CEPR - Center for Economic and Policy Research


En Español

Em Português

Other Languages

Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press Do Fugitives Answer Government Surveys?

Do Fugitives Answer Government Surveys?

Saturday, 31 May 2014 13:55

Tyler Cowen had an interesting column discussing a book by Alice Goffman that described the life of people trying to evade the law. Cowen points out that fugitive status undermines family relations and can make normal work impossible.

The discussion is interesting and the book sounds well worth reading, but as an economist nerd type it is difficult not to ask a seemingly obvious question; do these people answer government surveys? Of course fugitives almost certainly do not answer the door for the people conducting the Current Population Survey (CPS) and other government surveys.

This matters because it could mean that the data from the CPS (the main survey for determining employment and unemployment rates) are biased, especially for those demographic groups who are disproportionately likely to be in trouble with the law. This likely appears to be the case with young African American men. While the overall coverage rate for the CPS is around 88 percent, for young African American men it is around two-thirds.

The current methodology effectively assumes that the people who don't get covered by the survey are as likely to be employed as the people who do. Based on comparisons between the 2000 long-form Census and the overlapping months of the CPS, my colleague John Schmitt found that the CPS may overstate employment rates for young African American men by as much as 8 percentage points.

By its nature is hard to get a clear fix on the size of this problem, but it does seem reasonable that not only actual fugitives, but people on probation or parole or in other ways involved with the criminal justice system might be less likely to talk with someone asking questions from the government. If we think these people are less likely to be employed, then our data may be overstating employment and understating unemployment. It would be good if the Bureau of Labor Statistics took some interest in this issue.

Comments (12)Add Comment
How about people in prison?
written by cemmcs, May 31, 2014 3:03
We have more people in prison than any other country in the world. I suspect they would be more likely to be unemployed.
..., Low-rated comment [Show]
Sorry Al, Ain't Close to Libelous in This Country, You May Try Saudi Arabia
written by Dean, May 31, 2014 3:50

There are a variety of techniques that BLS could use to develop an imputation for the uncovered population. For example, it could do occasional surveys that look to follow up on a portion of the people they didn't talk to -- offering cash for participation and going to great lengths to assure participants that no information would be shared with law enforcement authorities. They still won't get everyone, but they could likely get a substantial portion of the people they missed, the Census does.

You won't get a perfect number, but you can get a much better one. It would require a bit of thought and a bit of money.
written by jeff, June 01, 2014 1:00
From what I've heard of the Census you wouldn't be happy at all with the sampling in the ghetto.
written by jeff, June 01, 2014 1:04
I don't think anyone posting here has tried to do a 'survey' in these type of neighborhoods. Numbers are being made up.
written by jeff, June 01, 2014 1:08
---by offering cash for participation and going to great lengths to assure participants that no information would be shared with law enforcement authorities.---

Sorry for my third post but really, they aren't going to believe any assurances from the government.

They do respond to the Census
written by Dean, June 01, 2014 7:50

Actually most of the population in question does answer the Census, which gets close to a 99 percent response rate. That compares with the 88 percent for the CPS. So that suggests that many of these people can be persuaded to respond to government surveys.
written by Al, June 01, 2014 8:32
I'm a great admirer of your blog, but I can't let your claim that the Census gets close to a 99 percent response rate (presumably to the 2010 decennial census) go unchallenged. What is your source? I googled 2010 census response rate, and nothing I found indicated the rate was above the low 70's percents. What definition of response rate do you use? If the Census got over a 90 percent response rate, they would be yelling about it from the roof tops.
written by watermelonpunch, June 01, 2014 9:56
The census really does go to extreme lengths to get everyone. It does not depend on self reporting.
Every potentially livable structure of shelter is mapped recorded and counted and then exhaustively surveyed. Including tents.

From what I have knowledge of, the most uncooperative population during the 2010 census was anti government types in rural locales and anti government militia groups. From my understanding of those groups they are unlikely to be hiding groups of undocumented immigrants based on ideological tendencies. While they might be likely to want to hide fugitives, it's doubtful they would be good at it since they tend to be under law enforcement scrutiny I would think.
Set and Setting
written by John Parks, June 01, 2014 11:52
Set and Setting

Tyler Cowen's article was interesting in another way.

Interests and predispositions expressed in "Comments", both to the NYT article and Dean's BTP response, allows glimpses of what makes us unique individuals.

1. Dean, a self-confessed economist nerd type sees flaws in sampling and measurements.

2. A political scientist may see an example of how there may be an organized effort to disproportionately disenfranchise a specific segment of the population.

3. A sociologist would immediately pick out the similarities between the fugitive population and their families and be able to compare them to our
immigrant population, both legal and undocumented. (This same sociologist would then reference subset #2 above)

4. Timothy Leary would have explained these differences in focus by his "Set and Setting" hypothesis.

5. Me, having read the NYT comments, and being less nuanced, would just declare that "There are some real wackos out there!" I am way more afraid of some of those
commenters than I am of the fugitives and their families.
An Interesting, Nerdy Question
written by Larry Signor, June 01, 2014 4:28
But is it significant? There obviously will be no action on this issue since "normal" working people have been thrown under the bus. There is very little hope at the margin. The unfortunate truth is that we still live in a "trickle down" world.
I Wonder
written by Larry Signor, June 01, 2014 7:46
Can one libel the government? I thought the government was Constitutionally discouraged from pursuing this issue.

Write comment

(Only one link allowed per comment)

This content has been locked. You can no longer post any comments.


Support this blog, donate
Combined Federal Campaign #79613

About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.