U.S. may boost incentives for consumer spending surveys

By Hilary Russ

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is considering offering incentives to increase response rates to a revised consumer spending survey, the agency’s commissioner told Reuters on Monday.

Such incentives are usually financial – paying people to respond – but they could, for example, also include an Apple iPad for respondents that they can keep after using it to report information, she said.

“There have been tests with incentives and we may go that direction,” said BLS chief Erica Groshen.

Data collected on expenditures is used to support revisions to the Consumer Price Index and other forms of economic research. Survey questions run the gamut from spending on housing, furniture, and vehicles to outlays for insurance, medical care and vacations.

Response rates to the surveys the BLS uses to obtain data from households fell to 76 percent in 2004 from 86 percent in 1990, according to a BLS study.

In 2009, the BLS launched its Gemini Project to research ways it could improve the survey. It is scheduled to finish examining the use of incentives in 2017, according to project documents, with a large scale feasibility test for an overall revamp to be completed in 2019.

The BLS uses cash incentives with its American Time Use Survey but only for households without a telephone or with a non-working number. They are mailed a $40 debit card that can be activated with a code provided only after they complete an interview.

The money entices people to participate and reimburses them for the telephone call, according to survey documents.

Separately on Monday, Groshen cautioned against reading too much into a single piece of information after Friday’s surprisingly low U.S. job growth data dampened expectations that the Federal Reserve might raise interest rates at its meeting on June 14 and 15.

“To think that one number is going to tell you the entire state of the labor market is asking a lot of one number,” she told Reuters during a conference hosted by the BLS, and agency of the Department of Labor.

The U.S. economy added only 38,000 jobs in May, the data showed on Friday, muting recently upbeat data on consumer spending and overall growth.

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen on Monday said interest rate increases are coming but gave little sense of when.

(Reporting by Hilary Russ in New York; Editing by Daniel Bases and Steve Orlofsky)

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