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Checking in on America’s “data infrastructure”

Kai Ryssdal and Maria Hollenhorst Feb 11, 2021
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Whether it’s determining optimal highway width or the size of Social Security benefits, “there’s a stat for that,” says Robert Santos, president of the American Statistical Association. Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Checking in on America’s “data infrastructure”

Kai Ryssdal and Maria Hollenhorst Feb 11, 2021
Heard on:
Whether it’s determining optimal highway width or the size of Social Security benefits, “there’s a stat for that,” says Robert Santos, president of the American Statistical Association. Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images
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Federal statistical agencies (including the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and about a dozen lesser-known organizations such as the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics) form the backbone of the government’s data infrastructure. 

According to Robert Santos, president of the American Statistical Association, those agencies — which provide vital information to policymakers and businesses — are in need of attention. The following is an edited transcript of his conversation with “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal about the state of the U.S. statistical system.

Kai Ryssdal: So in the category of “you learn something new every day on this job,” I had not previously given a lot of thought to our data infrastructure, our statistical infrastructure, in this economy. What would you say is the current state of it? 

Robert Santos: Basically a state of need. It needs attention. It needs bolstering. It has been threatened over the last decade or so — and more keenly over the last four years — by different events that have to do with underfunding as well as an effort over the past administration to shrink government.

Ryssdal: I’m going to ask you to give me an example. I want you to tell me what happened with the Economic Research Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, because they seem to be a pretty glaring example of the current state of play.

Santos: A couple of things basically happened to it. The first was that there was a decision to move its headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City [Missouri], for the honorable purpose to being closer to its constituency and its stakeholders of the farming community [and] the food community. However, the ERS had been built up over decades and decades in Washington, D.C., headquarters. And so you had a situation where a huge proportion, over half of the staff left. And what that did is that made the usual functioning of ERS, which puts out some really great data that allow policymakers to do things like figure out what’s the appropriate food stamp benefit or things of that sort — they’re in a situation where they were underfunded and basically gutted.

Ryssdal: With the understanding that there are many parts of this government that are in dire need of more money to do their assigned tasks, is this something that the Biden administration can just throw money at and fix?

Santos: I wish it were that simple because the administration does not control the budget strings. It helps very much to have the executive branch be in favor of bolstering the Federal Statistical System, but we also need the cooperation of the Congress, and we and stakeholders are doing everything we can to inform them of the threats that currently exist to our federal statistical data infrastructure, so that we can better serve our U.S. society.

Ryssdal: Let me ask you to get a little bit more specific about that last part. If I am going about my daily life, whether it’s here in Los Angeles or Ottumwa [Iowa] or Atlanta or anywhere, why does this matter for me? 

Santos: Well, I can tell you from a personal experience just today. This morning, I needed to go to the grocery store. I went out, got in my car and guess what? There was construction, they’re widening the lanes. Well, the reason they’re doing that is because the Department of Transportation has something called the National Household Travel Survey. No matter where you go or what you do, there’s a survey out there, there’s a stat. You know how they used to say, “We have an app for that?” Well, you do something in life, and there’s a stat for that, and it typically comes from the Federal Statistical System.

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