Howdy, and welcome back to HHR. Today, we’re taking on new territory, responding to the factitious claim spreading like wildfire that Houston has the second highest grocery prices in the U.S., only behind Miami. Not to sound self-serving, but this is HHR’s domain, and to hear that Houstonians are supposedly paying the same prices as Publix shoppers is obviously untrue. While many sources have reported this data, I first read it in a Chron.com article. The original source of the data comes from the United States Census Board, and the odd price interpretation seems to have taken shape on a site named Help Advisor. To prevent burying the lead, the long story short is that this data interpretation is skewed, and to interpret it as showing Houston having higher grocery prices than the rest of the nation is incorrect. For a deeper dive into the data, I consulted a couple of HHR contributors who both have backgrounds in research and demography. While we might be a bunch of retail geeks, we also have day jobs. First, we’ll hear from our resident demographer, billytheskink, and second, from Anonymous in Houston, who happens to have a background in quantitative research.
“Data says Houston is one of the most expensive cities for groceries.” –billytheskink
This is not what the US Census data being cited says. The short answer as to why is that the data cited does not report the cost of grocery items, but rather, reports household spending on food. The long answer is broken into the following bullet points.
- The Census data being cited comes from a survey called the Household Pulse Survey. This is a fairly new survey conducted by the Census Bureau, it began in late April 2020 with the intent of measuring the social and economic impact of COVID-19 on American households. This survey is designed to be conducted and issue results quickly, gathering responses over two-week periods. The Household Pulse Survey is still referred to as “experimental” by the Census Bureau, and its sample sizes are considered to be relatively small. As with any survey, the data is ultimately as good as the truthfulness and thoroughness of the respondents.
- The data cited by the Houston Chronicle and several other news outlets reports household spending on food, as submitted by respondents to the Household Pulse Survey. It does not report on the cost of specific grocery items or on a consistent list of key grocery items. The survey period for the reported data appears to be from the most recently published Household Pulse Survey, covering October 18 to October 30, 2023. There are reports for dozens of two-week periods going back to 2020, and grocery spending data varies across them.
- It should also be noted that this grocery spending data is reported as average spending per household. Household sizes vary considerably across the 15 major metro areas tracked. The Household Pulse Survey does ask about household size and provides spending data broken down by household size cohorts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7+ person
households) but it does not provide an average household size of the respondents, nor does it provide a per capita grocery spending figure. A per capita figure can be calculated using the Census Bureau’s most recent American Community Survey data (the 2022 1 Year data set) on average household size, though this requires the assumption that the 2022 average household size matches the average household size of the respondents to the Household Pulse Survey (this assumption is surely not correct, but is likely reasonable for this exercise). This calculated per capita for grocery spending ranks the Houston area 5th.
- Household Pulse Survey data is available for the nation as a whole, for each of the 50 states and Washington DC, and for the 15 largest metropolitan areas in the country. So when data is cited for “Houston”, it is being cited from survey results gathered from the Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), a nine county region covering what most would consider to be “Greater Houston”. Ranking spending in Houston compared to other cities is ranking the Houston region against the 14 other MSAs the Census provides data for.
“Prices too bad to be true.” –Anonymous in Houston
- Sometimes, something sounds so outrageous that it is immediately obvious that it cannot be true. That was exactly my reaction when I heard about the media reports claiming that Houston has the second-highest grocery prices in the country. As someone who has compared Houston’s Kroger grocery prices to other supermarkets under the Kroger banner elsewhere in the country, I knew that the claims in the media could not possibly be true, and I had a feeling that the media was erroneously using spending data to make inferential conclusions about grocery prices.
- Once billytheskink found the original data from the Census website, it was immediately clear that the media did exactly what I thought they were doing. Not only that, but they were using an extremely limited data set with questionably scientific samples to draw these erroneous conclusions. Simply put, we cannot assume that higher spending means higher grocery prices. Higher spending could be caused by a number of factors, including the health of the economy in the measured region, household size/age, the ingredients used to make typical meals in a given area, the transportation methods people use to go shopping, and even weather/seasonal changes can affect spending. There are many more potential variables than what I have listed here.
- If nothing else, the Census did not intend to measure grocery prices with its survey instrument. Thus, it is very bizarre that the media is making conclusions about grocery prices from this data. I can only hope that those reading these media reports have stronger quantitative reasoning skills than the people writing these reports.
All in all, the data used as the basis for the article is statically insignificant in determining the true cost of grocery shopping in Houston. I understand the fact that this information comes from an outside source, and you would trust the reporting source to verify their data. However, in the reality of running HHR, I have learned that you should always double-check your sources. I’m the first to admit that even with all this I don’t still don’t get everything right. However, my little blog is nothing compared to a 123-year-old publication and a trusted source. While I take some solace in the fact that my regular HHR readers, and admittedly even the author of the Chron.com article, don’t seem to buy into this notion, I hope that word gets out that we’ve got pretty good grocery prices compared to some other regions of the U.S.