Disappearing Statistics: Why it should matter to you and what you can do about it

March 28th, 2011

Some of you who have come to the library needing statistics for your research may have seen me reach for a book called Statistical Abstract of the United States.  The Census Bureau, which has published it annually since 1878, has announced that it will discontinue producing it.  It is, in the Census Bureau’s words, a guidebook that “provides a comprehensive summary of industrial, social, economic, and political data. It serves as a statistical compendium and as a guide to other statistical publications and sources. It includes tables and charts drawn from data of almost 300 government, private, and international agencies.”  It is produced both to provide the public with clear and current statistical data, and also to facilitate the best information for decision-making in Congress.

Most of the Census Bureau’s other cuts – including cuts to reference materials that libraries frequently use – are sensible.  And their budget, currently at $1.6 billion dollars, will feature $260 million in cuts.  In an economic crisis, this is laudable.  The Census Bureau is behaving responsibly.

If this were just a matter of losing the published statistical abstract book, it might be an inconvenience to librarians, but not much more.  But it is the loss of the entire endeavor – and many of the statistics in it will now no longer be analyzed, collated, and compiled.  A precious layer of accountability is being lost.  Your tax money is still being collected – just now, you can’t see the results of its use.  Perhaps some would rather we not see it.  And not all of these statistics came from the government – the Census Bureau collected data from many private organizations, too.  Organizations which are not obligated to put their data online.  So, if you were hoping that all the data will still be available somewhere, think again.

While many of the raw datasets might still be somewhere on the web, they won’t be in easy-to-read charts and tables comparing information to like information.  So make friends with a social science major, because you’ll need that kind of help to make sense of them.

The budget saved for this is $2.9 million.  That’s not chicken feed, but by contrast, what it saves could fully fund the Overseas Contingency Operations (all our current foreign wars) for only about nine minutes ($159 billion in 2011) or alternately keep social security solvent for a further two minutes ($779 billion in 2011). 

If you feel moved to protect this resource, Indiana’s senators are Richard Lugar, who can be contacted at (202) 224-4814 or http://lugar.senate.gov/contact/contactform.cfm, and Dan Coats, who can be contacted at (317) 554-0750 or http://coats.senate.gov/contact/.  Our U.S. Representative is Mike Pence, available at (202) 225-3021, (765) 962-2883, or https://forms.house.gov/pence/IMA/webforms/contact_form.htm.  And the Census Bureau can be contacted directly at 1-800-923-8282 or online at https://ask.census.gov/app/ask.

U.S. Budget estimates cited above can be found on http://www.gpoaccess.gov/usbudget/fy11/index.html

Census Bureau budget and data on proposed cuts are drawn from http://www.osec.doc.gov/bmi/budget/12CJ/Census_Bureau_FY_2012_Congressional_Submission.pdf