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COVID-19

Does measuring inflation matter during a pandemic?

Kristin Schwab May 12, 2020
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A gas station in Los Angeles in March. CPI data shows gas prices fell more than 20% last month. Chris Delmas/AFP via Getty Images
COVID-19

Does measuring inflation matter during a pandemic?

Kristin Schwab May 12, 2020
Heard on:
A gas station in Los Angeles in March. CPI data shows gas prices fell more than 20% last month. Chris Delmas/AFP via Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
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Every month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts out the consumer price index. It’s a number that measures the change in prices consumers are paying for common goods and services. We learned Tuesday it fell by 0.8%, the biggest drop since the Great Recession. But in a pandemic world, what’s the value of measuring inflation when everything seems to be in flux?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics deploys a team of window shoppers every month to check prices of things Americans buy regularly. A loaf of bread, coffee beans and even vodka. And those prices? CPI data show they’ve gone up as we cook more at home because of the pandemic. But then there’s everything else. Take gas, which fell more than 20%.

“This is not surprising given that people aren’t supposed to be out there driving, the airlines aren’t flying, a lot fewer trains are running and so on,” said Kit Baum, a professor of economics at Boston College. Baum said demand for many of the things we buy has gone down, like car insurance and clothing, which are also part of the CPI.

Still, we keep hearing the economy is on pause. So why does any of this even matter? 

“There will be lots of different kinds of data that will give us different pictures of the post-COVID economy, but one of them will be how prices adjust,” said Kathryn Dominguez, a professor of economics at the University of Michigan. Once things pick up again, how much prices change will give us an indication of where the economy is headed. And Dominguez said it’s not just about the shift in prices. The BLS also tracks what people buy.

“It is quite possible that the basket of goods that the average American purchases, even after the lockdowns are all over, differ from what they were before the lockdowns,” she said.

The pandemic could continue to impact what we eat, how we get around and what we buy to entertain ourselves or feel comforted. And that will impact the economy just as much as what all those things cost.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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