Consumer Spending in World War II: The Forgotten Consumer Expenditure Surveys

By Henderson, Steven W. | Monthly Labor Review, August 2015 | Go to article overview

Consumer Spending in World War II: The Forgotten Consumer Expenditure Surveys


Henderson, Steven W., Monthly Labor Review


Shortly after the December 1941 entry of the United States into the Second World War, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Human Nutrition and Home Economics (1) conducted a survey to provide estimates of expenditures and savings by income class for the entire nation. The results of this survey, "Family spending and saving in wartime"--published with initial data in the September and October 1942 issues of the Monthly Labor Review and published with final data as BLS bulletin 822 in 1945--covered two time periods: all of 1941 and then the first 3 months of 1942. A second report, "Income and spending and saving of city families in wartime," bulletin 724, Monthly Labor Review, September 1942, highlighted the differences in U.S. spending for urban families before and after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into the war. Then in 1944 the survey was repeated for urban households to see how spending changed, and the results were published in "Expenditures and savings of city families in 1944," serial no. R. 1818, Monthly Labor Review, January 1946. However, after being discussed in articles in the 1942 and 1946 Monthly Labor Review (MLR), the consumer expenditure surveys collected during the Second World War faded from history.

The historic information has long been overlooked in Consumer Expenditure Survey (CE) spending summaries--the World War II studies were not mentioned in the BLS Handbook of Methods prior to the pending 2015 update and almost no mention in the several historical articles by BLS describing survey results over the decades. (2) The expenditure data and income information contained in their tables are not available in any BLS online document. After 70 years, it is time to revisit the findings and finally place them within the historical context of changes in urban consumer spending since the 1930s.

Purpose and methodology of the wartime spending surveys

At the start of America's entry into the war, the U.S. government needed current information on consumers' purchases and the shares going to major expenditures. The previous survey results were from 1935 to 1936. As described in the bulletin 822 foreword to the 1941-42 surveys, "The need for facts on which to base decisions for the civilian economy during wartime became especially urgent after the entrance of the United States into the war in December 1941. Policy decisions had to be made regarding price and wage controls, rationing, food production and distribution, taxation and other forms of war financing." (3)

1941-42 U.S. consumer spending

The first of the wartime surveys gathered data from a representative sample of the continental United States--48 states existed at that time--and was designed to measure current consumption details for all population size areas. The sample consisted of 1,300 families and single people within cities, 1,000 households in rural nonfarm areas, and an additional 760 households on farms; all segments of the U.S. population other than residents of military camps and inmates were included. In scope, the representation of all noninstitutionalized urban and rural population is very similar to today's Consumer Expenditure Survey.

Data were collected by personal visit using a very detailed paper collection form with questions asking the respondents to recall their income and spending for all of 1941 as well as their quarterly spending amounts for food, board, and alcohol. The same basic form was used in 1942 asking for information for just one 3-month quarter.

Both spending and income were collected and summed on a worksheet on the form. Expenditures and income had to balance within 5.5 percent for city and nonfarm households and 9.5 percent for farm families to be considered acceptable. (4) A supplemental schedule was used to learn about the food that was bought and consumed the week prior to the interview. …

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