AS THE HARSHER effects of the administration's budget reductions become evident, it is likely that corrections will be made--some already have. But there is no way to remedy one type of loss that is already occurring--loss of valuable data that measure the country's social and economic progress and the effect of government policy upon it.
Government data have an enormous market. They are used not only by policy-makers in the administration and Congress, but by businesses and individuals throughout the country who need to know what's happening to prices, unemployment, income, population trends and community development.
The administration's budget cuts and administrative shakeups have caused enormous disruption in even the most venerable government statistical agencies. Both the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics are canceling surveys, eliminating publications and delaying needed improvements in such basic statistics as the consumer price index and local area unemployment counts. Highly trained staffs are in turmoil as junior workers are laid off and more senior people are transferred or downgraded.
Similar disruption is occurring throughout all the many agencies that collect and analyze economic and program-related data. Some of this information feeds directly into widely used series like the CPI, which measures prices, and the national income accounts, which measure, along with a hundred other things, the rate of economic growth, a central figure in the policy debate.
Other sources are important indicators in themselves. The Department of Health and Human Services, for example, has long been the major source of information on the characteristics of recipients of government benefits--information that was widely used by OMB director David Stockman in planning and justifying many of his budget proposals.
HHS now plans to cancel several important surveys. Among them is the only continuing source of information--gathered by the University of Michigan for almost 15 years--about the changes in income, work and family makeup from year to year. Also canceled are the biennial AFDC survey--the only state-by-state source of information about families on welfare--and a carefully designed survey that would have provided the first complete information on how many people benefit from different government programs and how serious poverty in this country really is.
Some surveys being canceled will not be widely mourned. But when important data sources start disappearing--and examples of refusals to fund or publish research that might contradict established policy keep surfacing--suspicion begins to dawn. If the administration's policies work as well as it anticipates, it should welcome thorough analysis of their impact. And if the policies don't work, then the public should know about it.