BLS Handbook of Methods

In This Chapter

Chapter 1.
Labor Force Data Derived from the Current Population Survey

Since the inception of the survey, there have been various changes in the design of the CPS sample. The sample is traditionally redesigned and a new sample is selected after each decennial census. Also, the number of sample areas and the number of sample persons are changed occasionally. Most of these changes are made in order to improve the efficiency of the sample design, increase the reliability of the sample estimates, or control costs. Since the mid-1980s, the CPS has had a State-based sample design, meaning that all sampling operations such as allocation and selection are implemented at the State level.

A redesigned CPS sample based on the 1990 decennial census was selected for use during the 1990s and the early years of the new century. Households from this new sample were phased into the CPS between April 1994 and July 1995. The July 1995 sample was the first monthly sample based entirely on the 1990 census. A redesigned sample based on the results of the 2000 census will be phased in between April 2004 and July 2005.

The original 1990 census-based sample design included about 66,000 housing units per month located in 792 selected geographic areas called primary sampling units (PSUs). The sample initially was selected to meet specific reliability criteria for the Nation, for each of the 50 States and the District of Columbia, and for the substate areas of New York City and the Los Angeles-Long Beach metropolitan area. In 1996, the original reliability criteria for the sample design were modified to reduce costs, which decreased the sample to 754 PSUs and 59,000 housing units. The current criteria, given below, are based on the coefficient of variation (CV) of the unemployment level, where the CV is defined as the standard error of the estimate divided by the estimate, expressed as a percentage. These CV controls assume a 6-percent unemployment rate in order to establish a consistent specification of sampling error.

The current sample design, including an expansion to meet the requirements of the SCHIP legislation, was introduced in July 2001. It includes about 72,000 households from 754 sample areas, or PSUs, and maintains a 1.9-percent CV on national monthly estimates of unemployment level. This translates into a change of 0.2 percentage point in the unemployment rate being significant at a 90-percent confidence level. For each of the 50 States and for the District of Columbia, the design maintains a CV of at most 8 percent on the annual average estimate of unemployment level, assuming a 6-percent unemployment rate. Due to the national reliability criterion, estimates for several large States are substantially more reliable than the State design criterion requires. Annual average unemployment estimates for California, Florida, New York, and Texas, for example, carry a CV of less than 4 percent.

In the first stage of sampling, the 754 PSUs are chosen. In the second stage, ultimate sampling unit clusters composed of about four housing units each are selected. Each month, about 72,000 housing units are assigned for data collection, of which about 60,000 are occupied and thus eligible for interview. The remainder are units found to be destroyed, vacant, converted to nonresidential use, containing persons whose usual place of residence is elsewhere, or ineligible for other reasons. Of the 60,000 housing units, about 7 to 8 percent are not interviewed in a given month due to temporary absence (vacation, for example) of the occupants, other failures to make contact after repeated attempts, inability of persons contacted to respond, unavailability for other reasons, and refusals to cooperate (about half of the noninterviews). Information is obtained each month for about 110,000 persons 16 years of age or older.

Selection of sample areas. The entire area of the United States, consisting of 3,141 counties and independent cities, is divided into 2,007 PSUs. PSUs are defined within States and do not cross State boundaries. In most States, a PSU consists of a county or a number of contiguous counties. In New England and Hawaii, minor civil divisions are used instead of counties.

Metropolitan areas within a State are used as a basis for forming many PSUs. Outside of metropolitan areas, two or more counties normally are combined to form a PSU except when the geographic area of an individual county is too large. Combining counties to form PSUs provides greater heterogeneity; a typical PSU includes urban and rural residents of both high and low economic levels and encompasses, to the extent feasible, diverse occupations and industries. Another important consideration is that the PSU be sufficiently compact so that, with a small sample spread throughout, it can be efficiently canvassed without undue travel costs.

