The Downturn Is Whacking People, But We Need Good Data

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People reading a front page story in the NYT might have been surprised to find that the situation of ordinary families is deteriorating even more rapidly than had been generally reported. The article tells readers that:

"Between June 2009, when the recession officially ended, and June 2011, inflation-adjusted median household income fell 6.7 percent, to $49,909, according to a study by two former Census Bureau officials. During the recession — from December 2007 to June 2009 — household income fell 3.2 percent. "

This sounds really really bad. Of course the actual situation is really bad, but the report that is the basis for this article is extremely misleading. It relies on monthly data that are highly erratic. In particular, the horrible story for income over the last year is driven largely by an extraordinary run-up in inflation (largely driven by energy prices) that is already being reversed. Inflation rose at a 6.3 percent annual rate over the period from December 2010 to June 2011, the month for which the data is given. With hourly wages rising at around 2.0 percent annually, this implies a very bad income story.

This can be amplified by erratic monthly movements in hours, which can often rise or fall by more than half of a percent month to month. This is almost certainly due to measurement error, not actual changes in hours.

It is worth noting that there is almost no information that is freely available on the methodology used in this report. It is being sold for $20 on the web. There are many good sources for data on wages and working conditions in addition to the government data sources. CEPR provides frequent analysis of the micro data as does the Economic Policy Institute, my former employer. This data is freely available and fully transparent. The NYT should try to rely on such sources, rather than doing ads for dubious reports being sold for profit.