Rampell: The threat in Trump administration’s war on data

Manipulating official statistics will deepen poverty, hamper democracy and frustrate solutions.

By Catherine Rampell

The Washington Post

Don’t like the numbers? Invent new numbers instead.

Or make it harder to collect trustworthy numbers next time.

Or just put the squeeze on the number crunchers themselves.

Slowly but surely, the Trump administration has been chipping away at the independence and integrity of our federal statistical agencies, whose data is critical to keeping our democracy functioning and our economy healthy. So far as we know, the administration still hasn’t managed to pierce the citadel of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (the independent agency that releases jobs and inflation numbers) or Bureau of Economic Analysis (the independent agency that tabulates gross domestic product). But around the edges, it’s trying to compromise lots of other official government data.

This week, The New York Times reported that the Environmental Protection Agency plans to massage the model it uses to determine how many people die of pollution. The goal is to make the rollback of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan look significantly less deadly than the current models suggest. This is also part of a broader administrative effort to downgrade official estimates of environmental harm resulting from the administration’s deregulatory agenda.

It’s reminiscent of another proposal the administration made this month, relating to how we measure poverty. That’s also a technical, boring-sounding, deep-in-the-weeds change that most of the public won’t notice.

At least, not at first.

But over time, the change would reduce the number of Americans officially counted as poor; not because they’ve started earning more money but because this technical, boring-sounding change would redraw the line for who is in or out of poverty.

If you’re a right-wing politician, this change would be a double win. It allows you to claim your policies have lifted families out of poverty, even if they’re still struggling. It’s also a backdoor way to slash spending on the safety net.

That’s because the poverty threshold is used to determine eligibility for lots of safety-net services, meaning those newly defined as not-poor would also become newly defined as not-eligible for food stamps, Medicare’s Part D Low-Income Subsidy program and other benefits. After 10 years, for instance, more than 300,000 children would lose comprehensive coverage through Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), according to an estimate from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

When directly manipulating official government measures isn’t an option, the administration can also mess with the data-collection process.

That’s precisely what’s behind the Commerce Department’s last-minute decision to jam a citizenship question into the 2020 census, the constitutionally mandated enumeration of all “persons” (not just citizens) in the United States.

Immigrant and ethnic minority populations in this country already have high levels of distrust of government, thanks to xenophobic rhetoric and actions by President Trump (including, at one point, a proposed Muslim registry). Now just imagine what happens if the government suddenly demands that every household in America report the citizenship status of every occupant.

Significant population undercounts and otherwise inaccurate data can be expected to result, and the consequences of these distortions would be far-reaching. An inaccurate count would skew congressional representation and the allocation of hundreds of billions of federal dollars each year. It would also warp the many other public and private data measures that use the census as a baseline.

The Supreme Court will soon decide whether the administration’s plans can proceed; three lower courts have blocked the question, on the grounds that the administration’s actions violate administrative law or the Constitution.

Finally, there’s the Economic Research Service, the independent statistical agency housed within the Agriculture Department.

Its researchers compile and analyze data related to crops, yes, but also poverty, food stamps, trade and climate change, among other politically sensitive issues. And right now these economists and statisticians are quitting in droves. That’s because the Trump administration abruptly decided to relocate hundreds of positions. Workers were told that if they want to keep their jobs, they have until the end of September to move their families to … a still as-yet-unnamed new city.

The relocation is, ostensibly, to save money. But it sure seems like a backdoor purge of an independent agency that has produced analyses inconvenient to the administration, including on the harms caused by Trump’s trade wars and how little the 2017 GOP tax overhaul has helped small farmers.

Presumably the Trump administration has calculated that doctoring statistical models, skewing survey results and trying to strong-arm statisticians will serve its near-term political interests. In the long term, however, sowing distrust in government data only reduces the ability of policymakers, businesses and voters to make informed decisions.

Of course, maybe that was the goal all along.

Catherine Rampell’s email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter @crampell.

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