Sometimes in the name of data consistency, the methodology on how to collect statistical data remains constant over time; despite is lack of usefulness under the current circumstances. Unchanged, we have exactly this situation in the methods used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to determine the number of unemployed when the situation itself has skewed so dramatically from normal that the old methods of data collection need to be abandoned for more appropriate methodologies. I am referring to the process of calling people on the telephone to survey the status, and length, of their unemployment. Today’s world of extremely long term unemployment for millions of Americans has changed the playing field and demands some new thinking be applied to this effort on a monthly basis.
Why should the method of calling people and surveying them over the phone be abandoned today? Simply put, this process is totally missing its true targeted population…you cannot get phone information from someone that no longer has a phone! This simple, yet true, observation is screaming for the BLS to do something different in their data collection methodologies in today’s environment; they should go out into the field, much like they do in the census, and collect data the old fashioned way, face to face with the intended audience.
Although solid statistical data is not available to support the claim that today’s data collection methodologies are simply not appropriate for the times, logic does. Again, if the sampling process is setup to garner this information from people via phone calls to land lines, a number of obvious flaws in this methodology become immediately apparent:
1) It can be reasonably assumed that there is a high correlation to the loss of access to a phone to be interviewed on if one has lost all unemployment benefits due to becoming a 99er. Lack of financial resources equals difficult choices and food and shelter prevail over telephone access.
2) Another high probability is that the use of a landline to be contacted at, if one has exhausted all benefits and has become one of America’s millions of 99ers, has more likely than not been transferred to a cell phone package that is not on the BLS’s call list. 99ers without benefits are far more likely to have a cell phone package (if they have a phone at all) with very limited minutes available; especially if they are now living out of their car or spending nights at homeless shelters.
3) Garbage in, garbage out. The current system was designed to deal with data collection when most bouts with unemployment were measured in weeks or a few months, and for most “typical recessions” when people were able to draw on unemployment and still had financial resources to draw on like savings, or credit. With today’s very protracted long term unemployment levels at numbers not seen since the Great Depression, this is no longer a viable assumption for the current state of millions of 99ers. Their savings, investments, homes, possessions are now all gone! They have no resources to draw against any longer, so a phone simply becomes an unaffordable luxury. This is a concept that may people that still have jobs find very difficult to get their arms around. They cannot imagine not being able to afford a phone in today’s world, but it truly happens to millions.
Today’s unemployment environment is screaming for significant changes in the data collection process. Field agents should be sent to collect data at job banks, homeless shelters, community action agencies, and the like to get a first hand representation of what is really happening with the long term unemployed in today’s economy. I guarantee you that the long term unemployment picture is much worse than the data that is being presented by the BLS and the media today!