Human Price Scanners Gather Confidential Data for Bureau of Labor Statistics

By Wax-Thibodeaux, Emily | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), November 17, 2013 | Go to article overview

Human Price Scanners Gather Confidential Data for Bureau of Labor Statistics


Wax-Thibodeaux, Emily, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


On a brisk autumn morning, Caren Gaffney, a 50-something blonde with a French manicure, a Texas twang and a skeptical squint in her eyes, crouches down to inspect the underbelly of a gas pump in rural Virginia.

"Let me make sure I get this right," Ms. Gaffney says, putting on her glasses as she peppers the manager with questions. "OK, are there special prices on certain days? Do you pay more or less if you used a credit card? What about points from the store, can you count those toward gas? Is this minimum octane? Regular or unleaded?"

She enters all the information into the computer tablet wobbling in her arms.

Ms. Gaffney is a roving, often stealthy price-checker with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, one of 428 "economic assistants" who fan out across every state, seven days a week, to record the prices of everything from guitars to guns, cribs to cremations, farmers market apples to food-truck cupcakes.

It is a labor-intensive task, one that could seem like an anachronism in a high-tech age when anyone with a smartphone can scan a bar code and call up lists of products, prices and sales locations. And as the bureau looks for ways to modernize and go digital, this century-old job could be in jeopardy.

Ms. Gaffney is on the front lines of collecting confidential data that is ultimately compiled for some of the nation's most important economic measures, including the Consumer Price Index. The CPI affects income tax rates, Social Security benefits, school lunches and food stamps. Landlords, labor unions and lawyers often use the CPI to determine rent hikes, wage increases and the value of divorce settlements.

The prices she records also help inform some of the government's most pressing economic debates, such as the Federal Reserve's current discussions over whether its efforts to stimulate the economy are doing too much -- or too little -- to spur inflation.

On a recent day, Ms. Gaffney was on the road for nearly eight hours in her beat-up 2003 Honda Pilot, driving across vast stretches of Virginia, from county to county, on a mission to hunt down prices of three American staples: gasoline, sugar and beer. As Ms. Gaffney demonstrated at stop after stop, there's more to price-checking than tallying up numbers.

"A good EA is face to face with the product, is picking things up, is looking at every label," she said. "The tiniest mistake can throw off the data. You have to be on your feet mentally."

To ensure the integrity of the information, price-checkers have to make sure they are comparing not just apples to apples but, for instance, organic Fuji apples to organic Fuji apples.

The job takes charm, because Ms. Gaffney has to be able to wheedle her way into some businesses and get the managers talking. It also requires her to be demanding, even persnickety, to make sure she gets the detailed answers she needs. (She recently found herself chasing a food truck through the streets of downtown Washington to check the price of its trendy sandwiches. Was it $6 with vegetables or without? What is the difference between gluten-free organic and just gluten-free?)

And she has to keep the information secret from everyone but the government, because businesses consider their prices to be proprietary information and are promised that the names of stores and brands will be kept confidential.

"I can't even tell my husband what I know," she says with a giggle. "It's not exactly the CIA, but still."

Ms. Gaffney's line of work dates to around World War I, when the government sought to get a handle on erratic rates of inflation.

"There was a time when price-checkers collected everything on paper, put it all in a pouch, mailed back to Washington. Then we would figure out price differences with an old-fashioned adding machine," said John Layng, assistant commissioner for consumer prices at the BLS. "So times change, and we are always looking to improve. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Human Price Scanners Gather Confidential Data for Bureau of Labor Statistics
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.