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Consumer Expenditures and Income: History

Timeline Events:

1888–1891: The first nationwide expenditure survey conducted to study workers’ spending patterns as elements of production costs 

1901: The second nationwide expenditure survey conducted in response to rapid price changes prior to the turn of the 20th century. It provided the weights for an index of food prices purchased by workers 

1917–1919: The third expenditure survey conducted. It provided weights for computing a cost-of-living index, now known as the Consumer Price Index (CPI)

1934–1936: Expenditure data collected from only urban wage and clerical workers used in revising CPI weights 

1935–1936: The first-ever nationwide rural and urban expenditure survey was collected 

1941–1942: Urban and rural expenditure survey conducted during World War II to measure domestic household expenditures during wartime 

1944: The wartime expenditure survey repeated for just urban households 

1950: Expenditure survey conducted for urban households 

1960–1961: Expenditure survey for both urban and rural households conducted 

1972–1973: First survey collected by the Census Bureau for BLS. Began the first use of two collection instruments: a weekly Diary Survey and the 3-month recall Interview Survey 

End of 1979: The CE begins annual data collection in urban and rural areas. Annual collection continues to the present 

1984: Beginning of annual published data tables 

2002: CPI begins using biennial Consumer Expenditure (CE) weights to update CPI cost weights every 2 years instead of updating the CPI every 10 years using 3 years of CE expenditures 

2003: Computer Assisted Personal Interview (CAPI) starts 

2004: Introduction of Imputed Income to fill in all missing income values 

2005: Introduction of a user-friendly Diary Survey 

2009: Gemini CE Redesign long-term research begins. The primary mission of the Gemini Project is to improve data quality through a verifiable reduction in measurement error, with a particular focus on underreporting 

March 2013: First publication of midyear data every 12 months 

2013: Introduction of estimated federal and state income taxes with the published 2013 data tables. Replaced all collected and missing amounts with estimated amounts 

2015: Noninterview adjustment calculations include income as a weighting variable 

2015: Initial ‘Bounding’ Interview Survey dropped. Number of interviews per household drops from five to four

The Bureau's studies of family living conditions rank among its oldest data-collecting functions. The first nationwide expenditure survey was conducted during 1888–1891 to study workers' spending patterns as elements of production costs. With special reference to competition in foreign trade, the survey emphasized the worker's role as a producer, rather than as a consumer. In response to rapid price changes prior to the turn of the 20th century, a second survey was administered in 1901. The resulting data provided the weights for an index of prices of food purchased by workers that was used until World War I as a deflator for workers' incomes and expenditures. A third survey, conducted during 1917–19, provided weights for computing a cost-of-living index, now known as the Consumer Price Index. The Bureau conducted its next major survey, covering only urban wage earners and clerical workers, during 1934–36, primarily to revise CPI weights.

The Great Depression

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the use of consumer expenditure surveys extended from the study of the welfare of selected groups to more general economic analysis. Concurrent with its 1934–36 investigation, the Bureau cooperated with four other Federal agencies in a fifth survey, the 1935–36 study of consumer purchases, which presented consumption estimates for both urban and rural segments of the population.

World War II

During World War II, a 1941–42 survey for urban, nonfarm, and farm households was conducted, with a followup survey of only urban households collected in 1944. See: https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2015/article/consumer-spending-in-world-war-ii-the-forgotten-consumer-expenditure-surveys.htm.

The next survey in 1950, which covered only urban consumers, was an abbreviated version of the 1935–36 study. The 1950 CE data were used in the 1953 CPI revision.

Other significant improvements

The 1960–61 Survey of Consumer Expenditures once again included both urban and rural families and provided the basis for revising the CPI weights, while supplying material for broader economic, social, and market analyses.

Eleven years later, the next survey collecting information on expenditures of urban and rural householders in the United States was conducted in 1972–73. That survey, while providing continuity with the content of the Bureau's previous surveys, departed from the past in its collection techniques.

Unlike the previous surveys, the U.S. Census Bureau, under contract to BLS, conducted all sample selection and field work. Another significant change was the use of two independent surveys to collect the information—a diary survey and an interview panel survey. A third major change was the switch from an annual recall to a quarterly recall in the Interview Survey, and daily recordkeeping of expenditures in the Diary Survey. Again, the resulting data were used to revise CPI weights.

The need for more timely data than could be supplied by surveys conducted every 10 to 12 years—intensified by the rapidly changing economic conditions of the 1970s—led to the initiation of the current continuing survey in late 1979. From 1984 to 2011, annual calendar year data tables have been available. Beginning with July 2012 data, both annual data plus a second set of 12-month tables covering the second half of one published year with the first half of the subsequent year have been published. The objectives of the CE remain the same: to provide the basis for revising weights and associated pricing samples for the CPI and to meet the need for timely and detailed information on the spending patterns of different types of families. Like the 1972–73 survey, the current survey consists of two separate surveys, each with a different data collection technique and sample. However, as described in the more information section, BLS began a project in 2009 to look at the need for a complete redesign of the survey.

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Last Modified Date: February 25, 2016