Survey says: People don't trust pollsters anymore

A detail from a graph of projected unemployment numbers is included in the Conressional Budget Office's Budget and Economic Outlook for Fiscal Years 2011-2021.

When the monthly jobs report comes out Friday, many eyes will undoubtedly shoot to the unemployment rate. But that number alone doesn't tell the whole story.

"It's gotten harder [to figure the unemployment rate] because Americans have become less willing to respond to surveys of all kinds," says David Leonhardt, columnist and editor of the Upshot at the New York Times.

A large part of that, Leonhardt says, is our changing behavior when it comes to answering our phones.

"Think back to 1975 — you're sitting at home, your phone rings, you have no idea who it is, you pick it up, it's a pollster, you're willing to answer it," he says. "Today, you've got your cell phone, you don't even have a landline, it may be harder for the poll firms to figure out where you are and thus [how] to reach you. But it's also a case of, you see '888' pop up and you think to yourself, 'I'm not answering that.'"

It's a reminder, Leonhardt says, that the unemployment numbers aren't the be-all, end-all of economic data.

"I would encourage some people to take the attention that now goes to the unemployment rate and shift it to job growth, which actually comes from a larger survey of businesses, or look at the number of Americans who are employed, which captures this phenomenon of discouraged workers," Leonhardt says.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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