Minutes of the December 14, 2007 COPAFS Meeting

Ed Spar. Executive Director’s Report.

Ed Spar started the meeting with his Executive Director’s report, noting that the long-awaited Senate hearing on Steve Murdock’s nomination as Census Bureau director is scheduled for Tuesday December 18. It is hoped that Murdock will be confirmed and sworn in by the end of the month, so he can start making contributions to the 2010 census effort.

Spar said there is not much specific to report on budgets. The House is working on an omnibus funding bill, but it is not known how much will go to specific agencies. And talk of possible across-the-board cuts adds further uncertainty and angst. There is continued concern over the NCHS budget, but the likely flat-lining of the Bureau of Justice Statistics budget would actually be an improvement over the expected cuts. The Census Bureau’s exemption from flat-funding will continue in the next continuing resolution, but Spar noted that Census Bureau CR funding still does not cover dissemination and other activities. Spar also explained that the vetoing of SCHIP may force the Census Bureau to reduce the CPS sample size by about 10,000, and delay the release of some SIPP data.

Spar then plugged the March 10 conference on survey incentives (the first since 1992), and announced that the 2008 COPAFS meeting dates will be March 7, June 6, September 12, and December 5.

Spar then turned to COPAFS chair Ralph Rector, who thanked outgoing board members Joe Garrett and Jerry Fletcher for their service, and turned to Sarah Zapolsky of the nominating committee, who announced the slate for the incoming board, including new members Linda Jacobsen and Bob Parker. A move to adopt the slate was seconded, and the candidates were voted in by acclamation.

America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well Being 2007.

Jennifer Madans. National Center for Health Statistics.

Madans distributed copies of the publication, “America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being 2007,” which is produced by the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics. The forum was formed in 1994, and formally established in 1997, and has as its mission to foster coordination and cooperation among agencies in the collection, reporting, and dissemination of federal data on children and families. The forum consists of 22 agencies, many of which are involved with health statistics.

The forum members are the heads of the 22 agencies, but a planning committee handles day to day operations. And a reporting committee handles dissemination—including the well-being publication described above, and often referred to as “The Book.” Madans described The Book as one of the first things that the forum did. It’s objective is to present relevant data in a non-technical form that makes it easy to use for the press and policy makers. The intent is to inform the debate, but not be part of it.

Madans described the challenge of defining well-being, and determining statistical measures to include in The Book. “What is well being?” she wondered, while taking some issue with the publication’s title. And the issues are not all about concepts and measurements, but are sometimes wrapped up in the jealousies that agencies have for their data.

The forum used to publish The Book every year, but that was difficult to maintain with a limited staff, so now it is published every other year, alternating with a “brief” report issued in the in between years. One frustration is that by the time The Book is released, much of its data are out of date, but the reports are popular, and the most recent data are always available on the web.

The 2007 “Book” marks the publication’s 10th anniversary, and the forum has taken the opportunity to review and revise its structure and scope. In an effort to simplify some inherently complex topics, the report groups data into seven domains and 38 indicators. The domains include Family and Social Environment, Economic Circumstances, Health Care, Physical Environment and Safety, Behavior, Education and Health. Each domain is a grouping of indicators. For example, the Behavior domain includes indicators on smoking, alcohol use, illicit drug use, and sexual activity. Asked if the forum had considered composite measures, Madans said it comes up every year, but goes no further as the selection and weighting process would have them straying from the simple and direct measures the forum seeks to provide. Looking to the future, Madans described that the forum plans research on possible measures on topics including foster care, and the time use and physical activity of children.

Current Plans at the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS).

Steven Dillingham. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Dillingham noted that he is the new director at BTS, an agency which had just had a series of acting directors. Established in 1992 under the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), BTS is the youngest of the federal statistical agencies, and is currently authorized under the Safe, Accountable Flexible, Efficient, Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU). BTS is now a component of the Department of Transportation Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA), which has a broad mission covering transportation research and statistics.

The BTS mission is to create, manage, and share transportation statistical knowledge by developing high quality transportation data and data products. Dillingham said they consider themselves a performance and results oriented agency, and take their work very seriously given the importance of transportation to the U.S. economy. To illustrate this importance, Dillingham noted that transportation costs are three times annual healthcare expenditures for the average American family. BTS has to be efficient, as its budgets have been static, and its staff is about half the size it once was. But Dillingham noted that BTS is blessed to have staff with expertise in critical areas. He described BTS as a knowledge based organization that maintains objectivity and does not advocate specific programs.

BTS produces numerous data products and reports to Congress based on data from a variety of public and private sources. The Commodity Flow Survey is their flagship product, and includes data on the nation’s freight transportation system. BTS also is working on geo-spatial information systems (software related to routing), a National Transportation Library (an online repository), and a Transportation Services Index (of for-hire transportation services).

BTS publications are available on its website www.bts.gov (the most visited website in DOT). Recent reports include the National Transportation Atlas Database, the Transportation Statistics Annual Report, and reports on topics including container ports and congestion. Other topics of focus include global connectivity, environmental stewardship, and security, preparedness and response. Data on the airline industry are highly popular (especially in the press), and when asked about the potential conflict of working with the airlines to collect data on their performance, Dillingham acknowledged that they wrestle with that issue, and have sometimes published data despite pressure from some specific airlines. Dillingham stressed that BTS is determined to maintain objectivity, while not becoming a consumer affairs operation, focused narrowly on issues such as flight delays.

