Concepts and Definitions
This page describes key concepts and definitions used for Current Population Survey (CPS, or "household" survey) data published by BLS from the monthly survey.
To learn more about the survey, see the CPS overview page.
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Labor force, employment, and unemployment concepts
This section contains definitions for the key labor force concepts presented in BLS publications of Current Population Survey (CPS) data.
Civilian noninstitutional population
The civilian noninstitutional population age 16 and older is the base population group, or universe, used for Current Population Survey (CPS) statistics published by BLS. (See also geographic scope and reference of the CPS.)
The civilian noninstitutional population excludes the following:
Included in the civilian noninstitutional population are citizens of foreign countries who reside in the United States but do not live on the premises of an embassy.
Civilian labor force, or labor force
The labor force includes all people age 16 and older who are classified as either employed and unemployed, as defined below.
Labor force participation rate, or participation rate
The labor force participation rate represents the number of people in the labor force as a percentage of the civilian noninstitutional population. In other words, the participation rate is the percentage of the population that is either working or actively looking for work.
The labor force participation rate is calculated as: (Labor Force ÷ Civilian Noninstitutional Population) x 100.
In the Current Population Survey (CPS), people are classified as employed if, during the survey reference week, they meet any of the following criteria:
For criteria 1 and 2, the work must be for pay or profit; that is, the individual receives a wage or salary, profits or fees, or payment in kind (such as housing, meals, or supplies received in place of cash wages). For the self-employed, this includes those who intended to earn a profit but whose business or farm produced a loss. See the definition of self-employed for further details.
Each employed person is counted only once in aggregate employment statistics from the CPS, even if they hold more than one job.
The following are not considered employment in the CPS.
The employment-population ratio represents the number of employed people as a percentage of the civilian noninstitutional population. In other words, it is the percentage of the population that is currently working.
The employment-population ratio is calculated as: (Employed ÷ Civilian Noninstitutional Population) x 100.
In the Current Population Survey, people are classified as unemployed if they meet all of the following criteria:
People waiting to start a new job must have actively looked for a job within the last 4 weeks in order to be classified as unemployed. Otherwise, they are classified as not in the labor force.
Classification as unemployed in no way depends upon a person's eligibility for, or receipt of, unemployment insurance benefits.
There is no requirement or question relating to unemployment insurance benefits in the monthly Current Population Survey.
Active job search methods
Active job search methods are defined as those that have the potential to result in a job offer without any further action on the part of the job seeker. Examples of active job search methods include:
Methods that do not constitute an active job search are referred to as passive job search methods. Passive methods are those that could not result in a job offer unless additional steps were taken. Examples include simply looking at job postings without taking further action, or taking a training course.
The distinction between active and passive job search methods is very important.
A job seeker is classified as unemployed only if he or she used at least one active job search method. Those who used only passive methods are classified as not in the labor force.
The unemployment rate is calculated as: (Unemployed ÷ Labor Force) x 100.
Not in the labor force
In the Current Population Survey, people are classified as not in the labor force if:
People not in the labor force are asked whether they want a job and if they were available to take a job during the survey reference week. They also are asked about their job search activity in the last 12 months (or since the end of their last job, if they held one in the last 12 months) and their reason for not having looked for work in the most recent 4 weeks.
On the basis of this information, people not in the labor force are classified into several subgroups, including people who want a job now, people marginally attached to the labor force, and discouraged workers. These subgroups are defined below.
People who want a job now
People who want a job now are a subset of those not in the labor force.
These individuals are not currently working and have not looked for work in the last 4 weeks. Because they have not actively looked for work in the last 4 weeks, they are not classified as unemployed.
People who want a job now answered "yes" when asked "Do you currently want a job, either full or part time?" They also are asked questions about their job search activities in the last 12 months and whether they were available to start a job during the survey reference week.
BLS publishes monthly estimates of the number of people who want a job now and the number who don't. These estimates include some survey respondents who were not actually asked the "want a job" question;
their desire for work is inferred from their responses to other survey questions.
