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Bureau of Labor Statistics Facing More Cuts

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Major cuts by the Reagan Administration in the operations of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which disseminates key economic and employment data, are not only making it difficult to spot major problems that government might properly deal with but are also resulting in the elimination of information that is extremely useful to management, labor and government in their day-to-day operations.

The figures and analyses provided by the bureau, which is an autonomous arm of the Labor Department, have long been among the most reliable in defining major economic and social problems and calling attention to their scope.

While there is probably no sinister Administration “plot” to cover up the extent of domestic problems, the end result will be the same: The less the nation knows about a problem, the easier it will be for the government to escape having to deal with it. As it is doing in many other areas, the Administration is encouraging private enterprises to pick up the slack and do their own data gathering.

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Meanwhile, the BLS has already done away with regular data on:

- Features of major labor-management contract agreements, particularly trends in fringe benefits, which are becoming more important portions of workers’ incomes.

- The number of strikes and lockouts when fewer than 1,000 workers are involved.

- The rate of turnover--that is, how many workers are fired, quit, retire or die in the course of a year.

In addition, the bureau has reduced the number of workers that it surveys for information on those employed or seeking jobs in local and regional areas. Such data is now based on a monthly survey of 50,000 workers instead of the 62,000 used before President Reagan took office. Moreover, the Administration blocked a BLS plan to expand the number of workers surveyed in Los Angeles and New York to provide more accurate data, particularly in sections with heavy concentrations of minorities.

Typical of the kind of problem that could be more easily pinpointed with the help of BLS data is the effect of plant closures on individual communities and the country as a whole. But the Administration blocked a planned BLS study of plant closures and resulting layoffs of workers.

By far the largest number of U.S. jobs today are in the service sector, yet budget cuts have meant that the bureau cannot proceed with plans to provide more data on the availability of service jobs. It still concentrates on jobs in the manufacturing sector, which now accounts for only 30% of the nation’s employment.

The Administration has proposed elimination of the 70-year-old Monthly Labor Review, a publication that is used by the bureau to disseminate analyses of data. Yet BLS officials say that, if the cost were about doubled to $4, the highly respected publication could pay for itself.

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Dan Mitchell, director of UCLA’s Institute of Industrial Relations, says it is paradoxical that the “laissez faire Reagan Administration will not allow this fine and extremely useful magazine to meet the market test of economic viability.”

Janet Norwood, head of the BLS since 1978 and one of the few top government executives to be appointed by both Republican and Democratic administrations, is gently critical of reductions in the BLS budget. This year, the total budget will be a relatively small $182 million.

In an interview last week, Norwood said that she finds the cuts “painful.” On the other hand, she said, the Administration continues to support such long-range projects as revising the method of computing the consumer price index.

However, while she may be rightly pleased with that, perhaps one reason the Administration isn’t trying to stop that project--scheduled for completion in 1987--is that the rate of inflation has been reduced since Reagan took office. The more public attention given to that particular BLS figure, the better the Administration looks.

Norwood is greatly disturbed by guidelines drafted by the Office of Management and Budget that would curtail the gathering and distribution of statistics by all government agencies. These would affect a vast array of domestic data, including information on housing, health and the national parks and forests.

The OMB proposal, which is being circulated among government agencies for comments, would require government agencies to gather and distribute only data required specifically by law.

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Norwood expressed concern that, “while OMB says it is still considering revisions in the draft, it is scary because it is so vague about just what will have to be eliminated. The proposal can mean almost anything.”

Administration officials insist that they are not trying to restrict the free flow of government information or get government out of the data-gathering business by imposing cuts on the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Instead, they say, they are only trying to avoid duplication, eliminate wasteful studies and target studies that could be done by private enterprise.

But Markley Roberts, an AFL-CIO economist, told a House Government Operations subcommittee recently that the Administration’s plans to “privatize data collection is a crackpot, doctrinaire, free-market ideology gone wild.”

Congressional action may help protect the BLS from some of the Administration’s more extreme proposals, such as one that would eliminate the bureau’s authority to hire, promote and fire staffers and put it in the hands of members of the Labor Department, who are political appointees.

That move would, at a minimum, call into question the agency’s integrity. Congress is expected to prohibit the switch in authority, and Norwood feels that “so far I’ve won on that issue.”

Katherine Wallman, executive director of the Council of Professional Assns. on Federal Statistics, notes that the Administration is trying to turn more and more work of the federal government over to state and local governments and the private sector. “Yet, even if that were a good idea, no one can make intelligent decisions to deal with the nation’s problems without an adequate, reliable base of information such as the BLS has been able to furnish,” she said.

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Perhaps the bureau’s defenders will succeed in getting Congress to ward off more serious injuries, although it’s unlikely that the agency will, during this Administration, regain its former potential for helping the nation define and resolve its problems.

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