Experts warn the validity of US data gathering is at risk


    Inadequate funding and controversial measures in a budget bill could threaten what Americans know about themselves through federal data gathering, statisticians and demographers warn in a new report and in a letter to U.S. congressional leaders.

    “Our bottom-line assessment is that federal statistics are at risk,” says the report released Tuesday by the American Statistical Association in partnership with George Mason University.

    The report says a majority of the 13 principal U.S. statistical agencies have lost more than 14% of their purchasing power in the last 15 years, limiting their ability to innovate.

    Better protections against political meddling also are needed for the agencies that calculate everything from the monthly unemployment rate to the once-a-decade head count that determines the distribution of political power and $2.8 trillion in government funding, according to the report.

    Ahead of the 2020 census, for instance, the Trump administration tried to add a citizenship question to the census questionnaire. Even though it was stopped by the U.S. Supreme Court, some experts believe the controversy contributed to an almost 5% undercount of the Hispanic population during the nation’s head count.

    Meanwhile, other advocates and users of federal data are worried about an appropriations bill being considered by the GOP-controlled House Committee on Appropriations. The bill would omit people in the country illegally from the count used to redraw political districts—even though the 14th Amendment requires “counting the whole number of persons” in each place. And it would limit how many times a respondent can be contacted by agencies seeking their participation in surveys and the census.

    “This is ‘break glass in case of emergency’ level stuff,” says Allison Plyer, chief demographer at The Data Center, a research nonprofit based in New Orleans.

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