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Podcast: The Economic Impacts of the 2020 Census and Business Uses of Federal Data

At the Joint Economic Committee, we believe knowledge of social capital is vital to achieving our goal of expanding economic opportunity for all Americans. Join us as we invite hearing witnesses to engage in a deeper social capital conversation on The Social Capitalists Podcast: Post-hearing Discussions with the Joint Economic Committee Republicans.

Listen to Episode 3, subscribe, or read the transcript below:

Scott Winship: Welcome again to the Social Capitalists Podcast. I’m your host, Scott Winship. I’m the Executive Director of the Joint Economic Committee. I’m here today following the Committee’s second hearing on the Congress and fortunate to be joined by the two witnesses that we had on the Chairman’s side. And those two witnesses are Mallory Bateman who is the state data center coordinator and research analyst at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute which is a great think tank out of Utah. Mallory's job entails mostly trying to help community members and government and researchers make the most of census data. And our other interviewee and witness is Nick Eberstadt. Nick is the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at AEI. He has written widely on a number of topics including the census and demography in general and North Korea. And Mallory just to throw this at you, what we’re actually going to focus on is North Korea.

Mallory Bateman: Beautiful.

Scott: I’m not sure if you were told about that.

Mallory: I’m an international diplomat.

Scott: I should step back and say what we actually are going to focus it on, the hearing that we just held was broadly related to Census 2020 and federal survey data. We had a really nice conversation with a couple other witnesses that the Vice-Chair invited. So here I think we just want to recap some of those conversations, talk a little bit about Utah, talk a little bit about Social Capital, talk a little bit about data and involvement in the criminal justice system. So welcome to both of you! Thanks for coming!

Mallory: Thank You!

Nicholas Eberstadt: Thanks so much!

Scott: OK! So first I’ll throw out a question to both of you. We will talk about the census itself before moving onto more social capital friendly themes. But the hearing was about the census. I think all of us in this room are very much appreciative of the census and think that it’s important. Why should our listeners, why should the average person on the street care about accurate census data or any of the minutia about how the census is conducted?

Mallory: Well, in our office we like to say people should care because it’s the bedrock of democracy. So no little thing, but it helps decide/determine the allocation of your political representation, it decides large swaths of funding that go out to the states and local governments, and then it also helps inform planning looking forward. So, it’s a pretty foundational piece of America I would say.

Nicholas: We have the good fortune of living in a country whose founders thought that evidence-based policy mattered, and the census started out in 1790 as a high-tech data gathering operation. It’s now no longer so avant garde, but it’s absolutely foundational to all the rest of the data which we need to inform politics and also business and also society.

Scott: Great! Mallory in your testimony you talked a lot about Utah and kind of its unique demographics and the changes it’s experiencing. Can you tell us a little bit more about those and why it’s important that we have high quality data from the perspective of a Utahn. Utahn by the U-T-A-H-N.

Mallory: No extra A.

Scott: No extra A.

Mallory: Word wants to throw in an extra A and we do not appreciate it.

Scott: That’s right, you don’t want to enrage a Utahn. I can assure you.

Mallory: Utah-han is not how we call ourselves.

Scott: Exactly! So why is Utah so special, tell us more.

Mallory: So Utah is so special because it traditionally has relied on natural increase, so births minus deaths have been the driver of growth in the State from the first settlers up until recently. So now we’ve got a lot more migration and that is impacting what our population looks like. So we’ve had a lot of racial and ethnic and cultural change and we’re still, because we have all of these babies, we have lots of kids, we have large families, we’re still the youngest state in the nation. Our median age is 31 which seems Ok. I think the national median is about 38 or 39. And that’s gone up quite a bit in this decade. And then also we have the largest average household size. So that kind of impacts your service delivery when you have these big households it’s very different than some place like Vermont or New Hampshire where you have a lot of single person households or a lot of senior households. We have a very different dynamic. And so for us to have that baseline that you get from the 2020 Census or every decennial census helps us reestablish a starting point for looking forward and moving throughout the decade, knowing who is living there.