The 2,007 PSUs are grouped into strata within each State. Then, one PSU is selected from each stratum with the probability of selection proportional to the population of the PSU. Nationally, there are a total of 428 PSUs in strata by themselves. These strata are self-representing and generally are the most populous PSUs in each State. The 326 remaining strata are formed by combining PSUs that are similar in such characteristics as unemployment, proportion of housing units with three or more persons, number of persons employed in various industries, and average monthly wages for various industries. The single PSU randomly selected from each of these strata is non-self-representing because it represents not only itself but the entire stratum. The probability of selecting a particular PSU in a non-self-representing stratum is proportional to its 1990 population. For example, within a stratum, the chance that a PSU with a population of 50,000 would be selected for the sample is twice that for a PSU having a population of 25,000.

Selection of sample households. Because the sample design is State based, the sampling ratio differs by State and depends on State population size as well as both national and State reliability requirements. The State sampling ratios range roughly from 1 in every 200 households to 1 in every 3,000 households. The sampling ratio occasionally is modified slightly to hold the size of the sample relatively constant given the overall growth of the population (called "sample maintenance reduction"). The sampling ratio used within a sample PSU depends on the probability of selection of the PSU and the sampling ratio for the State. In a sample PSU with a probability of selection of 1 in 10 and a State sampling ratio of 3,000, a within-PSU sampling ratio of 1 in 300 achieves the desired overall ratio of 1 in 3,000 for the stratum.

The 1990 within-PSU sample design was developed using block-level data from the 1990 census. (The 1990 census was the first decennial census that produced data at the block level for the entire country.) Normally, census blocks are bounded by streets and other prominent physical features such as rivers or railroad tracks. County, Minor Civil Division, and census place limits also serve as block boundaries. In cities, blocks can be bounded by four streets and be quite small in land area. In rural areas, blocks can be several square miles in size.

For the purpose of sample selection, census blocks were grouped into three strata: Unit, group quarters, and area. (Occasionally, units within a block were split between the unit and group-quarters strata.) The unit stratum contained regular housing units with addresses that were easy to locate (for example, most single-family homes, townhouses, condominiums, apartment units, and mobile homes). The group-quarters stratum contained housing units in which residents shared common facilities or received formal or authorized care or custody. Unit and group-quarters blocks exist primarily in urban and suburban areas. The area stratum contains blocks with addresses that are more difficult to locate. Area blocks exist primarily in rural areas.

To reduce the variability of the survey estimates and to ensure that the within-PSU sample would reflect the demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of the PSU, blocks within the unit, group-quarters, and area strata were sorted using geographic and block-level data from the census. Examples of the census variables used for sorting include proportion of minority renter-occupied housing units, proportion of housing units with female householders, and proportion of owner-occupied housing units. The specific sorting variables used differed by type of PSU (urban or rural) and stratum.

Within each block, housing units were sorted geographically and grouped into clusters of approximately four units. A systematic sample of these clusters was then selected independently from each stratum using the appropriate within-PSU sampling ratio. The geographic clustering of the sample units reduces field representative travel costs. Prior to the interview, special listing procedures are used to locate the particular sample addresses in the group-quarters and area blocks.

Units in the three strata described above all existed at the time of the 1990 decennial census. Through a series of additional procedures, a sample of building permits is included in the CPS to represent housing units built after the decennial census. Adding these newly built units keeps the sample up-to-date and representative of the population. It also helps to keep the sample size stable: over the life of the sample, the addition of newly built housing units compensates for the loss of "old" units that may be abandoned, demolished, or converted to nonresidential use. In normal circumstances, the number of eligible households in the sample grows slowly. Sample maintenance reduction procedures are periodically implemented to hold the size of the sample relatively constant.

Rotation of sample. Part of the sample is changed each month. Each monthly sample is divided into eight representative subsamples or rotation groups. A given rotation group is interviewed for a total of 8 months, divided into two equal periods. The group is in the sample for 4 consecutive months, leaves the sample during the following 8 months, and then returns for another 4 consecutive months. In each monthly sample, 1 of the 8 rotation groups is in the first month of enumeration, another rotation group is in the second month, and so on. (The rotation group in the fifth month of enumeration is returning after an 8-month break.) Under this system, 75 percent of the sample is common from month to month and 50 percent is common from year to year for the same month. This procedure provides a substantial amount of month-to-month and year-to-year overlap in the sample, thus yielding better estimates of change and reducing discontinuities in the series of data without burdening sampled households with an unduly long period of inquiry.

Next: Collection Methods

Last Modified Date: April 17, 2003

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