Tag Archives: Interviews

Reaching out to Stakeholders—and Steakholders—in Philadelphia

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has staff around the country who serve several critical roles:

  • Contacting employers and households to collect the vital economic information published by BLS
  • Working with partners in the states who also collect and review economic data
  • Analyzing and publishing regional, state, and local data and providing information to a wide variety of stakeholders

To expand the network of local stakeholders who are familiar with and use BLS data to help make good decisions, the BLS regional offices sponsor periodic Data User Conferences. The BLS office in Philadelphia recently held such an event, hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.

These Data User Conferences typically bring together experts from several broad topic areas. In Philadelphia, participants heard about trends in productivity measures; a mash-up of information on a single occupation—truck drivers—that shows the range of data available (pay and benefits, occupational requirements, and workplace safety); and an analysis of declines in labor force participation.

Typically, these events provide a mix of national and local data and try to include some timely local information. The Philadelphia conference included references to the recent Super Bowl victory by the Philadelphia Eagles and showed how to use the Consumer Price Index inflation calculator to compare buying power between 1960 (the last time the Eagles won the NFL Championship) and today.

We also tried to develop a cheesesteak index, a Philadelphia staple. Using data from the February 2018 Consumer Price Index, we can find the change in the price of cheesesteak ingredients over the past year.

Ingredient Change in Consumer Price Index, February 2017 to February 2018
White bread 2.5 percent decrease
Beef and veal 2.1 percent increase
Fresh vegetables 2.1 percent increase
Cheese and related products 0.8 percent decrease

Image of a Philadelphia cheesesteak

These data are for the nation as a whole and are available monthly. Consumer price data are also available for many metropolitan areas, including Philadelphia. These local data are typically available every other month and do not provide as much detail as the national data.

While the Data User Conferences focus on providing information, we also remind attendees the information is only available thanks to the voluntary cooperation of employers and households. The people who attend the conferences can help us produce gold standard data by cooperating with our data-collection efforts. In return we remind them we always have “live” economists available in their local BLS information office to answer questions by phone or email or help them find data quickly.

Although yet another Nor’easter storm was approaching, the recent Philadelphia Data User Conference included an enthusiastic audience who asked good questions and left with a greater understanding of BLS statistics. The next stop on the Data User Conference tour is Atlanta, later this year. Keep an eye on the BLS Southeast Regional Office webpage for more information.

Up and Down the Turnpike: The Power of State Estimates of Consumer Spending

You may know New Jersey for its Turnpike, its Parkway, and ribbons of highways crisscrossing the state, but new information shows that New Jersey households have fewer vehicles than the U.S. average. New Jersey households have an average of 1.4 vehicles, compared with an average of 1.8 vehicles nationwide.

This is just one of the tidbits we can glean from experimental state weights in the Consumer Expenditure Survey just released for New Jersey. Producing state estimates is part of our continuing plan to expand the use of data on consumer spending. The first available state weights are for New Jersey. We hope to release weights for more states in the coming months.

The survey is a nationwide household survey designed to find out how U.S. consumers spend their money. It is the only federal government survey that provides information on the full range of consumer spending, incomes, and demographic characteristics. One way BLS uses the consumer spending data is to create the market basket of goods and services tracked in the Consumer Price Index. Besides the spending information, the survey also collects the demographic characteristics of survey respondents. The new state weights allow us to examine what the typical New Jersey household looks like.

New Jersey looks similar to the United States as a whole, and even more similar to the New York metro area, which encompasses much of the northern part of New Jersey. One notable difference between New Jersey and other areas is the number of vehicles. Transportation in the Consumer Expenditure Survey includes vehicle purchases and gasoline and other car-related expenses. We would expect to see lower transportation spending in New Jersey compared with the nation because of fewer vehicles present in the state and other reasons.

A chart showing income and consumer spending levels in 2016 in New Jersey, the New York metro area, and the United States.

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

Now that we can produce statistically valid state estimates from the survey, we can answer all kinds of interesting questions. Many researchers look at different spending categories to examine public policies and to evaluate how certain decisions affect consumer behavior. Because we can now use the survey data to make estimates for certain states, researchers can explore these kinds of questions with more geographic detail. The chart below shows how New Jersey compares with the New York metro area and the nation in five of the broadest spending categories.

Average annual consumer spending in 2016 for selected categories in New Jersey, the New York metro area, and the United States.

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

Policymakers, researchers, and other data users have often asked for data about spending habits and income for states. Many times, household surveys just do not have enough sample to provide reliable estimates for all possible user needs. With our continuing improvements to the Consumer Expenditure Survey, we are learning which states provide enough responses for us to produce statistically valid state estimates. Once we create these weights for the states that can support them, data users will be able to explore a wider range of questions about consumer spending.

You can learn more from BLS economist Taylor Wilson’s article, “Consumer spending by state: BLS puts New Jersey to the test.”

Average annual income and selected expenditures, 2016
Measure New Jersey New York
Metropolitan
Statistical Area
United States
Income $89,927 $87,212 $74,069
Total expenditures 63,100 65,764 54,157
Transportation expenditures 7,295 6,828 8,755
Average consumer spending in selected categories, 2016
Geography Housing Food Transportation Healthcare Entertainment
New Jersey $23,617 $8,641 $7,295 $5,239 $2,097
New York Metropolitan Statistical Area 24,308 9,190 6,828 4,260 2,277
United States 17,774 7,203 8,755 4,373 2,497

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

Data Privacy Day is Every Day at BLS

There are many commemorative days, weeks, and months, but Data Privacy Day on January 28 is one that we here at BLS live every day of the year.