Scott: Nick, your testimony focused on the dearth of federal data related to involvement in the criminal justice system. Can you say more about why this omission is so important, what do we know about the prevalence of involvement with the criminal justice system based on what we can scrabble together from the existing data?

Nicholas: Well I’ve stumbled into this little nexus or into this big lacuna when I was doing a book on the men without work problem in modern America. And I thought it would be a very simple thing for me to just kind of do my due diligence by going to the statistical abstract and find out what the work rates were for guys who had a felony conviction in their background. So it turned out there was no chapter like that in the statistical abstract and there was in fact no data like that in the entire Census Bureau archipelago and even the Bureau of Justice statistics had only a tiny limited bit of information. So I looked a little further and found that there were some good demographers who had tried to reconstruct the sentencing and population structure of the felon population, the people who had a felony in their background. And it kind of blew my mind. Because their approach and their methodology looked pretty good. Suggested that this group of Americans had gone from less than 2 million in 1948 to 19.5 million in 2010. And that 1 out of 12 adults in the U.S. had a felony conviction in their background and 1 out of 8 men had a felony conviction in their background. And of course those portions would be higher now except that we don’t have the data. And so I was interested in trying to explain how we look at the roughly 7 million guys between the ages of 25 and 54 who are neither working nor looking for work. It seems to me that probably there say there’s something very important to understand there and if we had some data on some of the things we have about all sorts of other American citizens about income, work, family arrangements, health and all of the rest of that, we might be able to figure out how to bring more people back into the workforce but we don’t have data on these 20+ million people, and that they’re invisible and that not only an immediate practical problem, but it’s completely contrary to the intentions of the founders about basing our arguments on public policy on facts.

Scott: Absolutely! What do you think our best options are for how to remedy the situation so that we have a little bit more information on what’s going on with these guys?

Nicholas: Eventually the best thing to do will be to include some questions on a regular basis in something like the ongoing American Community Survey or something which takes a 3% sample of the entire country on a long form interview. There are a lot of obvious practical problems and questions with that because it is a pretty intrusive thing to ask people about.  So you’d have to test and launch this very carefully. In the short run there’s a very easy and inexpensive way to cast some light into this area which is through what’s called linking up administrative data with existing census information through the Bureau of Justice Statistics we already have administrative records on people who are in the parole population and in the probation population. This does not include the maybe 22 million persons in total who are not behind bars but have a felony sentence in their background, but it gets at about 5 or more million. It’s not a small group. We could do something on this in a matter of months if there were an interest in it and it would give us a first bit of information which could start to inform our further research.

Scott: That’s great and because one of my jobs on this podcast in addition to plugging Utah relentlessly is to plug the work of the Social Capital Project which I direct, we had a report I believe we called it “Inactive Men” where we used a pretty obscure survey to look at men who are out of the labor force and we found some patterns that I agree with you Nick, there’s so much we don’t know about these folks that we could if we just had a little bit more data, but I think we had these finding that a third of these guys between the ages of 25 and 54 who are out of the labor force have an incarceration in their background. We broke it down as to whether these men reported being students or homemakers. It turns out those are not mostly the incarcerated kinds. But the disabled, it approached 50% of men who said they were disabled had had an incarceration in their past and that gets into all these questions: Is this mental disability, is this physical disability, is this a direct result of being incarcerated? Is it not really disability? In the past these are men that would have worked. Defiantly echo you’re call for more data. Back to plugging Utah, so Mallory you may have seen we had a report where we created a social capital index for every state in the country which happily enough, Utah finished number one. Utah was tops in the country on family unity, on social support, on charitable giving on volunteering. And one question that we didn’t get into in that report but that people have asked us about occasionally and it’s come up in events that I’ve attended is, it’s a big question, is Utah the place where anybody can come and turn into these high social capital people or do we think that it’s more a function of well there’s just a bunch of high social capital people give them some obscure label such as adherence to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints that happen to all be concentrated in a state and that’s why Utah looks so good. I guess it’s a question about sorting or is it a question, there’s something about Utah that has bigger lessons for other states. And then the fact that Utah can crank people into high social capital folks.

