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Crunching the Wrong Numbers

With the federal deficit at $350 billion for this year and rising, Congress is absolutely right to look for money-saving plans. But it should think them through before trying to put them into action. One idea in particular is in desperate need of a little rethinking.

The government spent about $2 billion gathering information on the people of the United States in last year’s census. Now, in one of those periodic Potomac outrages, the Senate Appropriations Committee proposes saving $30 million by not paying to package some vital parts of the data in usable ways.

Since the Computer Age revolutionized the handling of data, columns of printed statistics have been replaced by reels of tape that are used to produce data on computer screens in industry and government around the nation.

The Senate committee would save money by not making tapes that would hold the most detailed information about people and how much money they make and where they live. That is just the sort of information that transportation planners and industrial marketing analysts and many others in between must have--unless they want to guess about the society for which they plan roads or to which they sell products.

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Specifically, what the senators propose is not to distribute tapes that contain data drawn from the long-form questionnaire that is used, among dozens of other things, for planning equal-employment-opportunity programs.

The committee would also skip creating compact discs that could display the same information in public libraries, university departments and other places that do not have computers big enough to handle the reels of tape.

This is the sort of mindless decision that may well be made because there isn’t much demand for this service, except among demographers and professors, and thus the need tends to go unnoticed by the larger society.

Not this time. Much of the data that would not be circulated is essential to projecting trends of migration and poverty and other information that government must have to draft state or local budgets.

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To the demographers in the California Department of Finance, that borders on statistical hijacking and they are blowing the whistle. Congress must not put its hands over its ears to drown them out.


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