Marginally attached to the labor force
In response to survey questions, people marginally attached to the labor force indicate that they have searched for work during the prior 12 months (or since their last job if it ended within the last 12 months), but not in the most recent 4 weeks. Because they did not actively search for work in the last 4 weeks, they are not classified as unemployed. In other words, the marginally attached are people who say they want a job, but who have recently stopped looking for work.
People marginally attached to the labor force also must have been available to take a job during the survey reference week, unless they were temporarily ill. Specifically, they are asked "Last week, could you have started a job if one had been offered?"
The marginally attached are further divided into two subgroups: 1) discouraged workers and 2) other people marginally attached to the labor force. These subgroups are defined below.
Discouraged workers are a subset of people marginally attached to the labor force, and also part of the broader group of people not in the labor force. (See the diagram above.) They are not classified as unemployed because they have not actively searched for work in the last 4 weeks.
When asked, "What is the main reason you were not looking for work during the last 4 weeks," these individuals indicate some type of discouragement about their job prospects. Their specific responses vary, but common ones include the following:
Discouraged workers are not counted among the unemployed.
To be classified as unemployed, they would have had to have looked for work in the last 4 weeks.
Other people marginally attached to the labor force
Other people marginally attached to the labor force are a subset of people not in the labor force. With discouraged workers, they make up the subgroup of people not in the labor force known as marginally attached to the labor force. (See the diagram above.)
When asked, "What is the main reason you were not looking for work during the last 4 weeks," these individuals gave a reason other than discouragement about their job prospects.
Common reasons for no recent job search given by people in this group include:
Alternative measures of labor underutilization (U-1 through U-6)
In addition to the official unemployment rate, the Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes a range of alternative measures of labor underutilization. Together, these are known as the U-1 through U-6 rates.
The U-1 and U-2 rates are defined more narrowly than the official unemployment rate. They include only selected subsets of those officially classified as unemployed.
U-3 is the official unemployment rate.
The U-4, U-5, and U-6 rates are more expansive than the official unemployment rate, incorporating additional groups of people not included in the official rate. Each rate—U-4, U-5, and U-6—is successively broader in scope, with U-6 being the broadest measure of labor underutilization.
All six rates, U-1 through U-6, are produced solely from data collected in the Current Population Survey.
People at work are a subset of the employed. They were at work for at least one hour during the survey reference week.
With a job, not at work
People with a job, not at work are a subset of the employed. They were absent from their job, business, or farm (with or without pay) for the entire survey reference week for temporary reasons such as:
For individuals on a leave of absence, including maternity and paternity leave, the key factor for determining "with a job" status is whether they have a specific arrangement to return to work. If there is an agreement with the employer to hold a job or find a place for him/her upon return, they are considered with a job.
For school personnel on summer or semester break, if they have definite arrangements or a contract (oral or written) to return to work after break, they are considered with a job.
People with a job, not at work are counted as employed whether or not they receive pay for the time off, and whether or not they were searching for other work during their absence.
Usual hours of work and actual hours at work
The Current Population Survey provides two types of work hours data to differentiate between a person's normal work schedule and their actual work hours during the survey reference week.
Data on hours at work include only people who were at work for at least one hour during the reference week. People who were not at work for the entire week are excluded. For multiple jobholders, published data reflect the number of hours worked at all jobs during the reference week.
Usual full time and usual part time
In Current Population Survey (CPS) statistics published by BLS, people are classified as full- or part-time workers based on the number of hours
they usually work each week.
The CPS definitions of full time and part time are for statistical purposes only. They are not legal definitions.
Because classification is based on a person's usual work schedule, full-time workers include some individuals who actually worked fewer than 35 hours in the reference week, and some who were temporarily absent from work all week.
Similarly, part-time workers include some individuals who actually worked more than 34 hours in the reference week, as well as some who were absent from work all week.
For multiple jobholders, usual hours at all jobs combined determines their full- or part-time status.
BLS also publishes unemployment levels and rates by full- and part-time status. For the unemployed, those classified as full time either expressed a desire to work full time (35 or more hours per week) or were on layoff from a full-time job. Unemployed people classified as part time either expressed a desire to work part time (fewer than 35 hours per week) or were on layoff from a part-time job.
