HARRISBURG — On a brisk autumn morning, Caren Gaffney, a 50-something blonde with a French manicure, a Texas twang and a skeptical squint in her eyes, crouches down to inspect the underbelly of a gas pump in rural Virginia.
"Let me make sure I get this right," Gaffney says, putting on her glasses as she peppers the manager with questions. "Okay, are there special prices on certain days? Do you pay more or less if you used a credit card? What about points from the store, can you count those toward gas? Is this minimum octane? Regular or unleaded?"
She enters all the information into the computer tablet wobbling in her arms.
Gaffney is a roving, often stealthy price-checker with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, one of 428 "economic assistants" who fan out across every state, seven days a week, to record the prices of everything from guitars to guns, cribs to cremations, farmers market apples to food-truck cupcakes.
It is a labor-intensive task, one that could seem like an anachronism in a high-tech age when anyone with a smartphone can scan a bar code and call up lists of products, prices and sales locations. And as the bureau looks for ways to modernize and go digital, this century-old job could be in jeopardy.
Gaffney is on the front lines of collecting confidential data that's ultimately compiled for some of the nation's most important economic measures, including the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The CPI affects income tax rates, Social Security benefits, school lunches and food stamps. Landlords, labor unions and lawyers often use the CPI to determine rent hikes, wage increases and the value of divorce settlements.
The prices she records also help inform some of the government's most pressing economic debates, such as the Federal Reserve's current discussions over whether its efforts to stimulate the economy are doing too much — or too little — to spur inflation.