The Value of Federal Statistics

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Statistical activities span a wide range of tasks. At their core, statistical activities include the collection, processing, or tabulation of statistical data for publication, dissemination, research, analysis, or program management and evaluation1.  The share of budget resources spent on supporting Federal statistical activities is relatively modest—about 0.04 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in non-decennial census years and roughly double that in decennial census years. Yet, the data provided by Federal statistical programs provide critical support for both public- and private-sector policymaking, program management, and evaluation.

A sense of this value can be obtained in some instances by comparing the dollars spent on providing key statistics to the dollars that such statistics drive in the economy and society. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ prices and cost-of-living programs—including the Consumer Price Index (CPI), the Producer Price Index, the Consumer Expenditure Survey, and related activities—had an estimated budget authority of $201 million enacted for FY 2014.2  Output from the CPI component of the program is used for annual cost-of-living adjustments to payments for retirees and other beneficiaries under Social Security. Social Security provided $69.5 billion in benefits to 58.6 million people in May 20143; a difference of 1 percentage point in the CPI amounts to almost $8.6 billion in additional (or reduced) Social Security benefits in the subsequent year. Annual changes in the CPI also affect changes in commercial and residential rents, public- and private-sector wages, and components of the Federal income tax code. Reports of monthly changes in the CPI are a major input for Federal Reserve Board decisions in setting short-term interest rates and to financial decisions throughout the public and private sectors. There are other such examples of consequential statistics throughout government and the economy.

Some statistical programs may lack such clear links to public- and private-sector financial outlays, but they nonetheless serve other key purposes. These statistical programs provide information to inform policy makers and the public about the social and economic health of the Nation, States, Tribes, territories, and localities. For example, the Bureau of Economic Analysis provides estimates of GDP not only for the Nation each quarter, but also for these smaller geographies each year. The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey provides critical economic, social, demographic, and housing information for every community in the U.S. annually. The information is used to help determine how more than $400 billion in Federal and State funds are distributed each year. Local governments use the information to plan community development projects, to determine where services and programs are needed, and for transportation planning. Businesses use the information to determine where to locate or expand.

Other statistical programs provide empirical evidence for developing and evaluating Federal, State, Tribal, territorial, local, and private-sector programs. For example, the American Housing Survey, sponsored by the Office for Policy Development and Research in the Department of Housing and Urban Development and conducted by the Census Bureau, provides valuable data on housing conditions and housing finance which inform housing policy. The Commercial Buildings and Residential Energy Consumption Surveys, sponsored by the Energy Information Administration, provide valuable data for public- and private-sector policy making on end uses of various types of energy for heating, cooling, and information technology.

Still other statistical programs provide estimates of key variables for essential social science research that then informs public and policy makers. For example, the National Long- Term Care Survey, funded by the National Institute on Aging, produced unexpected findings of declining disability rates for older Americans over time, which have had implications for understanding work-to-retirement transitions and the need for medical care for the elderly.

In sum, Federal statistics yield relevant, accurate and objective information upon which government and private decisions are made. Absent the Nation’s relatively modest investment to produce Federal statistical products, both public and private decision makers would have significantly less quantitative evidence on which to base their choices.

1Statistical activities also include planning of statistical surveys and studies, including project design, sample design and selection, and design of questionnaires, forms, or other techniques of observation and data collection; training of statisticians, interviewers, or data processing personnel; publication or dissemination of statistical data and studies; methodological testing or statistical research; data analysis; forecasts or projections that are published or otherwise made available for government-wide or public use; statistical tabulation, dissemination, or publication of data collected by others; construction of secondary data series or development of models that are an integral part of generating statistical series or forecasts; management or coordination of statistical operations; and statistical consulting.