For more than 200 years, the federal government has regularly taken an immense survey of American business called the Economic Census. Though not as well-known as the decennial census, the big population count in which enumerators tally Americans house to house, it has been conducted at least every five years since 1905, with a gap only during World War II. Its basic measurements of economic activity, like jobs and revenue, are crucially important to companies, policymakers and anyone trying to track the nation’s economic health.
The next Economic Census was supposed to start in January, five years after the previous one, as usual. But earlier this year, the Census Bureau quietly changed its deadline, pushing it back at least six months. The agency told POLITICO that it has not publicly announced the delay but confirmed that aspects of the Economic Census were “re-planned,” and the results would be out six months late.
“If the Obama guys had quietly suggested delaying the Economic Census by six months, there’d be holy hell to pay,” said a former high-ranking appointee in the Commerce Department.
According to multiple statistical experts who spoke with Census Bureau officials, the reason was money: The Census needed the money earmarked for the Economic Census to prepare for the 2020 decennial, which Congress has underfunded by hundreds of millions of dollars. In a tight budget environment, the bureau was effectively forced to choose between two of Washington’s most important efforts to collect data on the country. Even if it’s conducted on the new schedule, the delay of the 2017 Economic Census will have negative effects down the line; it leaves outdated baseline numbers in place for policymakers, and creates problems for companies that need to comply. Said another census-watcher of the 2017 survey: “It will always have this asterisk.”
Such asterisks are popping up more and more in the sleepy world of federal statistics. As wonky as it may sound, collecting and publishing information on Americans and U.S. businesses is one of the most important roles of the government: Information provided by Washington helps small businesses decide the next town in which to expand, and determines the destination of more than $400 billion in federal spending each year. The government has no fewer than 128 agencies that collect and disseminate numbers, including 13 whose primary responsibility is statistics. Its surveys cover topics from inflation to oil prices to mink pelt production. As technical and dry as they are, the data overall form the backbone of U.S. economic planning.
“There are very few things you can get a bunch of economists to agree on, but this is it,” said Tom Beers, executive director of the National Association of Business Economists, about the importance of federal statistics.
But today, under pressure from nearly a decade of budget stagnation, the system is nearing a breaking point. Conversations with more than two dozen statistical experts, present and former officials, find agencies sharply cutting back on the scale and ambition of their data-gathering, reducing sample sizes, delaying investments and, in some cases, eliminating surveys altogether—a last-resort measure that forever leaves a hole in what we know about how the nation is changing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, for instance, which publishes the nation’s monthly jobs report, has seen its funding fall by nearly 10 percent since 2005, after adjusting for inflation. In turn, the agency has scaled back its quarterly survey on employment and wages, which serves as a benchmark for the jobs report; in 2013, it was forced to stop a survey on mass layoffs and another on green jobs. The little-known Bureau of Transportation Statistics, which collects national transportation data, has seen its budget decline by 21 percent and has been unable to collect data on the number of trucks and their use in the United States.
The biggest anxiety looming over this landscape is the 2020 census. Mandated by the Constitution and conducted without fail every 10 years, the census is the most important and expensive project of any kind that the government regularly undertakes. But it’s already well behind schedule. Strapped for funding in the 2016 and 2017 budgets, it has canceled two of the three field tests scheduled for 2018, and pushed back its advertising campaign designed to get people to answer the survey. When the Census Bureau asked for money in the three-month stopgap spending measure that passed in early September, Congress denied those funds.
“The 2020 census is still in significant trouble budget-wise,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, former co-director of the Census Project, an organization that tracks the census. “That keeps me up at night.”
The troubles at the census, as well as many other statistical agencies, predate Donald Trump’s presidency; they’re part of a discretionary budget squeezed hard by Congress and the 2013 sequester. But the Trump administration has brought a fresh wave of concern in the form of a president skeptical about the value of government overall, and whose administration doesn’t seem to be concerned about the gaps it could leave. Early anxieties about a “war on data” by the new administration haven’t borne out, but indifference is a risk too: While both George W. Bush and Barack Obama put a great deal of emphasis on the value of data, Trump still hasn’t nominated anyone to run the Census Bureau and the BLS, arguably the two most important statistical agencies.
Beyond the tight budgets and neglect from the White House, a larger risk lurks around the corner, one that threatens the very reliability of statistics: People simply aren’t answering surveys the way they used to. Because of demographic and technological changes, response rates for federal surveys have been falling for years, a trend that shows no sign of reversing. This makes surveys more expensive to conduct—exacerbating the budget problems at agencies that run them—and raises something of an existential threat to what we know about our own country. “It’s a slow-moving train wreck,” said Erica Groshen, who led the BLS from 2013 to 2017.
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Read more here: The federal data crisis