Most US Workers Say Their Pay Isn't Keeping Up With Inflation


Wednesday, September 14th 2022, 5:25 pm

By: CBS News


The monthly Consumer Price Index is one of the most closely-watched economic indicators in the country. Tuesday's new report shows prices in most sectors are still stubbornly high, up 8.3% over last year. But determining that number takes work from a team of hundreds of people across the country who gather actual prices on tens of thousands of goods and services.

"We price telecommunications. We price tuition. We price daycare. Anything you can think about, we're pricing," said Maureen McDevitt Greene, the Assistant Regional Commissioner for Price Programs for the Bureau of Labor Statistics Philadelphia Region.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) employs about 475 economic assistants across the country. The part-time employees are responsible for gathering much of the data that goes into the CPI, and that gathering often involves visiting actual stores to check price tags.

"I suspect most people think that there's some computer someplace that's just whirling around and spitting out a number. But this is very real," said McDevitt Greene.

Casey Wensel has been working as an economic assistant with BLS for 16 years. On a recent day of price checking, she went out to search for some very specific items. At a bicycle shop, she tracked a hybrid bicycle in a diamond style with an aluminum frame. At a grocery store, she found a 7.05oz can of mackerel in tomato sauce for $4.19. Exact details are carefully recorded so the same product can be tracked over a multi-year period. If a brand is discontinued, a close substitute is used instead.

The CPI affects everything from the stock market to social security payments. Wensel takes her part in the number very seriously. "Especially now with inflation just skyrocketing, it is important," said Wensel. "You could be a penny off and throw the thing completely out of whack. You have to be accurate."

By law, specific brands and store locations must be kept confidential. The items are very carefully chosen based on data from the Census Bureau that tracks how consumers spend their money. The CPI is often described as being based on a basket of goods, but that language doesn't reflect the true scope of the data collection. In a recent month, prices were checked on more than 100,000 individual goods and services.

Services include things like medical costs, airfare, attorneys fees, haircuts, and even funerals. The index also tracks major categories like gas prices, rent, utilities, and recreation, but it doesn't track prices for items that are considered investments, which includes home prices.

"You may have a sense that prices are increasing. But it's different having a sense of it and knowing for real," said McDevitt Greene.

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