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Economists Finally Find a Cause: Saving ATUS

There is no shortage of groups made up of citizens banding together for a cause: Greenpeace, Doctors without Borders, Save the Children, the KKK, etc. I suspect that if you look at the data, you will see that economists are nearly always underrepresented in these organizations. No doubt there are many factors contributing to this result. In general, economists tend not to be idealistic, and also are often more concerned about their private interests than the public good. Economists also tend to be pretty conservative and not very religious, and my guess is that the lion’s share of activist groups are from the left, or have religious links. Finally, economists tend not to have much faith in governments, so they don’t invest as much effort in trying to spur the government to take action.

Occasionally, large groups of economists do become galvanized behind a cause. Sometimes, that cause is a policy issue, such as free trade. At the present moment, however, the cause is a little known government survey known as the American Time Use Survey (ATUS). Unlike most government surveys, which ask large numbers of people relatively simple and broad questions about their lives, the ATUS takes a small number (currently 14,0000) of people and actually tries to get at what Americans are doing with their time, minute by minute. Thus, these data allow researchers to answer questions that otherwise would be out of reach. For instance, when someone becomes unemployed, what do they do with their time? How much do time do they spend searching for a new job, and how much does that time increase or decrease as their unemployment benefits come closer to running out? Do husbands do any housework? Are black children and white children spending their days doing different activities?

Funding for the ATUS has been eliminated from the proposed Fiscal Year 2009 budget. Many economists are upset because it only costs $6 million to fund the program. Although I could not find hard data on it, I’m certain this survey is far cheaper to administer than others, such as the National Crime Victimization Survey, which, because of restrictions on access to the data, are largely a waste of money. Even though the ATUS has only been around since 2003, it is already used widely by economists. As the number of years of available data increase, it will become more and more valuable.

Katherine Abraham, Suzanne Bianchi, Dan Hamermesh, and Alan Krueger are spearheading the effort to save ATUS which you can read about here.