Urban Wire Federal budget and data woes
Jonathan Schwabish
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It seems that everybody lately loves anything having to do with data: big data, streaming data, data analytics, and data visualization. The importance of data to help create better, more effective policies is also being touted by top policymakers. Back in December, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) introduced legislation that could improve federal policy by expanding the availability of data that can fuel actionable research.

But Congress has actually been reducing funding for our statistical agencies. What if the data needed to help researchers, policymakers, and citizens improve how government functions never get collected or are of such poor quality that they are of little use?

Peruse the website of your favorite content producer—like the Urban Institute or Pew Research Center—and you will undoubtedly find references to data sources like the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (Bureau of Labor Statistics), the Current Population Survey (Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics), the Survey of Consumer Finances (Federal Reserve), and the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). These data, plus myriad others, are used in countless ways, including to help federal, state, and local governments provide services, enable researchers to better understand programs and systems, and allow businesses to track the US and global economies.

If such data did not exist, how would policymakers make decisions about support programs for unemployed workers? How would the government predict and then respond to natural disasters? How would businesses know where and when to build a new building, expand their services, or hire more workers?

Collecting high-quality data is not merely an academic exercise, it is central to how government and businesses, as well as individuals, make decisions.

Reductions in data collection funding have had a real impact

In the current federal budget climate, data collection is poised to take a big hit. Take a look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), for example. Over the past three years, the BLS has received $80 million less than the president requested from Congress, an average reduction of just over 4 percent.

This is not an anomaly: between fiscal years 2001 and 2015, the agency received less than requested in all but two years. Beginning in 2011, however, this trend has worsened, with the agency receiving at least $17 million less than requested.

Budget request appropriations

Of course, budget requests can shoot high so that actual appropriations seem small in comparison. But these reductions have resulted in real changes at the agency:

  • In fiscal year 2013, after receiving $41 million less than the original request, the BLS eliminated the Mass Layoff Statistics and International Labor Comparisons programs and the Measuring Green Jobs products.
  • In 2014, having received nearly $22 million less than requested, the agency curtailed the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages program by reducing the scope and frequency of collection for select units.
  • During the past several years, including fiscal year 2015, the BLS also has curtailed hiring, deferred or curtailed planned improvements, and cut back on other development and research projects.

This year, the president requested $632.7 million for the BLS, a $40.5 million increase from what the agency received in fiscal year 2015 (that’s in nominal dollars and does not take inflation into account).

Recent reports coming out of the House of Representatives and the Senate are recommending significant cuts. The House is recommending a $609 million annual budget, nearly $24 million less than requested. The Senate’s cut is much deeper: a total budget recommendation of $579 million, almost $54 million less than requested, or a 10 percent reduction.

It’s also possible the president’s request is higher than what the BLS actually needs. No one knows exactly what the BLS would do if it received funding levels on par with previous reductions or proposed reductions from Congress, but there are some clues based on previous experience.

  • In fiscal year 2014, the agency reported that it had found temporary funding sources to maintain their production and publication of import and export prices. These indices help policymakers and business understand patterns and global trade and how well the United States competes in international markets. “Temporary” doesn’t sound like something that can be easily sustained over the long run.
  • The current budget request includes funds to help the Census Bureau measure poverty more accurately. Without this funding, the BLS has already stated that it will not be able to be a full participant in the development and maintenance of an alternative poverty measure.  

Budget reductions mean that data-producing agencies have less money to collect, produce, and publish their survey data. I don’t expect an agency like BLS to reduce the size or frequency of their surveys. In all likelihood, certain surveys will be cut altogether and that will mean less information to help us understand our economy, know how businesses should and do work, and provide support to people who need it.


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