ADRIAN MA, BYLINE: Hey. It's Adrian Ma, INDICATOR reporter here. And listen, I've worked at NPR member stations in Boston and Cleveland, and so I know the reason they're able to bring you awesome local news is because of people like you. And bonus - by supporting your local member station, you also support us. So if you can spare it, show some love at donate.npr.org/indicator. Thanks for listening.
SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")
STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
It is December, and we are officially in the home stretch of 2021. Back in January of this year, I was sure that by now, COVID would be long behind us and everything would be back to normal, or at least normal-ish. But of course, that was not the case. 2021 was a really difficult, really surprising year in a lot of ways - a lot of indicators going in very different directions.
And back in January here at THE INDICATOR, we set some intentions. We set three indicators that we were going to watch; indicators that we said we would look back on to give us a sense of the kind of year that 2021 was. That was, of course, back with my co-host, Cardiff Garcia, who is now off running his own podcast company, and we miss him a lot. But today on the show, I am going to check back in on those three indicators that we set out to watch in 2021.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
VANEK SMITH: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.
CARDIFF GARCIA, BYLINE: And I'm Cardiff Garcia.
VANEK SMITH: Cardiff Garcia.
GARCIA: (Laughter) I'm back.
VANEK SMITH: We couldn't do these indicators without having you back. Welcome back.
GARCIA: You know, you were so convincing, I almost thought you were going to do the whole thing yourself. I was like, wait.
VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).
VANEK SMITH: No. Of course, Cardiff, we had to bring you back. We're so excited to have you.
GARCIA: I'm not going to lie. I'm a little nervous. I'm going to be honest with you.
VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) Just buckle in and prepare for a look back at 2021.
First of all, Cardiff Garcia, it is so lovely to see you again. You have to give us a little synopsis. What are you up to?
GARCIA: So I'm now hosting a podcast called "The New Bazaar." And to be clear, that's bazaar like the marketplace, not like the new weird.
VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).
GARCIA: Oh, that could have worked as well.
VANEK SMITH: It's an awesome podcast. You do long economic interviews. You go really in-depth with people on different concepts. It's awesome. You should check it out.
GARCIA: Oh, thanks.
VANEK SMITH: And, you know, let's dive right into the data.
GARCIA: Let's do it. I can't wait.
VANEK SMITH: There were three indicators that we said would be kind of bellwethers of 2021. The first one was kind of a measure of economic healing - the amount of money people were spending on services.
GARCIA: Yeah. And I chose services because, number one, that is the majority of the economy. But number two, those are also the parts of the economy that involve, like, person-to-person interaction, you know? When you go get a haircut, that's a service. When you go to the dentist, that's a service. And of course, you are in a room with somebody else. And if you remember, back then, Stacey, I mean, things were rough at the time.
VANEK SMITH: Yeah.
GARCIA: People each month, when we checked in, were spending about 7% less each month on services than they were in the month right before the pandemic. So that was February of last year. And according to the latest data, people are now spending about 1% less on services each month than in the month before the pandemic started.
VANEK SMITH: One percent less is pretty close to back to normal.
GARCIA: Yeah. I mean, I think what it suggests is, number one, the parts of the economy that we were familiar with before have started to return. But number two, they're not all the way back, right? I mean, 1% less is still not quite the same. And keep in mind that we would expect this number to grow over time, so it's way short of where it would be if the pandemic had never happened.
But here's where the contrast with goods spending becomes really stark. Right now, people are spending 17% more on goods every month than they were before the pandemic, so it's just shot way up. And I think what it suggests is that, yes, there's been a lot of healing in the economy, but that the fundamental nature of the economy is still quite different from what it was before the pandemic.
VANEK SMITH: That seems like normalizing, but maybe definitely not back to normal.
GARCIA: That's exactly right.
VANEK SMITH: The second indicator that we looked at had to do with working from home - offices. Talk to us about the Architecture Billings Index.