The full-time labor force is the sum of the full-time employed and unemployed. The part-time labor force is the sum of the part-time employed and unemployed. Unemployment rates for full- and part-time workers are calculated using the full- and part-time labor force levels as the denominator.
Part time for economic or noneconomic reasons
To provide additional information about part-time workers, BLS produces measures of people at work part time for economic and noneconomic reasons. These measures are based on a person's actual hours at work during the survey reference week.
People not at work during the reference week are excluded from these measures.
The number of people at work part time for economic and noneconomic reasons will not sum to totals.
Reasons for unemployment
In the Current Population Survey, unemployed people are asked additional questions about their status at the time they began looking for work.
On the basis of their responses, they are categorized into one of four general reasons for unemployment, defined below.
Job leaversJob leavers are unemployed people who quit or otherwise voluntarily left their previous job and immediately began looking for new employment.
ReentrantsReentrants are unemployed people who have past work experience but were not in the labor force for a period of time prior to beginning their current job search.
New entrantsNew entrants are unemployed people looking for their first job. They have no previous work experience.
Duration of unemployment
Duration of unemployment is the length of time, in weeks, that people classified as unemployed have been continuously looking for work. The number of weeks includes the current survey reference week. These measures reflect the still-in-progress spells of unemployment, not completed spells.
For the subset of unemployed people who are on temporary layoff waiting to be recalled to work, the duration of unemployment is the number of full weeks they have been on layoff.
The average and median duration statistics reflect people who are still unemployed.
These measures should not be interpreted as the length of time it takes someone to find a job, or how long they look for work before giving up their job search.
The Current Population Survey does not ask how long it took someone to find a job, and the duration measures do not provide that information.
In Bureau of Labor Statistics publications, the long-term unemployed are those who meet the Current Population Survey definition of unemployed and whose unemployment has lasted for 27 continuous weeks or more.
Long-term unemployment refers to an ongoing spell of unemployment that has lasted 27 continuous weeks or more.
Occupation and industry
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) publishes Current Population Survey (CPS) estimates for specific occupations like these on an annual basis. For monthly publication, occupations are grouped into broader categories of related jobs, such as sales and related occupations, and construction and extraction occupations.
As with the occupational data, BLS publishes CPS estimates for specific industries like these on an annual basis, and groups them into broader categories of related industries for monthly publication. Examples of broader industry groups are manufacturing, retail trade, and professional and business services.
For a complete list of the specific occupations and industries currently identified in the CPS, along with the broader groups into which they are aggregated, see the Occupational and industry classification section of the CPS technical documentation.
Occupational and Industry Classification of the Employed
Occupational and Industry Classification of the Unemployed
Unemployment Rates by Occupation and Industry
Class of worker
Class of worker is a term used in the Current Population Survey to describe general categories of employment arrangements. Conceptually, class of worker distinguishes those who work for themselves (self-employed) from those who work for someone else.
In the survey process, workers are categorized into one of the following class of worker groups. (Definitions for each are provided below.)
For the employed, the class of worker category in which they are classified is based on the job they held in the survey reference week. Multiple jobholders are classified based on the job at which they usually worked the greatest number of hours.
For the unemployed, the class of worker category in which they are classified is based on the last job they held. (Unemployed people with no previous work experience are not included in the class of worker categories in unemployment tabulations; they are shown separately in these tabulations under "no previous work experience.")
Wage and salary workers
Wage and salary workers are those who receive wages, salaries, commissions, tips, or payment in kind from a private-sector employer or from a local, state, or federal government agency or entity. This includes paid employees of charities, nonprofits, religious, and civic organizations.
In the labor force, employment, and unemployment data published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most Current Population Survey (CPS) estimates of wage and salary workers include the incorporated self-employed. This is because, technically, the incorporated self-employed are paid employees of their corporation.
The wage and salary worker data series published with CPS earnings data treat incorporated self-employed people differently. See wage and salary workers for earnings purposes for more information.
Self-employed people are those who work for profit or fees in their own business, profession, trade, or farm. This includes those who intended to earn a profit but whose business produced no profit or a loss. Therefore, self-employed people with zero or negative income from their business, profession, or farm are still classified as employed if they worked at least one hour in that enterprise during the survey reference week.
