USDA is one of the pioneers in time use data collection and research. In the 1920s and 1930s, USDA's Bureau of Home Economics sponsored studies of homemakers' use of time on farms and in towns, conducted by home economists at State experiment stations. At USDA headquarters, mail surveys were conducted of alumnae of women's colleges. This research was influenced by the Country Life movement's desire to apply industrial and home economics research and objectives to agriculture and rural life, as well as a desire to apply industrial efficiency models to home production.
Findings from this period include the following:
- About 50 percent of homemaking time was spent on providing food.
- Running water and electricity made the greatest difference in reducing time spent on housework.
- The number of young children, not the size of household, had the most effect on the number of hours spent in homemaking activities.
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ERS has collected time use data in surveys of farm operators since 1984 and in USDA's Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS) since 1996. Part of the ERS mission is to provide economic statistics about the financial performance of U.S. farms. Since the majority of labor on farms is not paid a wage or salary, a cost must be imputed to these hours in constructing economic statistics. In particular, a cost for unpaid labor is imputed for estimates of commodity cost of production, productivity, and returns to owner's equity in farm capital.
Traditionally, the survey has collected information on hours worked by asking respondents to recall this information for four quarters in the prior calendar year. Although the recall period is long, the results from this data collection method are generally credible and superior to previous methods. The ARMS survey asks for average weekly hours in each of four quarters for the principal operator, that operator’s spouse, any other operators, and any other unpaid workers. To help validate the quality of the data on work hours reported, from 2004 until 2013 (excluding 2012), the ARMS survey instrument was modified to collect additional time use categories that required respondents to account for a 168-hour week. See Decoupled Payments in a Changing Policy Setting for estimates using ARMS time use data.