If this is the first time you’re hearing about it, Data Privacy Day is an international effort to “create awareness about the importance of:

  • respecting privacy,
  • safeguarding data and
  • enabling trust.”

These three phrases are central to everything we do at BLS—but don’t take my word for it! Instead, let’s hear from some of our staff members about what data privacy means in their day-to-day work lives.

I chatted with staff members from three key areas at the Bureau:

  • Collection — our field economists collect data from respondents.
  • Systems — our computer specialists protect the IT infrastructure where we keep the data.
  • Analysis — our economists analyze the data, prepare products, and explain the data to our customers.

Now, let’s meet the staff.

Richard Regotti

Richard Regotti

My name is Richard Regotti, Field Economist in the BLS Chicago Regional Office, Cleveland Area Office. I have proudly served the public in this position for 12 years. As a Field Economist I am responsible for collecting data and developing positive relationships and securing cooperation from survey respondents for the Producer Price Index and the International Price Indexes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jess Mitchell

Jess Mitchell

My name is Jess Mitchell and I have been an Information Security Specialist in the Bureau’s national office since 2013. I started with BLS in 1999. Currently, I am the Computer Security Incident Response Team Lead, so I, along with my team members, investigate, analyze and report on computer security incidents as well as the impact or potential impact of cyber threats and vulnerabilities to BLS systems and data.

 

 

 

 

 

Karen Kosanovich

Karen Kosanovich

My name is Karen Kosanovich, Economist, and I have spent the past 19 years working with unemployment data from the Current Population Survey, and 25 years total at BLS. I develop analyses, such as The Employment Situation, and talk to our customers about the data.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Question 1. One of our core BLS values is the confidentiality of data: All respondent data are completely confidential and used for statistical purposes only. How does this impact you in your daily work?

Richard: On a daily basis I am asking producers and service providers to voluntarily provide very sensitive company information. Even after identifying myself as a representative of our Federal Government, some respondents are not comfortable with agreeing to provide us their confidential information for use in our statistical output. By focusing on the mission of the BLS and the legal protections that are in place to safeguard survey data, I am able to function on the front line as a data collector.

Jess: This core value of data confidentiality helps me to focus on the importance of protecting the confidentiality of BLS data when my team members and I are investigating threats. The importance of BLS data underscores the importance of our daily work to keep BLS data and data respondent information confidential.

Karen: I don’t have access to information about specific people who respond to our survey. All personally identifying information is stripped away before the statistical information is given to an economist like me to analyze. For my colleagues and me, confidentiality means protecting our estimates from being distributed in advance of the official release of the unemployment rate at 8:30 a.m. on the day we publish our data.

Question 2. Does adherence to this core value create any challenges for you in your work? How have you overcome those challenges?

Richard: Adherence to complete confidentiality, supported by the fact that the data are used for statistical purposes only, presents no challenge to me; this core value is a selling point and something I make sure all potential survey participants are aware of prior to providing any data to the BLS.

Jess: Adherence to the core BLS value of data confidentiality does create a challenge when we need to engage our office in an incident or threat investigation; we must be very diligent not to share Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency Act (CIPSEA) information.

Karen: Our procedures for working with embargoed (prerelease) information are so ingrained in my work routine that I don’t notice any challenges from them. The people I work with all have the same responsibility and a strong commitment to public service, so it is easy for us to keep vigilant.

Question 3. If you could make a statement to the American people about why they should trust BLS with their information, what would that be?

Richard: BLS is not a compliance or regulatory agency in any way. We are only concerned with providing accurate, timely, relevant, and unbiased data that reports on the health and well-being of our economy. Your information contributes to the validity of BLS data.

Jess: The confidentiality of BLS data is always at the root of my office’s work, and I see the same focus on data privacy and confidentiality and diligence toward the safeguarding of CIPSEA data throughout the entire culture of BLS.

Karen: Although I don’t have names and personal details of specific unemployed people who respond to our survey, my colleagues and I are very mindful of the importance of representing the experience of all Americans when we produce our estimates. The data we publish are not just numbers, but tell the story of real people. It can be very stressful to be unemployed, and those who have been looking for work for a very long time face significant challenges in the labor market. We take our jobs, and our mission, very seriously.

And now the rules:

Of course, we don’t work in a vacuum. Like any other organization, we have rules that we live under.

BLS makes a pledge of confidentiality to its respondents that data collected are used for statistical purposes only. The pledge is covered by CIPSEA, which makes it a felony to disclose or release the information for either nonstatistical purposes (for example, regulatory or law-enforcement purposes) or to unauthorized persons. In addition, the Office of Management and Budget has Statistical Policy Directives (3 and 4) that govern BLS news releases to ensure they meet specific accuracy, timeliness, and accountability standards.

On January 28, and every day, we hope you will take steps to protect your own privacy and the privacy of others. Here at BLS we will continue to educate and raise awareness about respecting privacy and safeguarding data. It is core to our mission and central to our staff values. Without the trust these actions produce among the American people, we could not do our work in providing gold-standard data for and about America’s workers.

Thank you for your trust and happy Data Privacy Day!

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!