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Measuring Employment Since the Recovery: A Comparison of the Household and Payroll Surveys

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Tracking the state of the overall U.S. economy requires accurate employment measurements. However, the two primary measures of employment statistics--the payroll survey and the household survey--have shown differing trends and levels in employment since the recession began in March 2001.

Nonpartisan government experts agree that the payroll survey employment numbers are more reliable than those from the household survey, despite Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao's erroneous claim that experts do not know which survey is better (Utgoff 2003; Congressional Budget Office 2003). However, some analysts continue to mistakenly use the household survey to measure employment.

Others incorrectly report trends in the household survey, while ignoring the discontinuity in the series that results from the January 2003 population adjustment. The payroll survey's more precise measure of employment trends provide a clear advantage to the more volatile and less accurate household survey numbers.