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Consumer Expenditures and Income: History

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) studies of family living conditions rank among the oldest data collected. The first nationwide expenditure survey was conducted during 1888–91 to study workers' spending patterns as elements of production costs. With special reference to competition in foreign trade, the survey emphasized the worker's role as a producer, rather than as a consumer. In response to rapid price changes prior to the turn of the 20th century, a second survey was administered in 1901. The resulting data provided the weights for an index of prices of food purchased by workers that was used until World War I as a deflator for workers' incomes and expenditures. A third survey, conducted during 1917–19, provided weights for computing a cost-of-living index, now known as the Consumer Price Index (CPI). BLS conducted its next major survey, covering only urban wage earners and clerical workers, during 1934–36, primarily to revise CPI weights.

BLS conducted major survey revisions through the Great Depression and World War II and up through the 1970s. The need for more timely data than could be supplied by surveys conducted every 10 to 12 years—intensified by the rapidly changing economic conditions in the 1970s—led to the initiation of the current continuing survey in late 1979. Unlike the previous surveys, the U.S. Census Bureau, under contract with BLS, conducted all sample selection and field work. Another significant change was the use of two independent surveys to collect the information—a Diary Survey and an Interview Survey. A third major change was the switch from an annual recall to a quarterly recall in the Interview Survey, and daily recordkeeping of expenditures in the Diary Survey. As with the earlier surveys, the resulting data from 1979 onward have been used to revise CPI weights. For details, see the CPI Handbook of Methods.

The objectives of the Consumer Expenditures Surveys (CE) remain the same: to provide the basis for revising weights and associated pricing samples for the CPI and to meet the need for timely and detailed information on the spending patterns of different types of families.

Below is a timeline of major events in the history of BLS CE surveys. For a more detailed timeline of the continuous survey since 1979, see Improvements and protocol changes.

Hover over the red dot to see historical information.

Timeline Events:

1888–91: The first nationwide expenditure survey conducted to study workers’ spending patterns as elements of production costs. 

1901: The second nationwide expenditure survey conducted in response to rapid price changes prior to the turn of the 20th century. It provided the weights for an index of food prices purchased by workers. 

1917–19: The third expenditure survey conducted. It provided weights for computing a cost-of-living index, now known as the CPI.

1934–36: Expenditure data collected from only urban wage and clerical workers used in revising CPI weights. 

1935–36: The first-ever nationwide rural and urban expenditure survey was collected. 

1941–42: Urban and rural expenditure survey conducted during World War II to measure domestic household expenditures during wartime.

1944: The wartime expenditure survey repeated for only urban households.

1950: Expenditure survey conducted for urban households. 

1960–61: Expenditure survey for both urban and rural households conducted. 

1972–73: First survey collected by the U.S. Census Bureau for BLS. Began the first use of two collection instruments: a weekly Diary Survey and the 3-month recall Interview Survey. 

1979: The CE begins continuous monthly data collection in urban and rural areas.

1984: Beginning of annual calendar year published data tables.

1984: Integration of Diary and Interview survey data for publication in CE reports and bulletins.

1992: Published bulletins become reports and free-of-charge to the public.

1995: First release of CE data tables to the public on the CE website.

2000: Release of all historic CE tables for expenditure means from 1984 forward.

2000: First release of standard error tables on the CE website.

2002: CPI begins using biennial CE weights to update CPI cost weights every 2 years instead of updating the CPI every 10 years using 3 years of CE expenditures. 

2003: Computer assisted personal interview (CAPI) starts. 

2003: First release of CE anthology publication.

2004: Introduction of imputed income to fill in all missing income values. 

2005: Introduction of a more user-friendly Diary Survey. 

2009: The Gemini Project CE Redesign long-term research begins. The primary mission of the Gemini Project is to improve data quality through a verifiable reduction in measurement error, with a particular focus on underreporting. 

2013: First publication of midyear data tables every 12 months. 

2013: Introduction of estimated federal and state income taxes with the published 2013 data tables. Replaced all collected and missing amounts with estimated amounts.

2015: Noninterview adjustment calculations include income as a weighting variable. 

2015: Initial ”bounding” Interview Survey dropped. Number of interviews per household drops from five to four.

2016: Publication of public use microdata (PUMD) from 1996 forward.

2017: First release of state-level weights, for use with 2016 data.

2020: Publication of previously unavailable PUMD on the CE website for 1980–96.

2021: First release of midyear PUMD, to provide data at the earliest time possible on how the COVID-19 pandemic affected consumer expenditures.

2022: Official addition of an online mode for the Diary Survey.


Last Modified Date: September 12, 2022