Census Bureau Wants to Kill Statistical Abstract

The Statistical Abstract of the United States is a free, fact-filled compendium of miscellaneous data that has been published by the U.S. Census Bureau annually since 1878. But it appears headed for the trash heap.

The Obama Administration has declared it redundant, along with the office that produces the book and several other printed and online data sources, the Census Bureau's Statistical Compendia Branch. The decision, intended to save $2.9 million per year, is part of the bureau's 2012 budget request wending its way through Congress. A coalition of librarians and journalists is trying to rescue the Statistical Abstract (SA), while social science professionals seem to have written it off already.

Economics writer Robert Samuelson made a plea to save the SA in his Washington Post column on 21 August. The proposed cut, he said, would be "a mighty big loss for a mighty small savings." As a "devoted fan," Samuelson sees two great virtues in the book: It concentrates "a huge amount of information from a vast array of government and private sources" in one place, and its footnotes show where to get more. The New York Times columnist Paul Krugman chimed in the next day in his blog, saying that this is a rare instance in which he and Samuelson agree. "Killing the publication for the sake of a tiny saving would be a truly gratuitous step toward a dumbed-down country," Krugman wrote.

Last spring, the American Library Association sent out an "action alert" urging members to lobby Congress to save the entire branch. One of the most vocal leaders of the ongoing effort is Alesia McManus, director of Maryland's Howard County Community College library. McManus started a Facebook page, and her online petition to save the SA lists more than 1500 names. Blogger James Jacobs of Free Government Information, among others, has joined the appeal.

Census Bureau Director Robert Groves says that cutting the SA is regrettable but necessary. On 25 August he told reporters, "We made some tough decisions because we realized that this was a tough budget year." The bureau also has proposed terminating a series of industrial reports, closing a data center, and closing six of its 12 regional offices. While much of the data in the SA can be found in various sites on the Web, a Bureau spokesperson says the online compendium will disappear if the printed SA is killed.

Notably absent from the ruckus over the SA is the Consortium of Social Science Associations, a community of academic researchers, professional societies, and institutions. Its executive director, Howard Silver, explained in an e-mail that "the conduct of science … in austere times sometimes means difficult choices." His group and others, he said, are trying to shore up support for other data-gathering functions within the Census Bureau. "If sufficient funds are restored to ensure the conduct of the 2012 Economic Census and other important first steps toward a more efficient and cheaper 2020 Census [are taken], then keeping the [SA] may be possible," he says.