A False “Falsification” Alarm

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

It’s the first Friday in May, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) will report the unemployment rate and job growth numbers for April. The monthly jobs report is a time-honored tradition dating back to 1940. The U.S. Census Bureau collects the data in the Current Population Survey, a joint project of Census and BLS.

The labor force stats are highly anticipated, driving the stock market this way or that and providing fodder for the latest political sound bites from both sides of the aisle. But can Americans trust the numbers?

Last November, while I was assessing the damage to 2020 Census planning and ongoing American Community Survey (ACS) caused by the recent government shutdown, the New York Post’s John Crudele provided a rude awakening from my daydreams of Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin pie. On November 19, 2013, he ran a column with the bombshell headline: “Census ‘faked’ 2012 election jobs report.” Whoosh! The allegation — that the Census Bureau, with the White House’s blessing, falsified employment numbers to boost the president’s reelection chances in 2012 — spread like wildfire among critics of the administration, with Crudele himself fanning the flames with subsequent conspiracy theories about the Census Bureau firing and rehiring 2010 Census workers to boost job creation numbers in advance of the mid-term elections. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee leaders promptly announced an investigation into the “shocking” allegations, asking the census director whether the agency’s data are “reliable, and if not, whether Census Bureau officials knowingly and intentionally fabricated the data on which they are based.”

I bit my tongue at the time; the focus of this blog and The Census Project’s work is the decennial census and related ACS. But I’m publicly putting a rhetorical period at the end of this sad story because, as the New York Post columns irresponsibly (and falsely) imply, maybe Americans shouldn’t trust any numbers emanating from the nation’s best-known statistical agency. And if people lose confidence in the Census Bureau’s integrity, maybe they’ll take a pass when the next census or survey questionnaire appears in their mailbox (or on their computer screen). (Note to conspiracy theorists: Please don’t complain when response rates in the next census come up short in your congressional district.)

Yesterday, the Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General (IG) issued a report on its investigation into the Post-fueled allegations of systemic, widespread and politically motivated data fabrication. You can read the report, but here’s the bottom line. The IG found no evidence that the admittedly-guilty survey taker’s supervisors told him to falsify survey data. (The Census Bureau did investigate and terminate the employee who provided the “facts” for Crudele’s theory — in 2011, one year before the supposedly cooked job numbers were published!) There was no evidence that supervisors changed survey responses or tried to hide reports of data fabrication. No evidence that the Philadelphia Regional Census Office manipulated unemployment data before the 2012 presidential election. (Columnist Crudele wildly suggested that the Philadelphia regional director could be involved in such a scheme because, you know, the City of Brotherly Love is awfully close to Washington, D.C. I cannot make this stuff up.) And no evidence of widespread survey data falsification within an alleged Philly office cabal.

The inspector general did identify general weaknesses in Census Bureau procedures for detecting and preventing data falsification. I hope the agency works quickly to institute the IG’s recommendations for strengthening protocols in this area.

But don’t bother looking for a mea culpa in the New York Post. In an initial column yesterday, John Crudele proffered that Current Population Survey response rates are suffering because the census regional offices “seem reluctant to falsify the surveys,” now that the IG, Congress, and Mr. Crudele himself are watching. At 7:19 p.m., he posted a response to the IG’s report. Surprise! The columnist accused the inspector general of a “whitewash” and called for a special prosecutor to investigate the investigation.

Hey, when a thoroughly independent review doesn’t reach the conclusions you’ve already insisted are true, the only recourse is to keep investigating until someone agrees with you! Some people just haven’t met a conspiracy theory they’re willing to give up. The rest of my fellow Americans should look beyond the sensational headlines and have confidence that the foundation of our democratic system of governance and the tools for an informed electorate — both the envy of much of the world — are in good hands.