What Is the Current Population Survey?

Current Population Survey is a statistical survey that is jointly sponsored by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the U.S. Census Bureau (Census) on a monthly basis. It is the primary source for U.S. labor force statistics. The survey includes a representative sample of about 60,000 homes and focuses on those individuals who are 15 years and older to make an inferential assumption about the U.S. population as a whole. They're even referenced by market research.

Key Takeaways

  • The Current Population Survey (CPS) is a monthly survey of households conducted by the U.S. Census regarding employment.
  • The CPS is used to produce monthly statistics on workforce participation, employment, and unemployment that are closely watched by business, investors, and policy makers.
  • CPS data is broken down into a wide range of demographic and employment categories, and also includes various supplemental data on additional categories and characteristics of households and the labor force.

Understanding the Current Population Survey

The Current Population Survey (CPS) seeks to determine the demographic characteristics and employment status of all individuals of a household who are of working age. It is also known as the household survey (as opposed to the Current Employment Statistics survey, which is known as the establishment survey). Information from the CPS is used to estimate the unemployment rate for the U.S. and subregions, and for various demographic groups. 

The survey is the most frequent and accurate of its kind. The CPS has one of the highest response rates among government household surveys, averaging around 90%. This rate is calculated after excluding those housing units that are either unoccupied (i.e., vacant or under construction) or occupied solely by persons not eligible for interview. These units make up approximately 18% of the total sample.

The CPS presents data on employment broken down by age, sex, race, Hispanic origin, marital status, family relationship, veteran status, occupation, industry, and class of worker; hours of work, full- or part-time status, and reasons for working part-time; unemployment by occupation, industry, class of worker of last job, duration of unemployment, reason for unemployment, and methods used to find employment; and earnings by detailed demographic group, occupation, education, union affiliation, and full- and part-time employment status. 

The BLS uses the data from the CPS and the CES to publish various statistics that reflect labor force participation and utilization. This data is published in the BLS’s monthly Employment Situation release on the first Friday of each month. This includes the month U-3 unemployment rate, also known as headline unemployment. Businesses, investors, and policy makers watch these statistics closely to judge the strength and near-term prospects of the economy. Unemployment is a key indicator of economic performance and high, persistent unemployment can signal severe distress for the economy and society as a whole. 

How the Survey Works

The CPS is administered by the Census during the calendar week containing the 19th of each month. Survey questions refer to the week that contains the 12th of each month. Phone and in-person interviews are conducted for a rotating sample of about 60,000 households. Households are resurveyed for four consecutive months, left out for eight months, then surveyed for another four months. 

Every year in the March survey, the Census includes additional supplemental questions concerning family characteristics, household composition, marital status, education attainment, health insurance coverage, foreign-born population, previous year’s income from all sources, work experience, receipt of non-cash benefit, poverty, program participation, and geographic mobility. Additional supplemental questions are added on a regular or occasional basis throughout the year for various research purposes sponsored by the BLS, the Census, or other government agencies.