How the feds blind us to our malaise

US Census Bureau/Flickr

Article Highlights

  • Washington need much better statistics on our social ills.

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  • The main statistical agencies have been squeezed for money since 1998.

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  • Do we really want our government to be a blinded giant?

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Though we seldom think of them this way, America's statistical agencies are the very eyes and ears of our democracy. When they are functioning properly, they provide essential information to help the public and its elected representatives see what is going right in our country-and what is going wrong. Such information is crucial for forming a more perfect union.

Without timely and accurate information on our domestic problems, our government cannot hope to address these swiftly, much less effectively. Whether you are a progressive or a conservative, in favor of more government or less of it, you need good data to inform your own efforts to make our country better.

America was the first government in the modern era to recognize the importance of evidence-based public policy. Our Constitution mandated a decennial census — a truly revolutionary notion back in the late 18th century. And for most of our history, the U.S. statistical system has been well ahead of the curve, if not a virtual wonder of the world.

No longer. Today our government statistical services are failing at some vital missions — and they have generally been falling away from the global forefront for at least a generation. In key fields we see not only stagnation, but even retrogression. The painful truth is that our statistical services are currently incapable of providing some of the basic facts and figures we need for confronting our most pressing domestic social troubles.

Consider the following areas in which the U.S. government today is, in practice, blind and deaf:

Poverty and Social Mobility: Fifty years into Washington's "War On Poverty", our government remains stunningly ill-equipped to offer hard information about either the prevalence of poverty and material deprivation or the chances of escaping from it.

For nearly half a century, our main tool for tracking poverty in America has been a hastily-devised "federal poverty measure" unveiled in 1965 for calculating the nation's "poverty rate". This is not merely a bad yardstick-it is an awful one. It was designed in such a way that it cannot actually measure the living standards or spending power of the poor, focusing as it does on annual reported income rather than consumption. Suffice it to say that just about no one who follows the US poverty problem closely takes the "poverty rate" itself terribly seriously, for you can't really tell if the true poverty situation is getting better or worse on the basis of these official annual soundings.

As for social and economic mobility: neither the "poverty rate," nor the annual Census Bureau income surveys from which that rate is derived, can tell us anything about the odds of moving out of poverty (or into it) from one year to the next. They are once-only annual snapshots, so they perforce cannot track the same people over time, as one would have to do to get some idea about longer-term mobility. The only instrument the government itself possesses for observing such multi-year patterns of income change is the Census Bureau's SIPP (Survey of Income and Program Participation)-but that project is an unloved statistical stepchild, perennially underfunded, and for some reason always seemingly in danger of being zero-ed out altogether.

Welfare Dependency: Long-term entitlement dependency in America is a worry to policymakers on both sides of the aisle. The U.S. government currently spends about $1 trillion a year on "means-tested" anti-poverty programs. How many people avail themselves of those benefits today-and how many are year-in, year-out dependents on them?

For answers, we have to consult the data from SIPP, the aforementioned statistical waif within the Census Bureau family. SIPP was specifically devised to provide this sort of information-that is the "Program Participation" referred to in its acronym. Go to its website, you can get that information-right up to the year 2011.

No, that is not a typo. Take a look at the website: right now you can't find anything beyond the Fourth Quarter of 2011. 

That's what: ten quarters out of date? Call it two and a half years. At that pace, we won't be learning about our present entitlement situation until almost 2017.

Family Breakdown: As everybody knows, modern America is suffering a crisis of the family. The increasing fragility of the family structure in the U.S. has direct ramifications not only for the children and parents in question, but for society as a whole.

Are the chances of getting married in American today going down? Is the risk of getting divorced going up? Maybe so. Or maybe not. You see, the U.S. government doesn't know, because it no longer collects the information that would allow us to answer such questions.

Back in the 1990s the Clinton folks decided to save some money by cutting funding for vital statistics at the state level. Despite George W. Bush's proclaimed commitment to "family values", his team declined to restore those funds. Ditto the Obama White House. Consequently, for going on two decades, the detailed information necessary for reckoning our national marriage rate and divorce rate are simply no longer on the grid. That's right: our "deciders" decided to jettison such information as extraneous at precisely the point when it may matter most to our nation, and to our future.

Faith and Civil Society: Regardless of their own religious convictions, researchers today widely agree that Americans of faith are more likely to be involved in their communities, to volunteer for service to others, and to donate to charities (including nonreligious charities). Information on religiosity therefore provides us with important indications about the state of our civil society.

So: what do government statistics tell us about the prevalence and depth of religious faith in the United States today? Nothing. There are no such numbers.

The Census Bureau does not collect such information-it is not allowed to. In 1976, Congress passed a law forbidding mandatory Census questions on religion, and that injunction has apparently become a "best practice" for the rest of the federal system. So now the wall of separation between church and state has a self-imposed veil of ignorance draped over it.

As this highly incomplete list may suggest, the relative and absolute decline in our statistical capacities for monitoring how our society is faring can be traced to a train of unrelated decisions, feckless though each may be. Underlying the malaise, however, is the matter of money. We may not end up with a great statistical system if we splurge on one, but we will surely get an unsatisfactory system if we play cheapskate-and when it comes to funding our nation's eyes and ears, we have been cutting budgetary corners for years. Spending may be out of control in Washington for just about everything else, but austerity seems to be enthusiastically enforced on the tiny pilot boats that guide our enormous ship of state.

In the fifteen fiscal years between 1998 and 2013, overall federal spending, after adjusting for inflation, rose by about a sixth (16%) for each man, woman and child in our country-notwithstanding the "budget sequester". But for the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS)-the agency that doesn't have the money any more to calculate national marriage and divorce probabilities-real per capita spending went down approximately 7%. It looks to be down 15% for the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, the unit that follows U.S. employment conditions ) and by over 25% for our most celebrated statistical organ, the U.S. Census Bureau. Though real per capita funding has also risen over the past decade and a half for some of our statistical agencies, most of the main ones appear to have been squeezed-if not starved.

Talk about false economies. Do we really want our government to be a blinded giant?

Unless the public and our leaders commit to reversing the decay of our government information systems, Americans must be willing to accept the certain degradation of the quality of democratic governance in our country for years to come.

Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute. He wishes to thank Mr. Alex Coblin for the research assistance and budget calculations that went into this essay.

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