Reading between the lines: What Trump’s Budget Blueprint may mean for funding statistics

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This morning, the Trump Administration released a “Blueprint” for its first Budget, which proposes dramatic cuts and restructuring of non-defense discretionary spending.

Of course, I immediately searched the document for the impact on federal statistics.

Although the document runs 62 pages, it’s really just a CliffsNotes version of the full budget, which will run hundreds of pages and isn’t expected to arrive until mid-May. For each Cabinet department, the Blueprint presents the administration’s total budget request for fiscal year 2018 along with a few paragraphs describing major proposed program cuts or increases. While federal statistics are tremendously useful for economists, policy analysts, and other data users, they represent a small share of the overall budget. So statistical budgets were barely mentioned, and we’ll need to wait for the mid-May version to see the full impact of the budget on statistics.

The overall proposed cuts to non-defense discretionary spending are huge. The President proposes cuts to the Department of Commerce—home of the Census Bureau and Bureau of Economic Analysis—of 16 percent, and to the Department of Labor—home of the Bureau of Labor Statistics—of 21 percent.

The Blueprint did mention proposed cuts to Agricultural statistics. The budget “reduces funding for USDA’s statistical capabilities, while maintaining core Departmental analytical functions, such as the funding necessary to complete the Census of Agriculture.” The document does not provide the dollar impact of the proposed reductions, nor does it specify the particular data products that face the ax.

For the Census Bureau, the document “provides $1.5 billion, an increase of more than $100 million, for the U.S. Census Bureau to continue preparations for the 2020 Decennial Census.” It also announces a reorganization within the Commerce Department that eliminates the Economics and Statistics Administration, which previously was the umbrella organization for BEA and Census, moving those two bureaus directly under the oversight of the Secretary and removing an Under Secretary from the chain of command.

The statistical agencies don’t appear to have permission to talk about their individual budgets, and it also seems that the bureau-level budgets are still being worked out by the administration. The Blueprint provides total proposed Department-level spending, but the bureau-level spending proposals aren’t finished. So I’m left to reading between lines to try to figure out the probable implications of the budget for the statistical agencies.

Looking at the Commerce Department, for example, the budget proposes a cut of $1.5 billion, or 16 percent, for FY 2018 relative to the FY 2017 continuing resolution. If I add up all the “major” cuts for Commerce that are specified in the Blueprint, I get less than half that amount, which means that many other Commerce programs, beyond those described in the Blueprint, are also facing cuts. The Census Bureau represents more than 15 percent of the Commerce budget, so general cuts are likely to impact Census. (BEA is much smaller, representing only about 1 percent of the Commerce budget, so it might be a less inviting target for budget cutters.)

Here’s some background information and back-of-the-envelope calculations that suggest some Census programs may be facing major cuts:

  • The Census budget is dominated by its “periodic” programs—especially the decennial Census of Population (next scheduled for 2020), but also the economic census (scheduled every 5 years… 2012, 2017, 2022, etc.).
  • The population census is a huge, very expensive program. The 2010 Census cost about $13 billion in total.
  • Costs for the census follow a pattern of rapid build-up in the years preceding the census as the bureau invests in hardware and software, hires and trains staff, and prepares for community outreach. Costs peak as the data collection takes place, then rapidly subside as efforts turn to compiling and releasing the data.
  • For the 2020 Census, the Bureau has a goal of reducing the costs compared with the 2010 Census, potentially saving taxpayers as much as $5 billion. For those savings to be realized, however, it is critical that the Census Bureau complete its investments in hardware, software, and process management. Those investments have already started and need to continue.
  • The Trump Administration’s Budget Blueprint proposes an increase for Census Bureau of $100 million in FY 2018, noting the importance of investing in preparation for the decennial census. However, during the last census budget cycle, spending in preparation for the 2010 Census increased by $500 million at the same point in the cycle—that is, between FY 2007 and FY 2008.
  • This discrepancy in spending growth for the decennial census suggests to me that even though the administration is proposing an increase for the total Census budget, there will probably be large cuts to other Census programs, which would be required to allow decennial spending to grow rapidly even while the bureau’s total spending grows modestly.
  • Where might we see big cuts in non-decennial Census programs? The two big-ticket programs (other than the decennial census) are the American Community Survey and the Economic Census.
  • The American Community Survey is a rich source of information about our nation’s population, households, and housing. It is the main source of detailed local information, and is incredibly useful to local governments.
  • The Economic Census is the most detailed, rich information source on our nation’s businesses and economy. It provides the benchmark information for almost all of the other national economic statistics, including gross domestic product.

I won’t try to walk through similar back-of-the-envelope calculations for the other agencies, but we know that cuts are proposed for agricultural statistics, and I think it’s likely that cuts may also be coming for BLS and several other statistical agencies.

Of course, appropriations are ultimately determined by Congress, which has often deviated from the president’s budget priorities, even when the legislative branch is controlled by the same party as the executive. If data users don’t want to see cuts to statistical programs, they should let their representatives know.

I’m sure we’ll return to this issue in May when we get the full set of budget documents, but this preliminary blueprint doesn’t assuage my concerns about the funding of statistics.

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