’ll read about how we reflect changes in consumer spending patterns, (including new goods), how we’re using other rich sources of data on prices and spending, how we’re accounting for changes in the quality of goods and services, and much more. So let’s get started.

The CPI is designed to measure the average change over time in the prices paid by urban consumers for a market basket of consumer goods and services. The CPI is used to determine annual cost-of-living allowances for Social Security beneficiaries. The CPI also is used to adjust the federal income tax system for inflation and as the yardstick for U.S. Treasury inflation-indexed bonds. These are just a few of the many uses of the CPI.

The CPI dates back to 1912, when the Washington baseball team was called the Senators and Walter Johnson ruled the mound. Throughout the history of the CPI, there has been debate about the concepts the CPI should measure and whether it might overstate or understate changes in consumer living costs. The CPI has undergone methodological changes both in response to these discussions and to reflect the changing economic environment. If we hadn’t made these changes, transportation, medical care, recreation, and other goods and services would still be combined into one “miscellaneous” category. Taking the long view, we can track major shifts in consumer inflation for more than a century.

Chart showing 12-month percent change in the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U), 1914 to 2019

Editor’s note: Data for this chart are available in our database at data.bls.gov/timeseries/CUUR0000SA0

In the 1960s, a committee commissioned by Congress recommended that BLS move the CPI closer toward a cost-of-living measure. We responded to those recommendations by creating the CPI for all urban consumers (CPI-U). The former index for urban wage earners was relabeled as the CPI-W. Today, the CPI-U represents the spending patterns of about 93 percent of the population, while the CPI-W represents the spending patterns of about 29 percent.

Here are a few more recent milestones in the history of the CPI:

  • In 1988, following direction from Congress, BLS began calculating the CPI for Americans age 62 and older—called the CPI-E—as an experimental index.
  • In the early 1990s, Congress directed another study of the CPI, popularly referred to as the Boskin Commission. This commission estimated the CPI was overstating the rise in the cost of living and recommended changes in the way the CPI is designed and estimated.
  • In response, BLS sponsored a project in 2002 with the National Academy of Sciences, Committee on National Statistics (CNSTAT) to investigate conceptual, measurement, and other statistical issues in the development of cost-of-living indexes. At this point, we have adopted completely, partially, or experimentally almost all of the CNSTAT recommendations. This includes developing and publishing the Chained CPI, which broadly accounts for consumer substitution of goods and services.

But we can’t stop researching and improving. Today, consumers buy goods and services that weren’t even known a decade ago. And we buy things in many different ways, including from the living room sofa. The growth of e-commerce has created enormous opportunities, but also challenges, for measuring inflation. We continue to work on improvements in response to these developments, and we will talk more about them in future blogs and other publications. In addition, we recently sponsored another CNSTAT panel to investigate three key methodological issues for the CPI:

  1. How best to incorporate data on transactions?
  2. How best to integrate other data sources in the indexes for health insurance, owner-occupied housing, and durable goods?
  3. How to lessen certain types of substitution bias, such as when consumers purchase chicken when the price of steak increases? (Our methods already do a good job accounting for shifts between more similar items, such as between steak and ground beef.)

CNSTAT will convene an expert panel and hold a workshop. Both the panel kickoff and the workshop will be open to the public and will be announced in advance on the BLS website. The panel will then spend about a year in internal discussions and preparing a written report for our consideration.

We expect the CNSTAT report in May of 2021—new ideas, to go with the start of a new baseball season. I’ll be back to blog about the results, so be sure to check back here.

Prestigious Award for BLS and U.S. Census Bureau Researchers

There are so many things I love about being Commissioner of Labor Statistics. The part of the job I enjoy the most is working every day with so many talented, dedicated, hard-working people. I am especially pleased when BLS staff members receive recognition for their good work. We recently celebrated one of those occasions.

Thesia Garner and Kathleen Short holding their Roger Herriot Award certificates.

Thesia Garner and Kathleen Short

Thesia Garner of the Office of Prices and Living Conditions and Kathleen Short of the U.S. Census Bureau received the 2016 Roger Herriot Award for Innovation in Federal Statistics at the 2016 Joint Statistical Meetings. The award recognizes the important and extensive research Thesia and Kathleen have done together over more than 20 years to develop better measures of poverty in the United States. Their most recent work focused on producing the Supplemental Poverty Measure. This measure provides insight about the effects of public policies and programs on reducing poverty. Herriot Award winners are chosen by a committee of the American Statistical Association and the Washington Statistical Society. Please join me in congratulating Thesia and Kathleen for this recognition and for their research into improving the ways we measure economic hardship.