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Probing for Informal Work Activity


  • Katharine G. Abraham
  • Ashley Amaya


The Current Population Survey (CPS) is the source of official U.S. labor force statistics. The wording of the CPS employment questions may not always cue respondents to include informal work in their responses, especially when providing proxy reports about other household members. In a survey experiment conducted using a sample of Mechanical Turk respondents, additional probing identified a substantial amount of informal work activity not captured by the CPS employment questions, both among those with no employment and among those categorized as employed based on answers to the CPS questions. Among respondents providing a proxy report for another household member, the share identifying additional work was systematically greater among those receiving a detailed probe that offered examples of types of informal work than among those receiving a simpler global probe. Similar differences between the effects of the detailed and the global probe were observed when respondents answered for themselves only among those who had already reported multiple jobs. The findings suggest that additional probing could improve estimates of employment and multiple job holding in the CPS and other household surveys, but that how the probe is worded is likely to be important.

Suggested Citation

  • Katharine G. Abraham & Ashley Amaya, 2018. "Probing for Informal Work Activity," NBER Working Papers 24880, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:24880
    Note: LS

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    Cited by:

    1. Tito Boeri & Giulia Giupponi & Alan B. Krueger & Stephen Machin, 2020. "Solo Self-Employment and Alternative Work Arrangements: A Cross-Country Perspective on the Changing Composition of Jobs," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 34(1), pages 170-195, Winter.
    2. Nikhil Datta & Giulia Giupponi & Stephen Machin, 2019. "Zero-hours contracts and labour market policy," Economic Policy, CEPR;CES;MSH, vol. 34(99), pages 369-427.
    3. Bailey, Keith A. & Spletzer, James R., 2020. "A New Measure of Multiple Jobholding in the U.S. Economy," IZA Discussion Papers 13693, Institute of Labor Economics (IZA).
    4. Adams-Prassl, Abigail & Balgova, Maria & Qian, Matthias, 2020. "Flexible Work Arrangements in Low Wage Jobs: Evidence from Job Vacancy Data," IZA Discussion Papers 13691, Institute of Labor Economics (IZA).
    5. Katharine G. Abraham & Brad Hershbein & Susan N. Houseman, 2019. "Contract Work at Older Ages," NBER Chapters, in: Incentives and Limitations of Employment Policies on Retirement Transitions: Comparisons of Public and Private Sectors, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    6. Lawrence F. Katz & Alan B. Krueger, 2019. "Understanding Trends in Alternative Work Arrangements in the United States," NBER Working Papers 25425, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • J21 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demand and Supply of Labor - - - Labor Force and Employment, Size, and Structure
    • J46 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Particular Labor Markets - - - Informal Labor Market

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