Monday, October 03, 2011

The State of the Statistical Abstract

No one questions that Americans' tastes and interests are changing rapidly.  In 2009 American newspaper publishers received $13 billion less in total revenue from what they earned in 2005, a 26% decline (Tbl. 1134).   In 2011, 78% of American adults had access to the Internet, compared to only 53% in the year 2000 (Tbl. 1158 from 2012), and 59% of these users browsed the Internet to gather their news (Tbl. 1158 from 2011).  In another interesting shift, the year 2008 was the first year in American history when consumers spent more time playing video games -- 107 hours per person per year -- than they did reading books -- 104 hours per person per year. That transition became even more pronounced in 2009, when it was 121 hours spent with video games and only 98 with books (Tbl 1130).

Harry Potter, meet Marcus Fenix.
Americans spend more time now with video games than with books.
These figures help make it clear that the country is looking more to the computer screen for news and entertainment, and less toward what are considered "traditional" media: books, printed items, and radio, to name a few.  This suggests too, especially in a time of massive deficits and a record-setting financial crisis, that the burden is on the content creator when justifying publishing costs for media that may have less of an impact (or audience) than in years past.

On the budgetary chopping block this year is the very publication that provided all the numbers cited above, and whose latest edition for 2012 has just been released online (print copies are forthcoming): The Statistical Abstract of the United States. Published every year since 1878 (back when Rutherford Hayes was president), the Statistical Abstract is a compendium of statistics "on the social, political, and economic organization of the United States... designed to serve as a convenient volume for statistical reference and a as a guide to other statistical publications and sources" (Preface).
Will this be the last year ever for the Statistical Abstract?
What threatens the Statistical Abstract is a budget proposed by the U.S. Census Bureau this year which asks, due to a hostile climate for government expenditures and a justifiable fear of a more prolonged economic recession, for the elimination of the publication, as well as for the elimination of Current Industrial Reports, Federal Financial Statistics, and all but effectively ending the Economic Census of the United States.

Clip from the proposed budget for the U.S. Census Bureau, 2012.
Census Director Robert Groves explained the cuts in a blog post.
"The President presented a Census Bureau budget to Congress that was a real 11% cut from our funding the previous year. The Appropriations Committee in the House of Representatives has taken the first official action on that proposal, and cut that proposed budget further by 16.5 percent; our periodic programs request was cut 21 percent. The next steps for our funding bill are to be considered and then passed by the full House, then sent to the Senate. 
A cut of this magnitude in our periodic programs account means we cannot do all the work the Congress has asked us to do."
Since that post, Groves has gone on to write how similar data might be produced in the future, blogging here and here on the issue.

The public response to the notion to killing off the Statistical Abstract has been intense.  The most cited response has come from Robert Samuelson at The Washington Post, whose editorial has been linked or reprinted in full by newspapers across the country, from The New York Times to The Deseret News of Utah, to Ohio's Akron Beacon Journal, but articles and opinion pieces can be found in publications centered in the sciences, economics, government librarianship, and in business trades.

"The Stat Abstract has two great virtues," wrote Samuelson.
"First, it conveniently presents in one place a huge amount of information from a vast array of government and private sources. For example, the National Fire Protection Association tells us that 30,170 fire departments fought 1.45 million fires in 2008. Second, the footnotes show where to get more information."

From the position of Government Information Librarians, the Abstract is probably the single best publication released by the government to encapsulate the need for, and usefulness of the kinds of data the the United States collects.  For example, according to the 1878 Abstract, the national debt in 1860 was $7,065,990.56.  Total.  The 1995 Abstract tells us that the debt that year was estimated at $4,961,529,000,000.  What will our debt be in 2088?  On what will that money be spent?  These questions will be remarkably more difficult to answer without the data found in the the Statistical Abstract.

Or think of it this way:  If Americans are now spending their time reading online and playing video games, what will they be doing in 2020?  Or 2048?  How will they get their information?  Where will they work, and what will their jobs be?  What will they be doing for fun?

Without the Statistical Abstract, without the Census Bureau pursuing and compiling that information, there is no clear answer as to who Americans will turn to for not only gathering that information, but for releasing the information to the public, freely, without any restriction to access.  A person might be tempted to suggest that a wealthy and powerful company like Google take on the responsibility, but Google's practices for releasing data are murkier than their practices for collecting it.  And which do we believe will outlive the other:  An entity like Google, Inc., the railroad company of its era, or the government of the United States?  And which can be more easily held responsible for the publication and dissemination of data about the interests, habits, changes, and efforts of the American people?

While pondering these questions, you may wish to take a look through the Statistical Abstract to get a sense of its scope, and to contemplate what the loss of this data might do to your next research paper, or your next market anaysis, or your next home buying experience, and so on.  It is a singular and unique statistical publication in the history of nations. 

And next year it's gone.


  1. Anonymous12:22 AM

    Bravo, Bill! What I would like to know is how they -- 'they' being the good folks in Congress -- will feel once it takes their staff thrice as long to obtain information for them which previously took a matter of minutes. Because I'm sure that staffers on the Hill and elsewhere (I'd include those in the Senate and LOC, too) rely upon these fine publications as they perform research which feeds directly into -- oh, I dunno, say, policymaking? --Alita

  2. Ali P8:39 AM

    This is a real bummer. I depend pretty heavily on the Statistical Abstract - the Economic Census in particular. There's no guarantee that if a private company did take on the duty that they'd provide the information for free, either. I will likely have to rely on a variety of special interests to provide this information - but NONE of them will illicit the trust that a government source does. Not to mention that the counting will be different, so comparison across time will become difficult if not impossible.