Tracking Pay and Jobs Is About to Get Harder Thanks to Census Bureau Changes
(Bloomberg) -- Changes in U.S. Census population surveys that come into effect this month are jeopardizing the way economists dig below the main employment data to track more detailed wage and job figures.
The Census Bureau said it decided to publish fewer details from its Current Population Survey -- which polls households monthly to generate the Labor Department’s unemployment and labor-force participation rates -- to protect the confidentiality of respondents. Economists say the move will likely impede data analysis, including a wage growth tracker from the Atlanta Federal Reserve that is widely watched by Wall Street.
“It’s very frustrating,” said Brad Hershbein, economist at the Upjohn Institute. It will render it infeasible to link individuals from one month to the next to observe their job changes, he said.
Tracking data in real time has become crucial in the pandemic era, when official indicators published monthly often fail to provide a full picture of fast-moving events. The economic hit from the recent wave of the highly contagious omicron variant was just the latest example.
The Atlanta Fed, which relies on the Current Population Survey for its wage tacker, said that the change will hinder its ability to match data to the previous year and to track wages over time.
“We are assessing what this means for the Wage Growth Tracker and exploring options for continuing to provide important wage data,” the regional Fed said by email.
Fed Chair Jerome Powell has cited the Atlanta Fed wage tracker as an important way to gauge inflationary pressures. The tracker had shown how incomes for the bottom quartile had risen in recent quarters.
“It is going to be infinitely more difficult to track the economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic,” Brookings Institution researcher Lauren Bauer said in a tweet.
Nick Bunker, chief economist at online job-listing firm Indeed Inc., also said understanding wage growth trends will be hampered.
To protect privacy, the Census Bureau made three main changes:
- Suppress details at the geographic level, making data available only in areas with populations greater than 250,000 -- up from 100,000
- Households are interviewed for eight months for the survey. Their identification number changed starting this month, which means they will no longer match 2021 data
- Additional changes concern incomes, particularly at the top level, to protect respondent confidentiality
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