The monthly consumer price index is one of the most watched economic indicators in the country. Tuesday’s new report shows prices in most sectors are still stubbornly high, up 8.3% from a year ago. But determining that number requires the work of a team of hundreds of people across the country who collect the actual prices of tens of thousands of goods and services.
“We charge telecommunications. We charge tuition fees. We charge for daycare.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) employs approximately 475 economic assistants across the country. Part-timers are responsible for collecting much of the data that goes into the CPI, and that collection often involves visiting actual stores to check price tags.
“I suspect most people think there’s a computer somewhere running around and spitting out a number. But it’s real,” McDevitt Greene said.
Casey Wensel has worked as an economics assistant at the BLS for 16 years. On a recent price check day, she came out looking for very specific items. At a bike shop, she followed a diamond-style hybrid bike with an aluminum frame. At a grocery store, she found a 7.05 oz can of mackerel in tomato sauce for $4.19. The exact details are carefully recorded so that the same product can be tracked over a period of years. If a mark is dropped, a close substitute is used instead.
The CPI affects everything from the stock market to social security payments. Wensel takes his role in the number very seriously. “Especially now that inflation is skyrocketing, that’s important,” Wensel said. “You could lose a penny and throw the thing completely out of place. You have to be specific.”
By law, specific brands and store locations must be kept confidential. Items are chosen very carefully based on Census Bureau data that tracks how consumers spend their money. The CPI is often described as being based on a basket of goods, but this language does not reflect the true scope of the data collection. In a recent month, prices were checked on over 100,000 individual goods and services.
Services include things like medical bills, airfare, attorney fees, haircuts, and even funerals. The index also tracks major categories such as gas prices, rents, utilities and recreation, but it does not track prices for items considered investments, including house prices.
“You may feel like the prices are going up. But it’s different to have an idea and to know it for real,” McDevitt Greene said.