How much does it take to get by?

May 14, 2008 7:11:55 PM PDT
Despite $4 gas and the biggest jump in food prices in 18 years, the government says inflation isn't really a problem.

Factoring out food and energy, which tend to rise this time of year anyway, the consumer price index rose just one tenth of one percent last month.

Big ticket items are falling in price, because fewer can afford to buy them.

Phyllis Hesik is an economic assistant sent out monthly on a mission. The mission is to collect prices on a basket of goods and services to track inflation.

The survey includes such things as children's clothing, the price of propane, volatile items such as gasoline and food that can have wild swings in price from month to month.

It is a very complex process. That means there's no such thing as a generic orange or a generic apple. It also is a very confidential process.

In all, 80,000 items are tracked at 25,000 establishments. There are 400 data collectors nationwide.

Tablet computer and stylus in hand, Hesik is a stickler for detail. An item selling for $3.99 can't be rounded up to $4.00. That would be a price error.

She has to record precisely what the consumer pays.

"We're looking at things so detailed. When you do apparel, you've got to get the fabrication right, styles to describe it. There's so much detail involved," said Hesik.

Accuracy is critical because the consumer price index, or CPI, is used by government to adjust Social Security benefits, to make cost-of-living wage adjustments, to set school lunch prices and to change IRS tax brackets.

The CPI also helps people like Menlo Park's Diana Pohlman to budget when faced with rising gasoline and food prices.

"It helps me know that I'm not imagining that the prices are going up on bread in particular, or that the eggs are up another 20 cents," said Pohlman.

Other consumers say they can tell prices are rising from their own market basket.

"I feel it in my wallet. I don't need them to tell me that prices are going up," said Burlingame business owner Karen Scheikowitz.

While it's tedious work, Hesik has been collecting data for 30 years. It's a part-time job.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys large and small stores. It tracks the cost of medical care, housing and movie tickets too. Just about anything, except for one-of-a-kind items.

"If it's something like caviar, Beluga, certain size and weight from a certain country like Russia, absolutely we could follow it," said CPI Brach Chief Cheryl Flango.

"So very few things slip through your fingers?" asked ABC7's David Louie.

"Definitely you could say that," said CPI Flango.

The stores cooperate on a voluntary basis. Most of the data is from major cities, so the CPI does not reflect prices in rural areas or within subsets of the population, such as the poor or elderly.

If you find yourself shelling out more to buy goods or services, it will be people like Hesik keeping tabs.

The next time you go shopping, whether it's the grocery store or some other retail store, it won't be just your hunch anymore that prices are going up or down. The consumer price index is tracking it all.


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