Census Bureau Survey Falling on Hard Times

By D'Vera Cohn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 1, 2006

A Commerce Department proposal to eliminate a Census Bureau survey on the economic well-being of U.S. residents is drawing fire from researchers and lawmakers concerned about losing a source of information about the impact of government social programs on needy families.

Under the Bush administration's proposed budget, the Survey of Income and Program Participation, which began collecting data two decades ago, could stop doing so in September. In its place, Census Bureau officials said they are designing a better and less expensive system that could begin to collect data in a year or two.

But more than 250 economists and social science researchers, including 2001 Nobel Economics Laureate George A. Akerlof, have signed a letter to be sent to Congress tomorrow stating that the survey provides unique data for evaluating government programs, and urging that it be fully funded.

In Congress, Reps. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Maurice D. Hinchey (D-N.Y.) plan to ask their colleagues this week to sign a similar letter to the White House. At the recent confirmation hearing of Edward P. Lazear to be chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) said it would be "a major step backwards" to drop the survey.

The survey, which costs $40 million annually, follows people for two to four years, asking about their use of welfare, unemployment insurance, Medicaid and other government programs.

But the Census Bureau cited problems that include delays in publishing data and difficulty in persuading people to answer the lengthy questionnaire. Howard R. Hogan, an associate director of the bureau, said the agency had been "sketching out plans" to redesign the survey when the tightened budget demanded that changes be made.

The fiscal 2007 survey budget would drop to $9.2 million, of which $5.6 million would be spent to plan the replacement program. It would combine a survey with data from government records of people enrolled in social programs, Hogan said, and begin collecting information by 2009. He said it would cost less, but he did not know how much. Hogan said all data collected from the current survey will be published.

Defenders say the survey's problems are no worse than those of other surveys in an era when people increasingly refuse to answer questionnaires. They are suspicious the decision was driven by budget considerations, not data quality; they also question whether the government will be willing to fund a new program. "There are a ton of very important policy issues that we won't be able to look at without this survey," said Heather Boushey, an economist at the Center for Economic Policy and Research, which drafted the letter to Congress.

The center and many signatories to the letter are liberals, but the signers include Brookings Institution fellow Ron Haskins, who helped draft welfare restructuring legislation as a Republican congressional aide in the 1990s and shares the Census Bureau's concerns about the survey's quality.

"The reason I signed the letter is I think we need more, not less, information about low-income Americans," he said. "The plan the Census Bureau has seems pretty unspecified to me. . . . And if you have budget trouble, what makes you think it will get better next year? So even if the bird in the hand is a little damaged, it may be worth two in the bush."

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