Self-employed people may be classified as employed before their business is in operation if they spent at least one hour during the survey reference week in activities setting up a new business such as:
People with ownership in a business or farm solely for investment purposes, with no participation in its management or operation, are not considered employed in the Current Population Survey (CPS) based on this ownership stake, and therefore are not included in the self-employed estimates.
Unless otherwise specified, CPS estimates of the self-employed published by BLS reflect only people whose businesses are unincorporated. In most CPS estimates, the incorporated self-employed are classified as wage and salary workers. This is because, technically, the incorporated self-employed are paid employees of their corporation.
Unpaid family workers
Unpaid family workers are people who worked without pay for a minimum of 15 hours during the survey reference week in a business or farm owned by a family member. The unpaid family worker must be related by marriage, birth, or adoption to the business or farm owner and reside in the same household.
To be classified as a multiple jobholder in the Current Population Survey, the employed person must meet one of the following criteria:
Self-employed people with multiple businesses and people with multiple jobs as unpaid family workers are not classified as multiple jobholders.
Demographic concepts and definitions
This section contains definitions for the most common demographic and social characteristics presented in BLS publications of Current Population Survey (CPS) data.
In the Current Population Survey (CPS), age refers to age at last birthday, not age at nearest birthday.
Unless otherwise specified, CPS estimates published by BLS include people age 16 and older. There is no upper age limit.
Since 1992, educational attainment in the Current Population Survey refers to the highest diploma or degree obtained.
Educational attainment data published by BLS typically pertain to people age 25 and older because most people have completed their schooling by age 25.
BLS publications typically provide estimates for some or all of the following educational attainment categories.
In many BLS publications, categories 3 and 4 are combined and shown as "Some college or associate degree."
Prior to 1992, educational attainment referred to the number of years of school completed. The pre-1992 educational attainment categories are not directly comparable with the current concepts. For more information, see Measuring Education in the Current Population Survey.
Hispanic or Latino ethnicity
In Current Population Survey (CPS) statistics published by BLS, the term Hispanic or Latino ethnicity refers to people who identify themselves as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish in the survey process.
Hispanic or Latino ethnicity is a separate demographic concept from race in the CPS statistics. People of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity may be of any race.
Hispanic and race group data will not sum to total in most BLS publications
In most BLS publications of CPS data, people of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity are included in the race groups (White, Black or African American, Asian) in addition to being shown separately.
Because of this overlap, data for the race and Hispanic ethnicity groups will not sum to the total (or 100 percent).
People who identify themselves as Hispanic or Latino also are asked to identify one of the following detailed Hispanic ethnicity groups. BLS publishes a limited number of CPS estimates for the detailed Hispanic or Latino ethnicity groups.
The CPS implemented changes to the survey questions pertaining to Hispanic or Latino ethnicity in January 2003. These changes affected data comparability over time. For more information, see Revisions to the Current Population Survey Effective in January 2003.
In accordance with Office of Management and Budget standards, the Current Population Survey (CPS) uses the following categories to describe a person's race. Hispanic or Latino ethnicity is a separate demographic concept from race in the CPS statistics. People of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity may be of any race.
In the survey process, the interviewer provides the five options shown above and the survey respondent indicates the race or races they consider themselves to be. Since 2003, people who identify more than one race are tabulated separately in the category, Two or More Races.
Most BLS publications do not show separate estimates for the American Indian or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and Two or More Races groups because the number of survey respondents is too small to develop estimates of sufficient quality. People in these groups are included in all totals.
Race group data will not sum to total in most BLS publications
Most Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) publications of CPS data show only selected race groups: White, Black or African American, and Asian.
These three groups will not sum to the total (or 100 percent) because the total includes smaller race groups not shown separately: American Indian or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and Two or More Races.
People who identify themselves as Asian also are asked to identify a detailed Asian subgroup.
BLS publishes a very limited number of estimates for the following detailed Asian groups.
The CPS implemented changes to the race classifications in January 2003. These changes affected data comparability over time. For more information, see Revisions to the Current Population Survey Effective in January 2003.
The Current Population Survey is designed to identify biological sex. Further information is available on the Census Bureau website.
The Current Population Survey uses the following marital status categories.
