A few weeks ago President Obama presented his fiscal year 2016 budget request to Congress. That budget proposes $632.7 million in funding for BLS, an increase of $40.5 million over our fiscal year 2015 funding. The 2016 budget proposes new funding to help BLS meet some important data needs. I have asked David Friedman, the acting Associate Commissioner for Prices and Living Conditions, to explain how we plan to use the proposed funding to improve prices and consumer spending information.
The President’s 2016 budget asks Congress to restore funding that would let BLS continue producing and publishing export price indexes. These indexes measure the price change of goods and services U.S. firms sell to foreign buyers. In fiscal year 2014, we announced plans to stop publishing export price indexes because of reduced funding. However, before we carried out the planned cuts, the Administration looked for and found other temporary funding sources. This money is only enough to produce and publish export price indexes until September 30, 2015. This budget proposal would allow us to continue producing and publishing export price indexes in fiscal year 2016 and beyond.
BLS publishes import and export price indexes, and both are critical for understanding how our nation’s economy connects to the world economy. Export price indexes help policymakers and businesses understand trends in trade balances and how well U.S. firms compete in international markets. The Bureau of Economic Analysis uses export price indexes to estimate real Gross Domestic Product, which measures all the goods and services the nation produces. BLS measures of productivity and costs also rely on export price indexes. A recent Beyond the Numbers article showed that no other data sources are substitutes for export price indexes.
The President’s 2016 budget also proposes funds for BLS to produce spending measures that would help the U.S. Census Bureau measure poverty more accurately. Poverty measures are essential for understanding hardship and prosperity in our economy. Other federal agencies use these measures to improve conditions for the poor. The official U.S. poverty measure began in the 1960s and has not changed substantially since then. Many observers have criticized the measure for several flaws. In particular, it does not account for many government aid programs. The alternative poverty measures the Census Bureau would produce from BLS spending data would not replace the official measure; instead they would provide a broader view of hardship. If Congress funds this proposal, it would allow us to:
- Release consumer spending data more quickly to help the Census Bureau produce alternative poverty measures each year.
- Add questions to the Consumer Expenditure Survey on topics such as school breakfasts and lunches and help paying for home heating and other household expenses.
- Continue research to improve how federal agencies measure poverty.
If Congress funds the BLS proposal in the coming year, it would allow us to strengthen our partnership with the Census Bureau on this important national issue. Without the funding, our ability to be a full participant in development and maintenance of the supplemental poverty measure is not possible.
This week BLS published Geographic Profile of Employment and Unemployment, 2012. This annual publication is a collection of tables that presents estimates for census regions and divisions, the 50 states and the District of Columbia, 54 large metropolitan areas, 22 metropolitan divisions, and 41 principal cities. Geographic Profile provides the most current source of information on the demographic and economic characteristics of the labor force in subnational areas, from the same survey as the official labor force estimates for the United States as a whole.
We also published two new editions of Beyond the Numbers this week. The first examines the reemergence of the United States as a global petroleum producer. In May 2013, domestic production of petroleum in the United States surpassed imports for the first time since January 1997. The fact that domestic production has outpaced imports is the culmination of trends that have been in motion for a number of years. Imports of petroleum have been declining over the last 7 years, while domestic production has undergone a significant revival. U.S. production has grown as a result of new technologies, such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, which have been used to extract petroleum and gas from shale deposits once viewed as unprofitable. Coinciding with the large increase in domestic petroleum production in the United States was a decline in the domestic consumption of petroleum. The amount of petroleum consumed in 2012 was the smallest since 1996.
The second edition of Beyond the Numbers published this week looks at the highlights of the 2013 Producer Price Index (PPI) user survey. Survey results reveal that PPI data users are satisfied with the quality of the data, the level of detail presented, and the customer service offered whenever they contact PPI staff. Although these results are very gratifying, we’re not resting on our laurels. The user survey provides important insights into how we might improve the PPI and where we should focus our efforts to expand and improve our measures, as funds and other resources permit.
This has been a busy week for BLS publications, with five new editions of Beyond the Numbers. The first edition looks at how steadily growing global demand for grain crops has generated higher crop prices and increased demand for fertilizers, particularly imported fertilizers. This article looks at the complex and interesting interactions among grain production and prices, natural gas production and prices, and the production of fertilizers and their domestic and import prices.
Trends in natural gas prices were the focus of the second edition of Beyond the Numbers this week. Specifically the article examines how the application of horizontal hydraulic fracturing—commonly called fracking—in shale rock formations has boosted U.S. production of natural gas and has contributed to a 57-percent decline in producer prices for natural gas from 2007 to 2012.
The third edition of Beyond the Numbers this week examines the methods used in the Consumer Price Index to estimate the cost of shelter services for owner-occupied housing. Estimating the cost of housing is complex because a house is a capital asset that provides a flow of services over a substantial period of time, not just a one-time consumption item. Starting in January 1983 the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers began using a “rental equivalence” approach to estimate housing costs. This method measures the rate of change in the amount a homeowner would need to pay to rent a similar house on the open market. It is based on actual market rents collected from a sample of renter-occupied housing units that are identified to represent owner-occupied housing. The article discusses this and other changes in the methods used to estimate housing costs over the past 30 years.
The compensation of workers in the trade, transportation, and utilities industries was the focus of another edition of Beyond the Numbers. These industries employed 25.6 million workers in 2012: 14.9 million in retail trade, 5.6 million in wholesale trade, 4.4 million in transportation and warehousing, and 0.6 million in the utilities industries. The article looks at wages and employee benefits in these industries. Private industry compensation costs for trade, transportation, and utilities workers averaged $24.31 per hour worked in December 2012. Wages and salaries averaged $17.12 per hour and benefits averaged $7.19. Employer compensation costs for trade, transportation, and utilities workers vary quite a bit by industry. Costs fluctuate for a number of reasons such as part-time and full-time status, job skills, and union representation. In December 2012, total compensation costs per employee hour worked ranged from $17.64 for workers in retail trade to $59.26 for workers in utilities.
Finally, for pet lovers we have an article that examines how much you spend on your pets. Nearly three-quarters of U.S. households own pets. There are about 218 million pets in the United States, not counting several million fish. Pet ownership crosses many demographic boundaries, with Americans of different ages and levels of wealth reporting spending on pets. Americans spent approximately $61.4 billion in total for the care and feeding of their pets in 2011. On average, each U.S. household spent just over $500 on pets. This amounts to about 1 percent of total spending per year for the average household.