Data, Democracy, and Janet Norwood

Janet Norwood
Janet Norwood

“You can’t have a democratic society without a good data base.” These words reflect the commitment of Janet Norwood to a life of integrity, professionalism, and speaking truth to power in the United States government, both to the Carter and Reagan administrations — which appointed and re-appointed her to lead the Bureau of Labor Statistics — and to the Congress during her monthly appearances before the Joint Economic Committee to explain the nation’s unemployment numbers.

On a beautiful Saturday of Memorial Day weekend here in the nation’s capital, a celebration commemorating Janet’s life was held in at the Cosmos Club, where she served as its first female president. She had passed away on March 27 in Austin, Texas.

Among the things I learned about Janet, thanks to her son Stephen, was that she was a superb athlete in her youth, playing catcher on a baseball team (called the Amazons), and that her brilliant career almost got cut off at the beginning because of anti-Semitic quota systems during the 1940s at New Jersey public colleges. I also heard about her 71-year marriage to her beloved husband Bernard and how they were true partners as professionals and parents.

Howard J. Silver
Howard J. Silver served for a quarter century as the executive director of the Consortium of Social Sciences Agencies. His blog appears monthly at Social Science Space.

I first knew Janet during the beginning of my time at COSSA in 1983. The Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration wanted to kill the National Longitudinal Surveys of Labor Market Experience, or NLS. Janet agreed that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) would take charge of the labor surveys. However, then-Chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, needed convincing that the surveys deserved to live; I accompanied a constituent of Hatch’s to a meeting with his committee staff and we successfully convinced the chairman of the their worthiness. During my tenure at COSSA, we advocated for BLS’ budget and in later years, we needed to once again convince both the Department of Labor and the Congress to maintain the NLS.

After leaving BLS following three terms as commissioner, Janet continued to serve the statistical community and the nation in a variety of ways, chairing many panels at the National Academy of Sciences, involving herself in international statistical activities, and serving as president of the American Statistical Association.

In 1995, Janet wrote a book, Organizing to Count. Frustrated by a decentralized U.S. statistical system whose agency heads reported to departmental Cabinet members, she argued for a reorganization that would centralize some key ones – the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and the BLS – into an independent agency. This idea was championed by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan,D-New York. Representative Stephen Horn, R-California, who chaired the House Committee with oversight for the Census Bureau, held hearings on Moynihan’s proposal. At the last minute, since most of the expert potential witnesses were going to be out of town, I was asked to testify. I spent a weekend digesting Janet’s book to help write and present the testimony on COSSA’s behalf. Like many other ideas for reconstituting the system, this one did not go anywhere. (Early in President Obama’s tenure another of these proposals — to take the Census Bureau and Bureau of Economic Analysis out of the Department of Commerce — surfaced, but has not been heard about since).

In 2001, the broader social and behavioral science community recognized Janet’s contributions and elected her president of COSSA. In that capacity, she presided over COSSA’s 20th anniversary celebration that included talks by William Julius Wilson, David Ward, Raynard Kington, Norman Bradburn and many others. She was always generous to me with her time and advice.

Reflecting on Janet’s quote that began this column, the federal statistical system has always been a fragile entity within our democratic system. The Census Bureau faces constant scrutiny and criticism for the many difficulties it faces in preparing for its decennial count – the largest peacetime mobilization this country achieves. Yet, Congress continues to provide inadequate funding for that preparation, especially during the current decade when “re-engineering” the decennial to provide Internet response opportunities at lower costs is undergoing extensive testing. Congress usually waits until the final years of the decade to finally appropriate the bump-up the bureau needs to complete the process. In addition, in many years, members of Congress use the bureau’s appropriation as a bank for amendments to shift funds to other “more worthy endeavors.”

Congress will also insert in appropriations bills’ report language requiring the statistical agencies to undertake specific activities that a particular member wants, while at the same time rarely providing the extra funds. This results in depriving existing data collections adequate funding leading to cutbacks in survey frequency and sample sizes. This is has happened to the NLS, the American Housing Survey, and many others.

With regard to the statistical system and governmental data collection, there is also another strain of thought that afflicts America’s legislators. It can be summed up by three phrases: “We don’t want to know,” “Leave us alone,” and “Let the private sector do it.”

The “we don’t want to know” philosophy affected the fights over NIH-funded sex surveys in the 1980s. The “leave us alone” mantra asserts itself in the current debates over the American Community Survey, or ACS. Viewed by its opponents as an unconstitutional intrusion into Americans’ lives, this replacement for the previous long-form of the decennial Census began in 2005 as a sample survey to provide information vital to American communities large and small as well as planners and businesses. Like the Census, you are obligated by law to respond to the American Community Survey (although no one has ever been prosecuted for refusing.)

In 2012, the House of Representatives voted to abolish the ACS altogether. Now the focus is on legislation introduced again by Representative Ted Poe, R-Texas, to make the survey voluntary. At a recent hearing, Representative James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, who chairs the Census Bureau’s oversight committee, railed against the ACS. The chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee that provides the actual funds for the Census Bureau, Representative John Culberson, R-Texas, is not a big fan either (perhaps this is because surveys are not “pure science,” a favorite phrase of the chairman).   So far, the ACS has survived, mainly because the Senate has responded to the advocacy efforts of many groups, such as COSSA, the Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics, the Population Association of America, the Census Project, and many businesses.

The third strain also affects the ACS. Business support for the ACS sometimes is a two-way street, since its opponents contend that: “If the data are important to business, let the private sector pay for it.” Former Senator Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, in his mission to eliminate the political science program at the National Science Foundation, ranted against the public funding of the American National Election Studies. He insisted that private sector TV networks and newspapers were already sponsoring exit polls that could replace the ANES.

Richard Suzman
Richard Suzman

Let me end with a success story that also has a touch of tragedy to it. Richard Suzman, head of the Division of Social and Behavioral Research at the National Institute of Aging, lost his battle with ALS disease on April 17. Like Janet Norwood, Richard was a strong believer in using data to serve the public good. His legacy will be the Health and Retirement Study, which collects social, economic, and biological data on older populations.   When the Health and Retirement Study first started, COSSA played a large role in selling it to the Congress with a number of seminars held on Capitol Hill. In recent years, through Suzman’s leadership and the Health and Retirement Study leadership at the University of Michigan, the project became internationalized. With increasingly large amounts of aging populations, countries became very interested in learning as much as possible about those people, to prepare their public programs to cope.

Thus, data are indeed the lifeblood of a democratic society. Making decisions without data soils the public policy process with ideology, partisan politics, and misinformation, all things Janet Norwood abhorred. Her voice, commitment, and professionalism will be sorely missed.

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Howard J. Silver

Howard J. Silver served as the executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) in Washington, DC, from 1988 to 2013. He has testified before Congress, spoken on federal funding of science at many professional meetings, and written extensively on executive-legislative relations, the federal budget process, and science policy as it affects the social and behavioral sciences.

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