Funding Cut for Data on Economic Well-Being

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 4, 2007

It is one of the most important surveys the government conducts -- the only large-scale measurement of the impact of Medicaid, food stamps, school lunches, unemployment and other safety-net programs for the poor.

But proposed Bush administration budget cuts to the Survey on Income and Program Participation, known as SIPP, will significantly reduce the amount of information it generates for the next four years.

"We'll have the statistical equivalent of a Katrina on our hands if the OMB [Office of Management and Budget] refuses to request funding for the SIPP," Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) said in a statement. "We need the SIPP to determine which government programs are working and how to best make use of taxpayer dollars in tight fiscal times."

The Census Bureau, which oversees the survey, plans to reduce the number of people questioned nationwide from 45,000 to 21,000. The result will mean that detailed data will be generated for just three states -- California, Texas and New York -- instead of the more typical 31 states, said Preston Jay Waite, deputy director of the Census Bureau.

The survey will still produce national data, but the ability of state officials and lawmakers to learn how programs are working on a state level will largely evaporate, he said.

"It's not desirable for sure, but there are a limited number of priorities and resources available," Waite said. "This is the biggest sample we can allocate within the budget. Life is a trade-off."

Since the survey began in 1984, participants have been interviewed three times a year and have been tracked for four years. By the end of the four years, a great amount of detail is collected on their economic fortunes. Public officials and researchers rely on those findings to determine how government programs are used, which are most effective and which are faltering.

Problems with funding for the survey started last year, when the administration directed the Census Bureau to cut $40 million from the 2007 budget. Bureau officials targeted the SIPP, saying it had some weaknesses; Congress restored its funding.

This year, as lawmakers and the White House wrangle over the fiscal 2008 budget, census officials proposed replacing the SIPP with a less intensive, cheaper survey that is untested. That worried several key lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), and prompted a letter signed by hundreds of academics, social service providers and others. They argued that the SIPP should be continued until its replacement is deemed reliable.

Waite and other officials agreed, and told congressional staff members on May 25 that they are abandoning plans for a cheaper, untested replacement. Instead, they plan to downsize the SIPP, spending $21 million instead of about $42 million.

Heather Boushey, an economist with the liberal Center for Economic Policy and Research, said that makes no sense.

"They are essentially destroying it if they're not fully funding it," said Boushey, who relies on the data from the SIPP for about one-third of her work. "If the goal is for us to have a data set that allows us to understand the effectiveness of government programs in helping American families, a half-sample is not going to give us enough observation to answer questions that we and people on the Hill have."

At the conservative Heritage Foundation, senior research fellow Ralph A. Rector said the census should continue to fully fund the SIPP while working on a cheaper, more efficient alternative survey. "The worst outcome is if the money is insufficient for the SIPP and they don't continue" working on an alternative, he said. Then researchers don't get good survey data now or a reliable replacement later, he said.

E.R. Anderson, the deputy undersecretary for economic affairs at the Commerce Department, said her agency will not ask the White House to add money to the fiscal 2008 budget to fully fund the survey.

Congress could step in and restore its funding, but that would force congressional Democrats to cut elsewhere in the budget, which they are reluctant to do, a Democratic staff member said.

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