The Census Bureau and Obamacare: Dumb decision? Yes. Conspiracy? No

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One of the most important goals of Obamacare is to increase the number of people with health insurance coverage. Has it worked?

As we all know, the White House reported that over 7 million Americans signed up for private health plans on Obamacare’s newly created and IT-troubled exchanges, and Medicaid enrollment is up by 3 million since October. So can the White House declare victory and exit the battlefield?

No. Why? Because we don’t know how many of those 7 million Americans are newly insured. If, say, 5 million were on private health plans before Obamacare took effect, had their plans canceled, and subsequently signed up for health insurance through the Obamacare exchanges, then the effect of the law will be to increase health insurance coverage by only 2 million. That ain’t a lot.

So how will the government know whether Obamacare has worked? It’s simple: The plan was to ask people through statistical surveys whether they had coverage in 2013, 2014, 2015, etc., and compare that to the number in 2012, 2011, 2010, etc. Using multiple years allows you to study the trend over time in health insurance coverage, which really is more important than any one year’s estimate.

This plan was complicated this week because the Census Bureau will change the questions they ask about health insurance in one of their flagship surveys, the Current Population Survey (CPS). The changes to the CPS will make it very difficult to compare Obamacare-affected years with the long series of previous years.

Some on the right have suggested that this change is evidence of a conspiracy — of the White House trying to rig the statistics in such a way that makes Obamacare look more effective than it actually is.

I would be shocked if any such thing was taking place. I see no evidence of a conspiracy here.

1. For several reasons, the current insurance questions in the CPS are badly designed and need to be improved. Efforts to improve the questions have been underway for years — years before anyone in Washington ever heard the word Obamacare.

2. The new survey questions will be used to gather data about 2013. The first year of coverage through the exchanges and Medicaid expansion will occur this year, in 2014. So we can still compare 2013 and 2014. Ideally, we could compare a longer time series. But if this were a conspiracy then you would think the conspirators would have obscured the ability of researchers to make any before-and-after change.

3. As any potential conspirators would surely know, there are several other sources of data that one could use to determine Obamacare’s effect on health insurance coverage. The economist Justin Wolfers suggests Gallup is particularly good — and is free of government influence.

4. Finally, changing a question on the CPS requires a lot of bureaucratic maneuvering. It seems unlikely that the White House could have pulled this off even if it wanted to.

None of this is to say that the Census Bureau’s decision to change to a new methodology in the midst of Obamacare’s rollout isn’t a dumb decision. It is. And Census should have known better. Either the new methodology should be delayed, or the old and the new methodologies should be employed concurrently to ensure comparability across years.

But it’s a long walk from bad decision to conspiracy.

The process of crafting sound public policy requires excellent data. Economists, analysts, and government officials need the best information they can get, and that means the highest quality government statistics. It is crucial that the public trusts the federal statistical agencies, if for no other reason than to ensure the quality of the data being collected.

Census knows this as well as any organization in the country. They should have employed that knowledge, known that Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion, and not changed the health insurance questions on the CPS in what is the most politically volatile year to do so in decades. It may happen that even a year from now suspicion will still cloud the numbers. If so, then everyone loses.

So this decision is evidence of very poor judgment. But until there’s any evidence of a conspiracy, we should not make accusations of conspiracy.

— Michael R. Strain is a Resident Scholar in Economic Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Previously, he worked for the Census Bureau. You can write to him on Twitter at @MichaelRStrain.

11 thoughts on “The Census Bureau and Obamacare: Dumb decision? Yes. Conspiracy? No

  1. Mr. Strain, You are obviously fooling yourself, and no one else.
    Unemployment really went under 8% before the presidents re-election? Even though there are ongoing investigations about cooking the numbers.
    & million uninsured that didn’t have healthcare – Obama said it himself.
    You can keep your-we don’t even need to go there.
    A video got our Ambassador killed?
    The average household will save $2500.00 a year on medical insurance?
    Not a smidgeon of corruption in the IRS targeting? Democratic congressmen – the DOJ – FEC – and IRS colluded, passing documents (personal private info) illegally between themselves.
    S&P targeted for retribution?
    So your infinite wisdom leads you to tell us, ” So this decision is evidence of very poor judgment. But until there’s any evidence of a conspiracy, we should not make accusations of conspiracy”.
    Statements like this by you, and all the rest of the media conglomerate that like to be considered the fourth branch of government, the gate keepers of the truth-free speech-and speaking truth to power need to re-evaluate your personal conduct, and moral code.

    The rest of us are ashamed that our president is a “damn liar”, as Senator Simpson said of Bill Clinton. The current president’s lies have been deadly, see (fast and furious).

    But hey, OJ, Michael Jackson, and Casey Anthony are all innocent too. So there is that.

  2. “For several reasons, the current insurance questions in the CPS are badly designed and need to be improved.” Is this like going into Iraq on the basis of bad intelligence? Did we redesign 16% of the economy for a problem we didn’t have? You mean there was no insurance problem? We will see.

    “But it’s a long walk from bad decision to conspiracy” So there was no conspiracy in the Bush years about Iraq? We didn’t go to Iraq for oil? Looking bad is only a short walk from being bad.

    The “light at the end of the tunnel” that President Obama sees is not the end of the controversy but the headlight of the next train in this wreck. The one that says, ““First, I will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits – either now or in the future. Period.” Good Luck Guys.

  3. Obama taking the Census into the White House is like Lyndon Johnson blocking any counting of the votes in the ballot box from Precinct 13. Why, Census data will likely be placed under executive privilege if the need arises. When the President is the point man on promulgating lies out of the White House, over and over and over again, why should anyone believe any Census bureaucrat who is working directly out of the White House? Mr. Strain’s protestations about charging conspiracy are so “strained” he must have thrown out his back, his knees, his hips, his shoulders, his elbows, his wrists, and his neck trying to contort himself to avert his eyes from the obvious. Laughable in the extreme.

