American Time Use Survey Description

The American Time Use Survey (ATUS) is the first ongoing federally-administered survey on time use in the United States. The goal of the survey is to measure how people divide their time among life's activities (Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Census Bureau).

ATUS data collection began in 2003 (see Horrigan and Herz, 2004 for a discussion of the history and design of the ATUS) and, data are available beginning in 2003. Each ATUS respondent provides detailed information on his or her activities during a designated 24-hour period. Aggregated across individuals, the ATUS can support estimates of time allocation across population subgroups and over time.

The ATUS is a general purpose survey that already has been used to study a diverse range of topics, including parent time with children, gender differences in time devoted to household work, household production over the life cycle and its implications for the well-being of elderly Americans, hours of paid work, and the effects of shift work on time for other activities, to name just a few. There is a great deal remaining to be learned from the data collected to date and the potential value of the ATUS will grow as additional years of data are accumulated.

Continue reading for additional information about the survey:


Sampling

The individuals chosen for participation in the ATUS are selected randomly from households that are completing their participation in the Current Population Survey (CPS). In the CPS, the sample rotation pattern calls for selected housing units to participate for four successive months, be out of the sample for eight months, and then return for four additional months. This sample rotation pattern means that each housing unit selected for the CPS is in the sample for a total of eight months spread out over a period of sixteen months. (It should be noted that some people will spend fewer than eight months in the CPS sample, since it is the current occupants of the designated housing units rather than a fixed set of individuals who are interviewed.)

Selection for the ATUS sample occurs in three steps. First, because the CPS over-samples households in small states, some of the CPS sample in these less-populous states is removed so that the remaining sample represents the population of the United States. Second, the households in this reduced sample are stratified based on the race/ethnicity of the householder, the presence and age of children, and the number of adults in adult-only households. Sampling rates vary by stratum; households with an Hispanic or non-Hispanic black householder and households with children are over-sampled to improve the estimates for these groups. Third, one randomly-selected person aged 15 or older in each ATUS household is asked to complete a one-day time diary. (See Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Census Bureau, for further details.)

The assigned ATUS diary days are distributed across the days of the week, with 10 percent allocated to each of the weekdays Monday through Friday, 25 percent to Saturdays and 25 percent to Sundays, and they are distributed evenly across the weeks of the year. This allocation of diary days is based on research showing that the allocation of time is relatively similar across the five weekdays, but that the allocation of time on the weekend days differs from that on weekdays and from that on the other weekend day (Horrigan and Herz, 2004).


Data Collection

ATUS interviews are conducted between two and five months after the last CPS interview for the ATUS household. All of the ATUS interviews are administered by telephone, either in English or in Spanish. If the selected person cannot be contacted on his/her assigned interview date, he/she may be called on the same day the following week. Sample members for whom no telephone number is available (approximately 5 percent of the total) are sent a letter asking that they call the telephone center on a specified day to complete the interview. These respondents are offered an incentive of $40.00 for participating in the study. People who have moved away are considered ineligible for participation and dropped from the sample. Efforts to contact an eligible sample member may be continued for up to eight weeks.

Roughly 55 percent of those selected for the ATUS sample complete a usable interview (Abraham, Maitland and Bianchi, 2006). In 2003, the first year of ATUS data collection, 20,720 usable ATUS time diaries, or about 1,700 diaries per month, were collected (Hamermesh, Frazis and Stewart, 2005). As a result of budget constraints, the number of usable ATUS time diaries was reduced to about 14,000, or about 1,150 diaries per month, in 2004 and has remained near that level since that time (Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Census Bureau). Even this smaller number is large both by historical and by comparative standards.


ATUS Interview

Once telephone contact is established and the ATUS sample member agrees to participate in the survey, the telephone interviewer leads the respondent through his/her activities over the 24-hour period that began at 4 a.m. on the designated day and continues through 3:59 a.m. the following day. The respondent lists his/her activities, describing in his/her own words the primary activity in which he/she is engaged. Information on the activities is collected sequentially and an ending time is recorded for each activity. The number of activities reported by ATUS respondents varies. In 2003, for example, respondents reported an average of 20 separate activities and a maximum of 71 activities during the 24-hour period (see TOTACT).

