The Statistical Abstract of the United States

by Kieran Healy on April 15, 2011

I saw this report go by on the Twitter saying that, in the wake of the latest budget deal, the Census Bureau is planning on eliminating the Statistical Abstract of the United States, pretty much the single most useful informational document the Government produces. The report says,

When readying the FY2011 budget, the Census Bureau tapped teams to do thorough, systematic program reviews looking for efficiencies and cost savings. Priorities for programs were set according to mission criticality, and some cuts were made to the economic statistics program. According to Tom Mesenbourg, deputy director of the Census Bureau, “difficult choices had to be made” in order to reduce expenditures on existing programs and move forward with new initiatives in FY2012. Core input data that the Bureau of Economic Analysis relies on to produce the National Income and Product Account tables, for example, would be retained. New data sets needed to be added to the Census of Government regarding state and local government pensions (e.g., cost of post-retirement employee benefits). In addition, FY2012 requires funding for the planning stages of the 2012 Economic Census; data collection begins in 2013. So what’s left to cut? It was felt that the popular Statistical Abstract of the United States—the “go to” reference for those who don’t know whether a statistic is available, let alone which agency/department is responsible for it—could be sacrificed. Staff will be moving to “Communications,” digitizing the data set. It is hoped that the private sector—commercial publishers—will see the benefit of publishing some version of the title in the future.

Bleah. When it comes to the United States, the print and online versions of the SA are a peerless source of information for all your bullshit remediation needs. What’s the median household income? What does the distribution of family debt liability look like? How many people are in prison? How many flights were late, got diverted, or crashed in the past few years? How many women hold public office? What sort of families get food stamps? Who does and doesn’t have health insurance? What percentage of households own a cat, a dog, a bird, or a horse? (The fish lobby seem to have lost out on that one.)

In his early days as a pundit, Paul Krugman got a fair amount of mileage from columns that consisted mostly of taking some claims about the U.S. trade balance or industrial structure, looking up the relevant table in the Abstract, and calling bullshit on the claim-maker. (Of course, that was in those far-off days when all this were nowt but fields, Krugman was still a Real Economist—i.e., he had yet to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, or say rude things about Republican economic and social policy—and he patrolled the boundaries of his profession against the incursions of pop internationalists.) So, properly used, the SA might even make you famous.

In the meantime, maybe this is all a feint or post-budget posturing by the Census Bureau. I have no idea. But I really do hope the abstract doesn’t go away anytime soon, or become the property of some gobdaw publisher looking to sell me tabulations of data the government has already collected using public money.



NomadUK 04.15.11 at 2:28 pm

It is, of course, absolutely essential that the average citizen not be able easily to verify the information being spewed to him by politicians, government officials, or the news media. All part of the game. Even better if some third party can make money by selling a bowdlerised and unreliable version of it, useful mostly for bar bets and pub quizzes.


Peter 04.15.11 at 2:45 pm

This sucks, and I certainly hope the Abstract doesn’t go away. But if it does, then, at the risk of being accused of Wikibollocks, this seems like a good candidate for some kind of crowd-sourcing project. As I understand it, the government isn’t planning to stop producing the data in the Statistical Abstract, they’re just going to stop compiling it all in one place. There are plenty of academics and other researchers who know the ins and outs of data availability in their sub-areas. If their knowledge were combined into some kind of wiki-type site, then the useful functions of the Statistical Abstract could be preserved and kept out of the clutches of for-profit publishers. I would certainly contribute to such a project.


P O'Neill 04.15.11 at 3:38 pm

As always with these stunts, there was a trial run. Rick Santorum and Accuweather vs NOAA.


roac 04.15.11 at 4:14 pm

Any government agency, faced with a budget cut, will announce that it is cutting the program with the largest and/or most influential constituency, in an effort to bring the maximum pressure for reversal of the cuts. Every time.


Davis X. Machina 04.15.11 at 4:26 pm

I’ve run semester-long debate classes where the Abstract was the only actual textbook. I don’t know what could possibly replace it.


mcd 04.15.11 at 5:57 pm

There’s precedent. There used to be much more data on income and wealth distribution in the SA but it was axed in the Reagan years.


Keith 04.15.11 at 7:49 pm

Typical. Something cheep and useful? Cut it. We can’t afford anything that doesn’t kill people. Now, loan me another trillion dollars for our 3 wars.


Omega Centauri 04.15.11 at 9:48 pm

As nomad @1 alludes to “what you don’t know won’t hurt you”. Or more accurately, “what the public can’t find out, they can’t use against you”. This is pretty much becoming standard fare. Evidence of climate change hurting your cause, eliminate the data gathering, then they won’t be able to make their case. Obviously the effects of the distributional decisions being made, have to be obscured, else we might have a revolt on on hands.


Alesia McManus 04.15.11 at 10:58 pm

Thank you for blogging about the proposed de-funding of the US Statistical Abstract. We have a petition at that will be sent to lawmakers and also a FB group to share info and ideas


KCinDC 04.16.11 at 4:01 am

An adjunct to the “starve the beast” strategy by Republicans (which hasn’t really had much success) is the “blind the beast” strategy, preventing the government from functioning effectively by depriving it of information. A convenient side effect is that such cuts also deprive members of the public of information needed to keep tabs on the increasing amount of government money flowing to private contractors.


Eli Rabett 04.16.11 at 4:35 pm

Perhaps you should retitle this as “The Statistical Abuse of the United States”


Chandler Christoffel 04.18.11 at 4:14 pm

Librarians at The George Washington University created a “Save the Statistical Abstract!” video. Take a look! Share widely!


spyder 04.22.11 at 2:58 am

In my more than four decades of teaching, i always had some copy of the Statistical Abstract on my desk (hardbound copies from the GPO in many cases). I can’t see how wading through the online menus of government departments and bureaus to find some specific pieces of correlated data will make the process timely and more efficient (and save $$ in any sense). I agree with several comments above that this plan is yet another way to keep a bigger wall between the facts and the people.

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