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A tale of 2 employment surveys, at a glance

Updated: March 8, 2013 10:19AM



The U.S. economy added a robust 236,000 jobs in February, and the unemployment rate fell to 7.7 percent from 7.9 percent.

The government does one survey to learn how many jobs were created and another survey to determine the unemployment rate. Those surveys can sometimes produce different results, although in February they pointed in the same direction.

One is called the payroll survey. It asks mostly large companies and government agencies how many people they employed during the month. This survey produces the number of jobs gained or lost. In February, the payroll survey showed that companies added 246,000 jobs, and federal, state and local governments shed 10,000.

The other is the household survey. Government workers ask whether the adults in a household have a job. Those who don’t are asked whether they’re looking for one. If they are, they’re considered unemployed. If they aren’t, they’re not considered part of the work force and aren’t counted as unemployed. The household survey produces each month’s unemployment rate.

In February, the household survey showed that the number of people who were unemployed and looking for a work fell 300,000 to 12 million. That was enough to lower the unemployment rate.

Unlike the payroll survey, the household survey captures farm workers, the self-employed and people who work for new companies. It also does a better job of capturing hiring by small businesses.

But the household survey is more volatile from month to month. The Labor Department surveys just 60,000 households, a small fraction of the more than 100 million U.S. households.

By contrast, the payroll survey seeks information from 140,000 companies and government agencies — and they employ roughly one-third of non-farm employees. The employers send forms to the Labor Department or fill out online surveys noting how many people they employ. They also provide wages, hours worked and other details.

Most Americans focus more on the unemployment rate, which comes from the household survey. But economists generally prefer the jobs figure from the payroll survey.

Economists note that the surveys tend to even out over time. Since the recession ended, the payroll survey shows that companies have created nearly 4.5 million jobs. The household survey shows the number of employed rose almost 4 million.



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