  4. The New York Post’s John Crudele has a follow-up on his earlier reporting about the Census Bureau, noted here yesterday. The bureau, he writes, is stonewalling his requests for information:

    “Census, which is under investigation by several government agencies and by Congress, is refusing to turn over an estimated 1,900 e-mails and text messages between a regional supervisor in its Philadelphia office, where falsification of unemployment data took place, and a colleague in its Chicago region, who a source has identified as the supervisor’s mentor and confidant.

    On March 5, under the Federal Freedom of Information Act, I requested all e-mails between Fernando Armstrong, the regional director of the Philadelphia office, and Stanley Moore, Chicago’s regional director, from 2010 until my filing date.

    Census estimates there were 1,900 e-mails, but it turned over just 10 pages. Three of those pages weren’t even between those two men. The other seven are what we in the news business describe as crap.

    The federal agency is also refusing to hand over any report that it may have written on Julius Buckmon, a former Census data collector who allegedly falsified surveys. Information from those surveys goes into the Labor Department’s unemployment report as well as its consumer inflation survey.

    Information on falsification is detailed in documents from a racial and age discrimination complaint Buckmon filed against the bureau in 2010. Buckmon claims higher-ups told him to lie.”

  5. Oh yea, Obama has never done anything under the table to hide his failure. That whole youtube video/Benghazi thing was just our imagination. And the unemployment rate magically dropped just before the 2012 election. And there were never any failed solar companies Obama propped up, those were dirty coal companies in disguise that he shut down.

  6. This change was 10 years in the making, so it’s hard to picture a conspiracy afoot.

    The new method assuredly is superior in that we’ll now get both a point-in-time and over-time estimate of uninsured status, whereas previously we got a number that was SUPPOSED to be coverage in the prior calendar year, but turned out to be a blend of point-in-time and last-year-coverage figures. It would have clearly been better to have all this in place well before 2010 so that we could have better measured impact of the law. But it made more sense to switch to a superior measurement method in time to capture 2013 and 2014 as opposed to putting this off for yet another half-decade etc.

    Given the timing of the change, I concur that having side-by-side comparisons of old and new numbers might have been nice hypothetically so we could better deduce changes attributable to ACA vs. other factors.

    That said, the MUCH larger American Community Survey does provide us with annual snapshots that pre-date President Obama’s inauguration, so this will provide us with the capability you describe. The only problem is we’ll need to wait until September 2015 before we have definitive ACS figures that compare CY2014 vs. CY2013. But realistically, that’s how long we would have had to wait for CPS figures if we interpret them as being estimates of coverage in prior calendar year. That is, CPS figures that will have come out this September would have told us about CY2013, not 2014.

    As well, the smaller NHIS reports quarterly estimates of the uninsured going back to 1998: by December we will have NHIS estimates for Q1 2014 to compare against 2013 figures.

  7. I’m sure Mr. Strain also believes the IRS harassment of Tea Party members is just a statistical anomaly.

    Maybe it’s a remarkable coincidence that the White House has been desperately spinning ACA results and that so many Federal agencies are spontaneously abusing their power to advance the Obama agenda.

    It could happen.

  8. I disagree with the author’s characterization that the changes in the survey are dumb but not intentional; he has provided no evidence for his conclusion. A transparent administration would delay the changes in the survey to allow comparisons with prior years’ data.

  9. Michael Strain says “it’s a long walk from bad decision to conspiracy.”
    That’s for sure.
    In science, as in human affairs, the simpler theory is the right one.
    And conspiracy is the most complex theory as it involves several people and concerted action. Conspiracy thus should never be embraced without solid proof — despite our appetite for it.
    In the case of the Obamacare Census Bureau Survey, the fact that plans to change the questions were made before Obamacare is enough to abandon a conspiracy theory.
    Time to move on.

  10. The author, Michael Strain, seems to have some idea how the Federal Bureaucracy works. Most of the commenters have no clue. Reluctant bureaucrats who have professional reputations at stake can always find a way to frustrate and expose orders to “cook the books.”

    As regards the comment on politicized unemployment announcements, I would remind all that the BLS has for years if not decades published 6 measures of unemployment, U1 through U6, that are and always have been precisely defined. If the news media choose to stick solely with the “headline” rate, U3, then they are simply lazy. The BLS has provided a metric to suit any purpose. No conspiracy here.

    If you want to see a corrupt Obama decision that will have lasting impacts, look at the cancellation of the Yucca Mountain rad waste repository in clear violation of policy statutes passed by the Congress in 1982 and 1987. The deed was done to placate the Senate Majority leader, Harry Reid, after politicians in Nevada had stirred up the Las Vegas voters with demagoguery that reached the standards of Lester Maddox and George Wallace. As a “wedge issue” Nevada was taught to fear a $10 billion project in the same way that Georgia and Alabama voters were taught to fear blacks. The Secretary of Energy became the agent for this monumental waste and environmental travesty, and nothing about it was hidden. The bureaucrats were powerless to prevent it, but many alumni of the Department of Energy have spoken out in numerous forums to spotlight that outrage.

    And there is always the Inspector General of any Agency, who always “happens upon” evidence of chicanery. Take, for example the US NRC, whose revelations about the Chairman led to his early resignation. And, if I properly recall, the IG of the Treasury was involved in the exposure of the biased screening of PACs. Most career civil servants are offended by political chicanery, and they do remarkable things to undermine it.

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