Essay on why scholars need to preserve federal data collection
I am a product of my times. Born at the end of the “gee whiz” Eisenhower years; raised in the idealism of the 1960s; lulled into political boredom in the 1980s and disaffected with political conversations ever since. Middle age has allowed me to let politics become the background noise murmuring away on NPR. This ended when I saw how quickly the unemployment numbers issued two weeks ago by the Bureau of Labor Statistics became a political football. We are once again plunged into that world where the apparatus of the federal government that collects and reports data is challenged for political purposes. Wasn’t it just this spring when the American Community Survey was branded as too invasive and threatened with extinction? For some, the current flap over the unemployment rate might be another interesting election story, but for me this is now a deeply emotional issue. For many people, the core of democracy is the freedom to act --- for me, it is the freedom to know.
The federal government of the United States since its inception has been in the business of collecting data. The original purpose of the decennial Census is well-known -- to supply the population counts necessary to ensure political representation is allocated fairly. To me, the marriage of politics to data at the birth of the nation is not a sign that data can be corrupted by political influence but rather that our political forebears understood that the key to good government is information.
The American statistical system, which includes the Bureau of Labor Statistics, grew from these exalted beginnings to be among the most admired in the world. The federal government collects data to inform both policy and science. Knowledge about the government and its citizenry has long been recognized as the key to democracy. The stigmata of tyranny is an unwillingness to collect or share data. The U.S. has surpassed other democracies by declaring data collected by the government to be a free good and by providing open access to microdata (that is de-identified individual records) for almost 50 years. Governments as modern as those of France and Japan have only recently begun to provide minimal access to microdata. The difference between reading aggregate statistics tabulated by the government and having access to the raw data used to create those tabulations is like the difference between looking at a painting of a mountain and actually climbing that mountain. Having your hands in the raw material allows you to discover important and controversial things regardless of your political affiliation.
The scientific, political, and economic engine created by federal data collection is enormous. Others have eloquently recounted the spillover into marketing, store locating, oil and gas exploration, to say nothing of what we have learned about family formation, poverty, residential segregation, income inequality and all the other social issues that dog American society. Conservatives suggest that the free market can generate alternatives to the data collection done by the government. These alternatives are called Google and Facebook.
Data-gathering enterprises such these are on the other end of the continuum from the supposedly invasive partisan data collected by the federal government. Google and Facebook monitor your daily activities and require you to opt out of monitoring, not in. They sell data but do not share. They do not ask if you have a toilet but rather passively track where you bought it, what kind it is, who uses it, and who hates you for having it. Transparent, free, democratic access to data collected under scientific protocols that can be reviewed and replicated using techniques that must pass the rigorous scrutiny of human subjects review is asked to make way for unregulated black box methods to collect data that can only be purchased and only by selected individuals. This feels like a step back from democracy -- not a step forward.
Regardless of your generation or your politics, if you value the right to know as the highest form of liberty, I urge you to go to your closet and find your tie-dyed T-shirt. Tie back your hair, put on your sneakers, and find your bullhorn. While there have always been challenges to federal data collection activities, the threatened loss of the American Community Survey, which in itself replaced the much maligned Census long form, and the unsubstantiated claims of bias in the monthly unemployment numbers suggests that the political heat is once again turned up. The cause of liberty requires knowledge and to generate knowledge we need data. Man the barricades in defense of the American statistical system. And bring data.
Felicia B. LeClere is a principal research scientist in the Public Health Department of NORC at the University of Chicago, where she works as research coordinator on multiple projects. She has 20 years of experience in survey design and practice, with particular interest in data dissemination and the support of scientific research through the development of scientific infrastructure.