Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The Gig Economy and the ACS

This month I am beginning some new research on self-employment. There has been renewed interest in this topic due to technological advancement and the rise of the so-called "gig economy," but measuring it has been an empirical challenge. Thus I happy to share a figure I created, using data from the American Community Survey (ACS), that shows a very noticeable "Uber" effect:

Figure: Fraction of Workers in Taxi and Limousine Industry who are Self-employed (and unincorporated) in the ACS

In an article titled, "The Rise of the Gig Economy: Fact or Fiction," Abraham et al. (2019) write that, "Core household surveys...appear not to be capturing changes that other data sources tell us are occurring." (p. 360) They discuss how evidence from various proprietary data sources (Uber corporate data, data on bank deposits from ridesharing companies, and tax records) paints a picture of a rapid rise, while, "In contrast to these data sources, the CPS does not capture the rapid rise in gig activity in the passenger transportation sector." (p. 359)

The CPS, or Current Population Survey, is a large household survey but it is not the largest. The ACS is the nation's largest household survey, and in my figure we see, in both the California and nationwide samples, a large and noticeable increase in the fraction of workers who are self-employed and unincorporated, starting in 2012 when Uber began operations in earnest. In the California sample, the fraction nearly doubles from 15%, where it had been since 2005, to nearly 30%.

This figure is not as dramatic as some of the figures shown in Abraham et al. (2019) but it suggests publicly available data can still be quite useful for studying gig economy phenomenon. Many of the issues of interest to social scientists in the area of gig work relates to its effects on family issues like marriage, fertility, health insurance, and so on, and for this purpose, the ACS is particularly well-suited. Of course there are limitations, but my new results are encouraging for my new line of research.

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