Dillingham portrayed BTS as an agency committed to excellence, and concerned with evaluating its own performance. They are determined to provide timely, relevant data, and Dillingham pointed to their quick response in the aftermath of the Minneapolis bridge collapse (providing maps showing structurally deficient bridges in all 435 congressional districts) as a recent success story.

Current Activities on the Hill.

Mary Jo Hoeksema. Population Association of America.
Darryl Piggee. U.S. House of Representatives.

Whimsically described as “the new Terri Ann Lowenthal,” Mary Jo Hoeksema is Public Affairs Specialist with the Population Association of America, and no stranger to those who follow census and other population data issues. Hoeksema introduced Darryl Piggee, who is new, having started in September as Staff Director for the House subcommittee with oversight of the census.

Piggee remarked that, while he is still new on the job, he already has seen census director Louis Kincannon make three “final” appearances before the subcommittee. Piggee looks forward to working with census stakeholders, but said his first major task was dealing with the continuing resolution (CR), and its implications for 2010 census preparations. The first CR did not exempt the census from flat funding, and Piggee credited stakeholder communications as critical in getting the urgently needed exemption into the second CR. Piggee then reviewed the impact of the first CR on the census dress rehearsal, some 2010 contracts, as well as SIPP and the census partnership program. He suggested that, to the extent possible, it might make sense to minimize the amount of critical census activity that takes place in the October-November timeframe.

Piggee described recent hearings looking at the 2010 census IT contracts, including the handheld computers and the new DADS system. He reported the view that everything with the census is moving well, and that attention is being paid to areas where it is needed. Looking ahead to future hearings, Piggee stressed the need for educating members in advance of future appropriations cycles. Specifically, he sees the need for a hearing on the ACS—what it is, what it does, and why it is important to constituents. We can also look for a hearing on census undercount—alerting members to the dollar impact of undercount on some areas, examining the reasons for undercount, and what can be done about it.

Candid about how much he still has to learn about the census, Piggee emphasized how much he and the subcommittee want to interact with stakeholders, and said they will be reaching out to the user community. Asked about talk of a working group of stakeholders, Piggee said the idea is moving forward, with current efforts focused on identifying key congressional members to include. In response to a question about economic data, Piggee noted that he is still less familiar with those programs, but Hoeksema noted that there is still time—before the omnibus funding bill is passed—for stakeholders to comment on the importance of the economic data.

Measuring Data on Poverty, Disability and Health Insurance.

Charles Nelson. U.S. Census Bureau.

Nelson reviewed the federal poverty definition—a set of poverty thresholds developed in the 1960s, based on food costs, income and family size. There have been only minor adjustments to this official definition since, and Nelson noted that the universe excludes about 300,000 persons per year. Measurement issues include the narrow definition of resources (money income only), thresholds that do not vary by geographic area, and the fact that the relationships between the thresholds do not always make sense. There has been congressional pressure (dating back to the 1980s) to broaden the definition of resources, and research efforts include a mid 1990s NAS report, a 2006 report on the effect of taxes and transfers on income and poverty, and the 2007 release of online CPS data that allow users to vary income and thresholds to see the impact on poverty levels. For example, broadening the definition of resources reduces income inequality, and changes the view of who is in poverty, and would impact programs designed to alleviate poverty. Sources of poverty data include the CPS, ACS, SIPP, and SAIPE—each with its own advantages. CPS provides excellent data on long-term and year to year trends; ACS, with its large sample, will provide small area period estimates; SIPP is based on the most detailed questions, and examines poverty transitions; and SAIPE provides single year estimates for small geographic areas.

Turning to health insurance, Nelson explained that CPS data derive from questions added in 1980. The original emphasis was on persons receiving benefits, but much of the focus has shifted to health insurance coverage. Coverage is defined by a series of questions on various types of insurance—with “no coverage” being defined as a “no” answer to all of these questions, and response to a verification question to confirm absence of any coverage. Measurement issues include the fact that health insurance coverage is not a CPS focus—the coverage questions come after a long set of income questions, and respondent recall on this item is considered less than ideal. By counting coverage at any time during the year, the CPS overstates coverage relative to SIPP, and coverage by Medicaid and other public programs is known to be under-reported. Research efforts include questionnaire research, and the matching of CPS records to administrative data. Sources of health insurance data include CPS, SIPP, ACS (which is adding questions in 2008) and experimental estimates for states and counties from the SAHIE program.

Nelson finished with a look at disability data, which are derived from six types of disabilities described in ACS questions. A “yes” response to any of these questions qualifies a respondent as disabled. Disabilities are defined as long lasting sensory, physical, mental or emotional conditions that make it difficult for a person to do functional or participatory activities, such as climbing stairs, dressing, going outside the home or working at a job. Measurement issues include the use of an umbrella term for a diverse population, and respondent sensitivity to question wording. Research includes ACS content tests in 2006, and changes in disability questions proposed by an interagency committee, and to be adopted for the 2008 ACS. Sources of disability data include SIPP, ACS, NHIS, and MEPS. And in the future, the CPS may provide monthly or quarterly estimates of employment rates for persons with disabilities.

Concerns of COPAFS Constituents

No concerns were raised, and the meeting was adjourned.

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