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NUMBERS GAME
Release me!
BY DAVID S. BERNSTEIN

Six months have passed since the Phoenix reported that the US Census Bureauís latest income and poverty reports contained significant errors (see "The Politics of Poverty," News and Features, October 10, 2003). The reworked numbers, which will show that median after-tax household income declined far more in 2002 than the bureau reported, have been ready since January, according to sources in the agency. All that remained was to work out a "release strategy," according to one manager in the Housing and Household Economics Statistics Division. A follow-up call in March to find out when the new numbers would be made public yielded this information from Dan Weinberg, chief of the division: the bureau still needs to establish a "release strategy." Itís starting to look an awful lot like the "release strategy" is to not release the new numbers at all.

As first reported by the Phoenix last fall, the bureau used erroneous marginal tax rates in calculating 2001 data. As a result, the reports released last September falsely claimed that median after-tax household income remained stable in 2002, when in fact it dropped significantly ó probably about 1.5 percent. The Census Bureau conceded the error and promised to redo the figures.

Since then, the words "Available Soon!" have adorned the Web page where the after-tax figures should be (ferret.bls.census.gov/macro/032003/rdcall/toc.htm). Meanwhile, the original report, containing incorrect data, is still available from the bureauís main page ó as are the September press release and briefing documents that tout the false numbers as evidence that things are not so bad. The bureau has known that this is not true for six months, and has had the corrected data in hand for at least three.

This would hardly be the first time that, given a choice between an upbeat falsehood and a dour truth, the Bush administration embraced the comfortable lie. Just last month, two members of the Presidentís Council on Bioethics published a report saying that the council deliberately distorted scientific findings on stem-cell research in order to comply with political goals. (That report, "Reason As Our Guide," is available at www.plosbiology.org.) The month before, the Union of Concerned Scientists (www.ucsusa.org/) issued a statement accusing the administration of "misuse of science" on a range of issues from lead paint to climate change. And the president still insists weíll find those weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps he thinks Iraqi scientists are just working out a release strategy.


Issue Date: April 23 - 29, 2004
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