In many BLS publications, categories 2–6 are combined and shown as "Other marital status." In other instances, categories 2–5 will be published as a combined group.
In other tabulations, Married, spouse absent and Separated are sometimes combined under the "Separated" label.
Persons with a disability
The Current Population Survey (CPS) identifies a person with a disability as someone who has at least one of the following conditions:
The CPS does not use Social Security disability status to identify persons with and without disabilities.
For further information, see Frequently asked questions about disability data.
Veterans and nonveterans
The Current Population Survey (CPS) defines veterans as people who have previously served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces and who were civilians at the time of the survey. People on active duty at the time of the survey are outside the scope of the CPS.
Members of the Reserve and National Guard are counted as veterans only if they have ever been called to active duty by Presidential order. People who served in the Reserves and National Guard and were never called to active duty are not counted as veterans in the CPS statistics.
Nonveterans are people who never served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces.
The CPS classifies veterans into one of following service periods based on their dates of service. They could have served anywhere in the world during these periods.
Veterans who served in more than one wartime period are classified only in the most recent one.
Veterans who served during one of the selected wartime periods and another period are classified only in the wartime period.
Foreign born and native born
The Current Population Survey defines the foreign born as people residing in the United States who were not U.S. citizens at birth. Specifically, they were born outside the United States or one of its outlying areas such as Puerto Rico or Guam, and neither parent was a U.S. citizen.
The foreign-born population includes legally-admitted immigrants, refugees, temporary residents such as students and temporary workers, and undocumented immigrants. The survey does not specifically identify people in these categories, however.
The survey asks the foreign born if they have U.S. citizenship, but it does not ask non-citizens about their legal status to live and work in the United States.
The native born are people born in the United States or one of its outlying areas such as Puerto Rico or Guam or, if born abroad, had at least one parent who was a U.S. citizen.
Earnings concepts and definitions
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) publishes usual weekly earnings data collected in the "basic" monthly Current Population Survey (CPS).
The BLS usual weekly earnings data are distinct from the annual earnings and income data collected in the Annual Social and Economic (ASEC) supplement to the CPS and published by the U.S. Census Bureau.
This section describes concepts and definitions pertaining specifically to the CPS earnings data published by BLS.
To find CPS earnings data available from BLS, see the CPS earnings page.
Wage and salary workers for earnings purposes
The Current Population Survey (CPS) earnings data published by BLS reflect the earnings of wage and salary workers only.
Wage and salary workers for earnings purposes are workers age 16 and older who receive wages, salaries, commissions, tips, payments in kind, or piece rates.
Wage and salary workers for earnings purposes exclude both the incorporated and the unincorporated self-employed.
The definition of wage and salary workers for earnings purposes is more narrow in scope than the general wage and salary workers definition used with labor force, employment, and unemployment data from the CPS, as the latter includes the incorporated self-employed.
The Current Population Survey does not specifically identify salaried workers or workers covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
Usual weekly earnings
Usual weekly earnings data from the Current Population Survey reflect earnings before taxes and other deductions and include any overtime pay, commissions, or tips usually received. For multiple jobholders, the data reflect earnings at their main job.
The usual weekly earnings data reflect only wage and salary earnings from work, not gross income from all sources. These data do not include the cash value of benefits such as employer-provided health insurance.
The term "usual" reflects each survey respondent's own understanding of the term. If the respondent asks for a definition of "usual," interviewers are instructed to define the term as more than half the weeks worked during the past 4 or 5 months.
Prior to 1994, survey respondents were asked how much they usually earned per week. Since January 1994, respondents have been asked to identify the easiest way for them to report earnings (hourly, weekly, biweekly, twice monthly, monthly, annually, or other) and how much they usually earn in the reported time period. Earnings reported on a basis other than weekly are converted to a weekly equivalent.
Earnings data are collected about employed people only. The survey does not ask how much unemployed people earned on their last job.
The median earnings level represents the midpoint in an earnings distribution, with half of workers having earnings above the median and the other half having earnings below the median.
Deciles and quartiles of earnings
There are 9 decile earnings values that form "partitions" for the 10 earnings groups; these are the first through the ninth deciles.