GARCIA: Yeah, I love this index because what it does is it shows whether or not demand for the services of architects is rising or falling. And if demand for architects is going up, you can expect commercial real estate, like office building construction, to be also going up in roughly, like, the next year or so. And so when we checked in in January, it was in the middle of 11 straight months where the demand for architect's services was falling. But now, ever since February of this year, there have been nine straight months where demand for architects has been climbing.
VANEK SMITH: It does seem like it's also a sign that maybe companies are investing in office buildings, which was a big question.
GARCIA: Yeah, it's a great point. I mean, I think what this shows is that workers are coming back to the office. But more generally, there is confidence that, like, indoor interactions with people will remain a thing, that there will in fact be a decent recovery in commercial real estate construction.
VANEK SMITH: And finally, food scarcity and hunger. Talk to us about what has happened with that indicator.
GARCIA: Yeah, so this is called the Pulse Survey. It's from the Census Bureau. And basically what it does is it tries to track in real time whether people report not having enough food to eat within the prior week. And this is a really important indicator, I think, because tracking hunger is tracking something in the economy that really directly affects people, you know? And also, it affects the people who, you know, may have been the least prepared to deal with the pandemic.
So in January, about 27 million Americans had reported hunger in the week before they were asked that question, and the number was rising. In fact, according to the latest release of this survey, there's about 20 million people now who are reporting having gone hungry. So that's a decline of 7 million people. So that's pretty decent progress, right? If only the story could stop there, it would be a happy story and one where things were getting better and better. But there's a twist here, and it's about indicators themselves.
So there is a second survey that's released by the Department of Agriculture, but that only comes out once a year. And it is thought to be a somewhat more accurate survey. It's certainly been around for longer. And what it found was that during the time when the Pulse Survey was showing that spike in hunger - so that was last year, the year 2020 - this survey from the Agriculture Department did not find that there was a spike at all.
Now, this happens all the time. Like, different indicators use different methodologies, and they end up showing something different. But what I think we can do is we can look at the things that are consistent with both surveys. And what both surveys are consistent with is the idea that the social safety net in the U.S., and especially the response from policymakers, were sufficient to prevent poverty and hunger from going up by a lot.
VANEK SMITH: I mean, that seems like a little - like a silver lining, like a bright spot.
GARCIA: Yeah, I think so. I mean, the health care response has been one thing. There's been so many people who have died and lost loved ones. But the economic response - I think you're right. I think there's a silver lining there. It has not been so bad.
VANEK SMITH: Well, Cardiff, before I let you go, those were not the only indicators that we talked about in January. We also had a couple of personal indicators, and I wanted to check in on those.
GARCIA: I forgot about these. Wait, what were they?
VANEK SMITH: I'm so glad you asked. We have the tape cued up.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GARCIA: I think if I get back to taking 10,000 steps a day, that'll be a good sign that things are returning to normal.
VANEK SMITH: All right, Cardiff Garcia...
GARCIA: Oh, God (laughter).
VANEK SMITH: ...Talk to me about your steps. Ten thousand...
GARCIA: No, I have not. I think I had a nice streak in the summer when it was nicer outside. But no, I definitely have not averaged 10,000 steps a day, and I still hope to get there.
VANEK SMITH: I looked at my pedometer before I came into the closet - 61 steps.
VANEK SMITH: I've taken 61 steps today, and part of the reason why relates to my own personal indicator.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
VANEK SMITH: It is my personal goal for 2021 to not wear my pajamas to work anymore.
GARCIA: I can confirm, because I'm looking at you through a Zoom screen right now, that you are not wearing your pajamas today.
VANEK SMITH: Oh, you are wrong. You are wrong. I...
VANEK SMITH: ...Will stand up and show you my pajama pants.
GARCIA: Oh (laughter).
VANEK SMITH: These have sloths on them, by the way.
GARCIA: We'll call it the acceptance of our authentic selves indicator.
VANEK SMITH: Oh, yeah.
GARCIA: My authentic self doesn't walk a lot and wears pajamas all the time.
VANEK SMITH: There's nothing wrong with that.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Brittany Cronin, with help from Isaac Rodrigues. It was fact-checked by Taylor Washington. Viet Le is our senior producer, and Kate Concannon edits the show. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.