Release of Poverty Statistics Draws Fire

Posted August 6, 2004 at 6:04pm

Few Washington insiders noticed, but a switch of some import was made quietly last year. The Census Bureau chose to release its annual U.S. poverty figures not on the traditional Tuesday downtown at the National Press Club, but rather on a Friday afternoon at Census headquarters in Suitland, Md. — a place far from most newsrooms, and at a time when most sensible people are focused on matters other than demography.

Reporters noticed the 3.4 percent increase in the poverty rate, though, and Congressional Democrats used it to back up their contention that the Bush administration’s economic policies had failed.

Still, Democrats suspected the administration had been trying to hide something.

So when the Census Bureau announced further alterations in the way it presents its annual report on poverty, Democrats immediately suspected a plot.

“I don’t put anything past this administration,” said Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), the ranking member on the Government Relations subcommittee on technology, information policy, intergovernmental relations and the Census. “These people will stoop to any level to accomplish their goals — and right now that goal is to re-elect Bush.”

The bureau’s plan moved this year’s release date from late September to late August — a time when Members of Congress are normally home in their districts and many journalists are on vacation.

Then last week, Census officials announced yet another change: For what appears to be the first time, the figures will be released not by a career official but by the bureau’s director, a political appointee.

While Congressional Democrats emphasize that the director, Charles Kincannon, has always treated them fairly and honestly, the change added to the feeling that some kind of hijinks was going on.

“A political appointee should not be delivering such a significant statistic, because it opens the Census Bureau to charges of spinning statistics for political purposes,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.).

The poverty rate, culled from a larger annual report called the American Community Survey, is no obscure statistic. When it is climbing, the rate provides Democrats with a vivid and tangible measure of what they consider to be the ill effects of the Bush administration’s economic policies. The numbers for 2002, which were released by the Census Bureau last year, showed that the poverty rate had risen during that year from 11.7 percent to 12.1 percent.

Democrats expect this year’s report, which covers 2003, to show another uptick in the poverty rate, because the reasonably robust economic growth of 2003 did not really kick in until this year.

Robert Bernstein, a spokesman for the Census Bureau, declined to directly address the charges made by the Democrats, but he defended the changes made to how the release will be handled.

He said the announcement was moved to August so that the poverty statistics could be presented along with the results of the community survey. This would eliminate “confusion” caused by the separate announcements that had been customary.

“The good thing about releasing [the reports together] is that it enables reporters now to localize their stories,” Bernstein said.

He said the comprehensive quality of the information meant that it crossed over several demographic categories, and thus included a lot of data that fell outside the expertise of the bureau’s traditional presenter, Daniel Weinberg, who is the bureau’s expert on poverty. That’s why Kincannon is going to handle it this year, Bernstein said.

As to why journalists now need to brave beach traffic on a hazy schlep to Suitland, Bernstein said it is a matter of convenience for Census officials.

“Rather than busing all these analysts downtown so they can answer reporters’ questions, we can have them all right here” at the Census Bureau, Bernstein said.

Controversy has periodically erupted around the release of poverty statistics since the early 1970s, when critics accused the Nixon administration of trying to bury the information. It was for that reason that the Census Bureau chose to release the poverty numbers on its own and at the National Press Club.

If Kincannon’s explanation doesn’t satisfy Congressional Democrats, there nevertheless remains one small matter that suggests a flaw in their theory: If the Bush administration is so clever, why did they schedule the release of the poverty statistics on the eve of the Republican convention?

“Here’s the funny part: They didn’t check the political calendar,” one House Democratic aide said, providing an answer that, while perhaps awkward, doesn’t force the Democrats to reassess their suspicions.

It is, after all, an election year.