GAO clears Census Bureau of data manipulation charges

Congressional investigators found no evidence that the Census Bureau manipulated the release date of unfavorable poverty data in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election.

Still, the Government Accountability Office recommended in a report Friday that census officials do a better job of documenting policies for disseminating the annual report on income, poverty and health insurance.

Some Democrats complained in 2004 that the Bush administration moved up the release of poverty statistics by a month, to August, so they wouldn’t be made public so close to Election Day.

Democrats also complained about how the bureau released poverty statistics in 2003. The information was made public on a Friday at the bureau’s headquarters in suburban Maryland rather than in downtown Washington. Critics said the timing and location of the announcement suppressed coverage by news organizations.

The data for both years showed the poverty rate climbing. In 2004, the economy was a big campaign issue in some parts of the country. Poverty data had been released in the last week of September in each of the previous eight years.

The Census Bureau said it moved up the release date to coincide with the release of other income statistics from the Annual Community Survey. The two reports are from different surveys with different methodologies, so they can show slightly different figures.

“We didn’t think it made sense to have them released 30 days apart when they were both going to provide valuable data on income and poverty,” said Jefferson Taylor, the bureau’s associate director for communications. “They needed an explanation so they were more understandable and usable.”

The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, found that the Census Bureau followed most of its policies in releasing the poverty statistics. However, it also found that there weren’t many policies to follow.

The Census Bureau is updating its policies, according to the GAO report.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said the bureau should ensure that career employees _ not political appointees _ are in charge of releasing sensitive economic information.

“Clearly the GAO thinks it would be a good idea for Census to have written procedures on how Census releases data, so they could then be followed,” Maloney said in a statement. “Right now, Census doesn’t have adequate procedures in place.”


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