Probing for Informal Work Activity

59 Pages Posted: 6 Aug 2018 Last revised: 26 Jun 2021

See all articles by Katharine G. Abraham

Katharine G. Abraham

University of Maryland - Joint Program in Survey Methodology and Department of Economics; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Ashley Amaya

RTI International

Date Written: August 2018


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

Abraham, Katharine G. and Amaya, Ashley, Probing for Informal Work Activity (August 2018). Available at SSRN:

Katharine G. Abraham (Contact Author)

University of Maryland - Joint Program in Survey Methodology and Department of Economics ( email )

College Park, MD 20742
United States

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Ashley Amaya

RTI International

PO Box 12194
Washington, DC 20036-3209
United States

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