17 October 2017 — 1621 mdt
U.S. Census troubles, and a Flathead Population note
Penny wise, dollar foolish, members of Congress and the Trump administration are underfunding the U.S. Census Bureau and other federal agencies that collect, organize, analyze, and report, thousands of statistics upon which economists, city planners, researchers, and businesses, depend, reports Danny Vinik in an excellent long-form story at Politico:
“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on the new schedule, the delay of the 2017 Economic Census will have negative effects down the line; it leaves outdated baseline numbers in place for policymakers, and creates problems for companies that need to comply.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.
After you read Vinik’s piece, consider reminding Sens. Tester and Daines, and Rep. Gianforte, that a policy of deliberate ignorance — and that’s what this level of underfunding is — not only bears no economic or social benefits, but undermines prosperity, political stability, and social progress.
One well known Census Bureau product is, of course, the Constitutionally mandated decennial enumeration of the nation’s population upon which the apportionment of Congress is based.
All of us who write about politics constantly rely on numbers from the Census Bureau and other agencies, such as the U.S. Geological Survey. For example, in the course of researching an article I’m still writing, I looked at the population history of Flathead County, and its three major towns, Kalispell, Whitefish, and Columbia Falls, and produced these graphs: