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Effects of COVID-19 Pandemic and Response on the Consumer Expenditure Surveys

This page summarizes the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Consumer Expenditure Surveys during the first half of 2020. It describes changes in data collection, response rates before and during the pandemic, and effects of the pandemic on estimation procedures and data quality. This page will be updated as more reports become available about how the pandemic affected the Consumer Expenditure Surveys.

We also have more information on the impact of the pandemic on the Consumer Price Index and how it relates to the Consumer Expenditure Surveys.

Data collection

On March 19, 2020, in-person data collection ceased because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We changed procedures in both the Interview Survey and the Diary Survey so the U.S. Census Bureau could continue collecting high-quality data while also protecting the health and safety of respondents and staff. All interviews that normally would have been in person instead were done by telephone. Interviewers use resources on the Consumer Expenditure Surveys respondent webpage to guide respondents through the interview and provide details that were usually discussed during the in-person interview. The Diary Survey usually required respondents to record their spending in a daily diary form. Interviewers now transcribe these diary entries by telephone into a paper diary on the respondent's behalf.

Response rates

Response rates have steadily decreased over time, but the decrease at the start of COVID-19 was noticeably larger. Starting in March 2020, both surveys experienced a drop in response rates, with a much larger decrease in the Diary Survey. While the pandemic caused a larger drop in response rates in the Diary Survey, the drop was partially offset by a larger sample, which was introduced in January 2020.

Response rates for the Consumer Expenditure Surveys
Month Diary Interview

Jul 2019

56.1 55.1

Aug 2019

55.6 52.7

Sep 2019

52.7 52.0

Oct 2019

51.7 54.7

Nov 2019

50.2 50.2

Dec 2019

45.0 50.3

Jan 2020

47.4 53.1

Feb 2020

49.5 52.2

Mar 2020

35.4 51.4

Apr 2020

26.3 46.2

May 2020

26.3 46.9

Jun 2020

25.8 44.7

Jul 2020

- 40.2

Aug 2020

- 43.3

Sep 2020

- 50.1

Estimation procedures

There were no changes to estimation procedures in the Consumer Expenditure Surveys as a result of the pandemic. For further analysis of how the data were affected by the pandemic, see our 2020 midyear tables. These tables provide annual calendar year means, which use data reported from third quarter 2019 through second quarter 2020. You also can learn more from our Public Use Microdata files. These files include Interview Survey data for quarters 2 and 3 of 2020 and Diary Survey data for quarters 1 and 2 of 2020.

Data quality

Our assessment of data from the Interview Survey showed that we cannot draw a conclusion about whether data quality was affected by pandemic-related restrictions. It appears that the changes in data quality measures were driven by the underlying characteristics of the respondents rather than the change in the method of data collection.

In the Diary Survey, our assessment of the data quality showed a significant decline in weekly expenditure entries across the protocols and periods examined. A deeper analysis suggests some of these changes resulted from actual changes in spending patterns. Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic and associated changes in data collection and spending had a negative effect on participation in the survey. The changes affected the demographic characteristics of those who participated and reduced the extent of entries collected from participating households.

We did not see evidence of nonresponse bias in expenditure estimates in the second quarter of 2020. There was some evidence of a small but statistically significant amount of nonresponse bias in the third quarter of 2020.

Eight of the 14 major spending categories identified in the tables showed over-the-year percent decreases in quarterly means greater than 15 percent in the second quarter of 2020. Of these eight, apparel and services, personal care products and services, alcoholic beverages, and food saw the largest decreases. The decreases in food and alcoholic beverages were primarily associated with purchases away from home. While the expenditure estimates did show a large reduction in over-the-year percent change in the second quarter of 2020, measures of variance were affected less, with only five of the 14 major spending categories showing an increase in relative standard error greater than 1 percent. Only two categories, cash contributions and alcoholic beverages, showed over-the-year increases in relative standard error greater than 2 percent. See our report on the impact of COVID-19 on CE survey estimates.

Last Modified Date: May 24, 2021