Economists typically pay more attention to the survey of businesses, which is larger and seen as more reliable. But some say they will be paying closer attention than usual this month to the data from the survey of households, because it will do a better job of distinguishing between temporary absences and more lasting effects from Omicron, such as layoffs or postponed expansions.

But economists have also cautioned not to minimize the impact that even temporary absences from work could have on families and the economy, especially now that the government is no longer offering expanded unemployment benefits and other aid.

“There isn’t that much Covid relief funding sloshing about anymore, so absences from work may actually reflect a meaningful decline in income,” said Julia Pollak, chief economist at the employment site ZipRecruiter.

Even in normal times, January jobs data can be tough to interpret. Retailers, shippers and other companies every year lay off hundreds of thousands of temporary workers hired during the holiday season. Government statisticians adjust the data to account for those seasonal patterns, but that process is imperfect. January is also the month each year when the Labor Department incorporates long-run revisions and other updates to its estimates.

“January is a messy month as it is,” Mr. Amarnath said.

This year, it could be extra messy because the pandemic has disrupted normal seasonal patterns. The labor shortage led some companies to hire permanent workers instead of short-term seasonal help during the holidays; others may have retained temporary workers longer than planned to cover for employees who were out sick. If that results in fewer layoffs than usual, the government’s seasonal adjustment formula will interpret that continued employment as an increase.

Other numbers could also be deceptive. The unemployment rate, for example, could fall even if hiring slowed. That is because the government considers people unemployed only if they are actively searching for work, and the spike in Covid cases may have led some to suspend their job searches.

Data on average hourly earnings could also be skewed because it is based on the payroll data — people who aren’t on payrolls aren’t counted in the average at all. Low-wage workers were probably the most likely to be missing from payrolls last month, since higher-wage workers are more likely to have access to paid sick leave. That could lead to an artificial — and temporary — jump in average earnings when policymakers at the Fed are watching wage data for hints about inflation.

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Winter Heating Bills Loom as the Next Inflation Threat

Last week, the Biden administration released 90 percent of the $3.75 billion in funds dedicated to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provided an average of $439 to more than five million families the year before the pandemic. It received $4.5 billion in additional emergency grants this year. Usually, funding for the program isn’t released until all budget items for the fiscal year are approved, but Congress recently made an exception as cold months approached and sparring over spending bills continued.

Mr. Wolfe’s group has urged Congress to include $5 billion more for the program in the social safety net package being negotiated in Washington.

The increase in home heating costs is sure to hover over economic debates in Washington about inflation. White House allies, fighting to push through the president’s sweeping agenda, assert that the current surge in consumer prices mostly reflects pandemic disruptions that will dissipate next year. Federal Reserve officials, who have been trying to put in place a policy framework less keenly sensitive to inflation, will be pushed to gauge whether that contention is well founded.

The latest outlook from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggests a decent chance of a milder-than-average winter. But according to projections by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, if winter is somewhat colder than usual, energy bills could rise 15 percent for households heated by electricity, 50 percent for those depending on natural gas and 59 percent for those that mostly use heating oil. Propane users would be in for the biggest blow — a 94 percent increase, or potentially hundreds of dollars over the six-month heating season.

As with other price shocks stemming from the pandemic, the pain will be particularly acute for those of limited means. Twenty-nine percent of those surveyed by the Census Bureau have reported reducing or forgoing household expenses to pay an energy bill in the last year.

Before the pandemic, Jamillia Grayson, 43, of Buffalo, had a successful event-planning business. Her work dried up, and even with unemployment insurance, she couldn’t meet household expenses while supporting her 8-year-old daughter, who has sickle cell anemia, as well as an older aunt, who depends on a home oxygen tank and lives with them.

Electricity and gas bills piled up throughout this year, and by the end of the summer, she owed $3,000, she said.

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Poverty in U.S. Declined Thanks to Government Aid, Census Report Shows

The share of people living in poverty in the United States fell to a record low last year as an enormous government relief effort helped offset the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression.

In the latest and most conclusive evidence that poverty fell because of the aid, the Census Bureau reported on Tuesday that 9.1 percent of Americans were living below the poverty line last year, down from 11.8 percent in 2019. That figure — the lowest since records began in 1967, according to calculations from researchers at Columbia University — is based on a measure that accounts for the impact of government programs. The official measure of poverty, which leaves out some major aid programs, rose to 11.4 percent of the population.

The new data will almost surely feed into a debate in Washington about efforts by President Biden and congressional leaders to enact a more lasting expansion of the safety net that would extend well beyond the pandemic. Democrats’ $3.5 trillion plan, which is still taking shape, could include paid family and medical leave, government-supported child care and a permanent expansion of the Child Tax Credit.

Liberals cited the success of relief programs, which were also highlighted in an Agriculture Department report last week that showed that hunger did not rise in 2020, to argue that such policies ought to be expanded. But conservatives argue that higher federal spending is not needed and would increase the federal debt while discouraging people from working.

difficult to assess changes in health coverage last year. Census estimates conflicted with other government counts, and officials acknowledged problems with data collection during the pandemic.

federal supplement to state unemployment benefits lapsed. She fell behind on bills, setting in motion events that ultimately left her family homeless for two months this year.

New aid programs adopted this year, including the expanded Child Tax Credit, helped Ms. Long, who moved into a new home last month. She said she had noticed improvements in her children, particularly her 5-year-old son.

“It was bad, but it could have been so much worse, and we have come out the other side once again unbroken,” Ms. Long said.

By the government’s official definition, the number of people living in poverty jumped by 3.3 million in 2020, to 37.2 million, among the biggest annual increases on record. But economists have long criticized that definition, which dates to the 1960s, and said it did a particularly poor job of reflecting reality last year.

7.5 million people lost unemployment benefits this month after Congress allowed expansions of the program to lapse.

Jen Dessinger, a photographer who lives in New York City and Los Angeles, said work dried up abruptly at the start of the pandemic. A freelancer, she didn’t qualify for traditional unemployment benefits but eventually received help under a federal program created last year to help people who fell outside the regular system.

Now that program has ended in the middle of another surge in coronavirus cases. Ms. Dessinger said a single positive coronavirus case could shut down a photo shoot. “It’s made it a more desperate situation,” she said.

Democrats on Tuesday said experiences like Ms. Dessinger’s showed both the potential for government aid to protect people from financial ruin, and the need for a more expansive, permanent safety net that can support people in bad and good times.

A White House economist, Jared Bernstein, said on Tuesday that the new poverty data should encourage lawmakers to enact the $3.5 trillion Democratic measure that includes much of Mr. Biden’s economic agenda, which the administration argues will create more and better-paying jobs.

“It’s one thing to temporarily lift people out of poverty — hugely important — but you can’t stop there,” said Mr. Bernstein, a member of Mr. Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers. “We have to make sure that people don’t fall back into poverty after these temporary measures abate.”

“reckless taxing and spending spree.”

Conservative policy experts said that although some expansion of government aid was appropriate during the pandemic, those programs should be wound down, not expanded, as the economy healed.

“Policymakers did a remarkable job last March enacting CARES and other legislation, lending to businesses, providing loan forbearance, expanding the safety net,” Scott Winship, a senior fellow and the director of poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative group, wrote in reaction to the data, referring to an early pandemic aid bill, which included around $2 trillion in spending. “But we should have pivoted to other priorities thereafter.”

Jason DeParle and Margot Sanger-Katz contributed reporting.

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