Mallory: I think to claim that that big population does not influence where we end up on a lot of these ranking would be false but I do think our middle class is fairly significant in Utah. Our high is lower than other states and our low is higher than other states, so there’s a lot more room in the middle currently for people to come in to make a life, to have a high quality of life. We’ve also got great access to a lot of natural resources and you can be outside and you can really enjoy your life. So I think it provides an opportunity for a lot of mobility. I know that a lot of people, at least when you’re in downtown Salt Lake, you see the influence of the big banking institutions. So now we have all of these young people all over that are coming in for their two or three year stint in Utah and then their plan is to go to New York and we get a lot of questions about retention and I think that’s something that the State/Gardner Policy Institute is going to look at more thoroughly in the future because it is a welcoming place. People are nice. There is a great community, but not everyone wants to come and not everyone feels comfortable staying. So I think that there are communities where people do want to stay and they do want to make a life, but right now it’s maybe not super inclusive. But I think that we’re moving more towards inclusivity than would have been available in the past.

Nicholas: Hey Scott, one thing which I would mention, and this relates to the LDS community all over the country is that there’s an awful lot of evidence to suggest that there are some very strong positive associations between religiosity and social capital and connectedness. We can’t make that argument as strongly as we might because we can’t even investigate that relationship as well as we should because there are restrictions in place and laws passed by congress on having the Census Bureau even ask people about their religious adherence. These were laws that were passed in the 1970s in the wake of Watergate and CIA surveillance of American citizens and I’m guessing the intention of those laws was to protect people’s privacy. But these questions can be asked in a way that protects confidentiality and protects privacy and may help us understand a lot more about how to make our society more healthy.

Scott: I might be completely misinformed about this. My understanding as to why we don’t have more data on religious adherence or affiliation was a direct consequence of the Holocaust and mistrust about how this data could be put to use. I could be completely wrong.

Nicholas: Well, I’ll tell you what I heard which is not something that I know. Back in the day, I was a section man for then Professor Moynihan who was running to become Senator Moynihan. And this was in 1976 before he joined the Congress and his comment at the time was that either an analysis either requested by him or requested by somebody else in the government from the 1970 census had somehow shown that Jewish American outperformed other Americans in terms of their income level and that this seemed to some at the time an association which might lead to anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish reactions and that information was never published. I don’t know if there was a direct connect the dots association between that survey and Congress’ strictures, but they happened in sequentia.

Scott: Yup. And I can say again from experience, the absence of more data on religious adherence is just a huge problem. In the absence of good federal data, we try to use this thing called the census of religion which is a private effort, which is a decent effort unless you want to look at trends because the 2010 decennial religious census was the first one to look at things like Judaism or African-American churches. Possibly the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as well I think. So even the data we have is almost unusable.

Nicholas: But that’s really good on you for doing that study. I mean that was really innovative of you and your team under Senator Lee to do that.

Scott: Oh, thank you so much for that! I really appreciate that. And there’s much more to be done, looking at the relationship between religious adherence and other indicators of social capital. But we found some very strange patterns where lots of times the relationship was even negative which is bizarre because we know that those who are more likely to participate in church are more likely to give charitably some crazy amount of volunteer hours are people who are religious even if it’s not volunteering for their church. So there’s a real mystery and certainly more data would help to answer that. A couple more questions, so building on this idea that we could use more data on religious adherence, are there big gaps that I wouldn’t suggest we put on the decennial census but are there other things that we ought to put on our household surveys, either the American Community Survey or the Current Population Survey that would be useful either related to the health of families and communities or just sort of other pet concerns of yours?

Mallory: I would say that if there were other questions that should be, people got excited about and wanted them, there needs to be the thought of user, the survey taker. Because the ACS is currently 26 pages long for one person.

Scott: Yup.

Mallory: So that would be amazing. We had a friend at home who got the survey and didn’t answer and was like “they just keep coming to my house and they’re bothering me.” I was like fill it out! We need your data! And then I went through the whole thing and I was like “this would take me a week and I really care about this.” So I would just throw that out. I mean there are plenty of opportunities where we could learn more about certain groups or certain aspects of the population, but just remember the user of the survey.