When looking at earnings distributions by decile, this means that 10 percent of workers will earn less than the first decile amount; 20 percent will earn less than the second decile amount, and so forth. The ninth decile value divides the lowest-earning 90 percent of workers from the highest earning 10 percent of workers.
The fifth decile is the same as the median, or midpoint of the earnings distribution.
There are 3 quartile earnings values that form "partitions" for the 4 earnings groups; these are the first through the third quartiles.
When looking at earnings distributions by quartile, this means that one-fourth (25 percent) of workers will earn less than the first quartile amount, and three-fourths (75 percent) of workers will earn less than the third quartile.
The second quartile is the same as the median, or midpoint of the earnings distribution.
Constant dollars and current dollars
Earnings shown in constant dollars have been adjusted for inflation.
An earnings time series in constant dollars allows you to see how earnings have changed over time, minus the effect of inflation.
Adjusting earnings to constant dollars requires a measure of price change over time. The adjustment bases the earnings to the purchasing power of a particular year or years.
Constant-dollar earnings time series sometimes may be based to the most recent year so that historical earnings data can be seen in contemporary dollars. In other cases, the series may be based to the purchasing power of an earlier time, such as 1982–84.
Earnings shown in current dollars have not been adjusted for inflation and reflect the purchasing power of the time period reported.
Survey and general data concepts
This section contains general concepts and definitions pertaining to the Current Population Survey (CPS) and CPS data.
Reference week and survey interview week
The Current Population Survey "reference" week is the specific week of the month used to determine the employment status of survey respondents,
and the last week of the 4-week job search period used to determine unemployment status.
The reference week usually is the 7-day calendar week (Sunday–Saturday) that includes the 12th of the month, with occasional exceptions described below.
Survey interviews and data collection begin in the week immediately following the reference week. This is referred to as the "survey" week, or the "interview" week, and is usually the week that includes the 19th of the month.
Exceptions to the week of the 12th:
For December, if the calendar week including the 5th is contained entirely within the month of December, the December reference week will be one week earlier than normal.
For November, the reference week will be moved one week earlier if Thanksgiving falls during the week that contains the 19th, or if the Census Bureau determines that there is not enough data processing time before the survey interview week for December.
Publication dates for the Employment Situation news release
Generally, the Employment Situation publication date is the third Friday after the week that includes the 12th. This usually results in the release being scheduled for the first Friday of the month following the reference month. However, when the 12th of the month falls on a Sunday and there are 30 days or less in the month, the release date will be the second Friday of the month. In addition, if the third Friday after the December reference period falls on January 1–3, the release date will be the second Friday of the month.
If the normal release day Friday happens to be a federal holiday, such as July 4th, the release date will be the Thursday immediately preceding the holiday. The Employment Situation release dates are adjusted only for designated federal holidays.
Geographic scope and reference of the CPS
The Current Population Survey (CPS) covers the 50 states and the District of Columbia.
The CPS scope does not include Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, or other U.S. territories.
All national and U.S. total data from the CPS reflect the 50 states and D.C. only.
BLS publishes selected CPS data below the national level. All sub-national estimates reflect the survey respondent's place of residence.
"Basic" monthly survey versus the Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC)
Basic monthly survey
Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC)
The ASEC sometimes is referred to as the "March" supplement because traditionally it has been added to the basic survey in the month of March.
Most ASEC data, including income, poverty, and health insurance coverage data, are published by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Seasonally adjusted and not seasonally adjusted data
Seasonal adjustment is a statistical procedure that removes the effects of normal seasonal variations—resulting from events such as holidays, school openings and closings, and weather—from data series. Seasonally adjusted data make it easier to observe cyclical and other economic trends, such as those associated with general economic expansions and contractions. For further information, see Seasonal adjustment of Current Population Survey (CPS) estimates.
Not seasonally adjusted data are estimates as measured directly by the CPS. These data have not been subject to seasonal adjustment procedures. All annual average measures from the CPS are calculated from not seasonally adjusted data.
BLS publishes a wide range of seasonally adjusted labor market measures from the CPS. However, not all measures are available on a seasonally adjusted basis.
Last Modified Date: January 27, 2021