Information on secondary activities - other activities undertaken simultaneously with whatever the respondent identifies as his/her primary activity - is not recorded, with the exception of information on secondary child care. The respondent is asked to provide a location for each activity (at home, at the respondent's workplace, in someone else's home, at a restaurant or bar, etc.). For activities other than sleeping, grooming and certain other personal activities, the respondent also is asked to indicate who else was present during the activity. In the case of other members of the household, information is collected on the specific household members who were present during each activity; in the case of non-household members, one or more categories of people may be identified (e.g., parent or parent-in-law, friend, or co-worker or colleague) but not a specific individual or individuals. Prior to 2010, respondents did not report who was with them while they were working. Beginning in 2010, respondents reported who was with them while they were working and possible response categories were expanded to differentiate between types of people with whom one might work, including boss or manager, people one supervises, co-workers, and customers.

Summary questions at the end of the survey ask respondents to identify all periods of time during which they had a child under the age of 13 in their care (used to identify secondary child care undertaken simultaneously with other activities). Additional summary questions are used to identify all activities done for work and or in connection with volunteering through an organization. The survey also includes questions about any trips away from home lasting more than two nights that the respondent may have taken during a specific reference month.


Data Available for Analysis

A rich activity coding structure is used to classify respondents' verbal descriptions of activities into activity categories (Shelley 2005). The full ATUS coding structure is a 3-tier, 6-digit system. The following 17 2-digit activities constitute the coding structure's major groupings:

  • Personal care
  • Household activities
  • Caring for and helping household members
  • Caring for and helping non-household members
  • Working and work-related activities
  • Education
  • Consumer purchases
  • Professional and personal care services
  • Household services
  • Government services and civic obligations
  • Eating and drinking
  • Socializing, relaxing and leisure
  • Sports, exercise and recreation
  • Religious and spiritual activities
  • Volunteer activities
  • Telephone calls
  • Traveling

Each of the major activity groupings is further disaggregated with additional 2-digit intermediate codes (more than 100 total) and finally with a 2-digit detailed activity groupings (more than 400 total). Other data elements recorded for activities are start and end times, the duration of the activity in minutes, a location code, who else was present, and, for activities that are not coded directly as child care (or as sleep, personal care, or work), whether the respondent was engaged in secondary child care while the activity was in progress.

Additional data are collected about ATUS respondents through one-time or periodic "modules" on particular topics. The Economic Research Service, Department of Agriculture, funded the first such module, the Eating and Health module, fielded from January 2006 through December 2008. This module includes questions about eating and drinking as secondary activities, participation in food assistance programs, spending on groceries and restaurant meals, and the respondent's height and weight. Other modules may be introduced in future years. The available Eating and Health module data are currently offered through our site and will continue to be made available in future ATUS Data Extract Builder releases.

In addition to the data collected during the ATUS interview, the Bureau of Labor Statistics makes a special ATUS-CPS data file containing information collected during each ATUS household's final CPS interview. This file contains records both for households in which the ATUS sample member did not respond, as well as for all members of these individual's households. Most but not all of the information collected as part of the final basic CPS interview for these households is included on the file. Data from any supplement that may have been conducted during a household's final month of CPS participation are not included.

Beyond the data from the ATUS interview, information collected as part of any ATUS modules, and the data from the final CPS interview for the ATUS households made available on the ATUS-CPS data file, additional information about the ATUS respondents and their households may be obtained by linking ATUS data files to other CPS data files. As already noted, the ATUS sample is drawn from among the members of households participating in the eighth and final wave of the CPS sample rotation pattern. This means that, for each ATUS sample member, there are up to eight months of basic CPS data for all members of the ATUS household, as well as data from any supplements conducted in the same eight months. The number of ATUS respondents who can be expected to have completed any particular CPS supplement within the year prior to their selection for the ATUS is about one-third the number in the full annual ATUS sample. At this time, linking to prior CPS waves and supplements is not supported through the ATUS Data Extract System; this functionality will be added in future releases. Users who wish to link to CPS waves and supplements not available through the ATUS Data Extract System may find these instructions helpful.


References

Abraham, K., A. Maitland and S. Bianchi. 2006. "Nonresponse in the American Time Use Survey: Who is Missing from the Data and How Much Does It Matter?" Public Opinion Quarterly 70: 676-703.

Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Census Bureau. 2009. American Time Use Survey User's Guide: Understanding ATUS 2003-2008. June.

Hamermesh, Daniel S., Harley Frazis and Jay Stewart. 2005. "Data Watch: The American Time Use Survey," Journal of Economic Perspectives, 19 (Winter), 221-232.

Horrigan, Michael and Diane Herz. 2004. "Planning, Designing and Executing the BLS American Time-Use Survey," Monthly Labor Review, 127 (October): 3-19.

Shelley, Kristina J. 2005. "Developing the American Time Use Survey Activity Classification System." Monthly Labor Review, 128(June), 3-15.