Nicholas: Very well said. Generally speaking I don’t think that the Federal Statistical Service is at the forefront the way it used to be, and I’m sad about that. It would cost money to get to the preeminence that we used to have. There are all sorts of things that we could do now that we don’t that other countries do including lots of longitudinal surveys and things like that. Linking up income and wealth and expenditure and things like that. Immediately two little nerdy things I would mention. One has to do with disability. Which you brought up already Scott. There is no central authority in the U.S. government that collect information on all of the multiplicity of different disability programs that are in existence now. Social security is SSDI and SSI and veterans has got Veterans Benefit and then there’s Workman’s Comp. And then there’s state level benefits. There’s no place where you can get all of that. If you pulled all of that together I think you’d have a very different picture from the picture that Council of Economic Advisors had when they examined this a couple of years ago because they were just looking at a very small portion of this just at the Social Security Administration. Another thing has to do with the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the men without work. There are as I say, almost 7 million guys between the ages of 25 and 54 who are neither working nor looking for work. When the CPS comes with the BLS annual survey for this, you have as many as 11 options as to why are you not working neither looking for work. Now there are 7 million stories and 11 questions that is like way too little. And we’re pigeon holing a lot of people into categories that may not be suitable. We need to ask a lot more questions about that and we need to understand much better this whole matter that you brought up Scott about what do we mean by disability. And we can’t do that without having more questions and more information about the sample population.

Scott: One more question, so this came up briefly at the hearing. So this is a bit of a tricky topic, but I feel that I have a diversity of views in the room now so I just would be curious to hear from both of you. There’s been talk about putting a citizenship question on the decennial census and it will be decided by the judiciary branch this summer. Thoughts on the merits or lack of merits on adding such a question.

Mallory: I would say that as a research institution we want a complete count of the population and anything that could potentially impact that complete count makes us concerned, and we’re watching it. And I do think, I’ve heard arguments from both sides, from all levels of government. The point of the decennial census, it’s supposed to be a short questionnaire to get basic information on the population. Get a basic count, and I think our current climate is creating an environment that is not making people feel confident. And I think the last administration vs last groups, they also didn’t feel comfortable. I know that in Utah, we have groups. They don’t like the federal government. They’re not going to fill it out based on that alone. It has nothing to do with their citizenship status, where they live, how they live. Maybe how they live, they might be living on federal lands. But I do think that we’re already in a place where a distrust of federal government was an issue identified by the Census Bureau in this upcoming decennial count and this has added to that. I don’t think it’s fair to just dismiss these fears. I mean we want to believe in Title 13 that the Census Bureau works under that all the data will be safe. We know the people at the Census Bureau are dedicated to Title 13. They don’t want to go to federal prison. And so we want to have that faith in the Census Bureau, but we also want to understand that this is a bigger system than just the Census Bureau. So I understand people’s fears and I’m hopeful that the count won’t be impacted.

Nicholas: I think all of those are very good points. We also have to remember that we’ve been living with two generations roughly speaking of wide declines in trust in institutions and unfortunately that includes the Census Bureau. Non-responses make for a more expensive count. If I were to make the conra-side to that, the argument would go. We’ve asked this question in decennial censuses often before. Most recently however, only in 1950 we didn’t ask it in 1960 not because it was sensitive but because that was the point in our history when we had the lowest ratio of foreign born to population and it seemed like kind of an irrelevant question. We kept asking the question in ACS and other surveys. We ask really intrusive questions in some of these and don’t seem to have a bad response rate. The survey on income and program participation has a question to the effect of “did you get into this country with authorization?” or something like that.

Scott: I'm sure measured without error.

Nicholas: That’s right. So these things can be done and if policy makers think this is a legitimate and important question that would be a good reason to do it. One balance. I think there are pros and cons. I would slightly lean towards including it but I don’t think that it’s a question that has a very easy and simple clear cut answer.

Scott: We will wrap up on that note. I want to thank my guests again. Mallory Bateman and Nicholas Eberstadt. Defiantly check out the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. It’s one of the great state think tanks out there and definitely check out Nick’s book, “Men Without Work” which is the best book which has been written about guys out of the labor force. That’s all for this week. I look forward to being with you once again after our next hearing. Until then, happy trails!

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