Economists May Have Been Flying Blind All Along

The pandemic upended many of the things we thought we knew about the economy. Even now, economists struggle to answer such fundamental questions as whether Americans are better off financially. Answers vary significantly depending on the data source, sowing confusion. The end result is that business and households seem to be losing trust in the data and have become increasingly unwilling to participate in the surveys that underlie official statistics such as unemployment and inflation that, in turn, help inform decisions made by government officials and central bankers.

Sure, COVID-19 made conducting surveys extremely difficult, but the recovery still left response rates short of the pre-pandemic levels. Take the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, or JOLTS. Bloomberg Businessweek reported earlier this year that the response rate to the survey had plunged by half to 31%. At the same time the response rate fell, the Federal Reserve drew increasing attention to the record high unfilled openings that the survey reported. What the Fed viewed as an “extremely tight labor market” was part of its rationale for raising interest rates so rapidly, boosting the cost of everything from mortgages to credit cards and student loans.

Faulty Data

US Census Bureau survey director Carolyn Pickering says there is no indication that the decline in response rates in government surveys has degraded the data quality. And the rates are far higher than surveys done in the private sector or by non-profits, which also have declining participation rates. Nevertheless, even though official government statistics remain our best pulse of the economy, they are at risk of sending false signals.

Lower participation rates can mean that the data initially collected are not representative of the population, and statistical adjustments are required for estimates to accurately reflect conditions. There are limits to the adjustments, especially for smaller or hard-to-reach demographic groups — often ones we most want to study for policies — such as minorities, those with less than a high school degree or young adults. And it can make it harder to sort out disagreements across surveys.

So why is participation in surveys declining? The answer is complex. One reason is that distrust makes people less willing to share details of their lives, and distrust in government has risen steadily over the past several decades to eight in 10 individuals in 2022, according to the Pew Research Center. That undermines the collection of data. The first words people hear in the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey is, “I'm calling … to obtain the governments statistics on employment and unemployment.”