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The Executive Officerís Column

A Fight to Preserve Research and Ensure Government Accountability

Since the President released his proposed FY 2007 budget last month, disturbing details have surfaced, causing a significant stir among science and policy constituencies concerned about the fate of scientifically, socially, and economically important federal programs. Of special note to sociologists are cuts in agencies charged with quantifying our nationís social and economic health to guide informed, democratic decisionnmaking and facilitate social research. Several important, long-standing federal data collection efforts are slated for severe reduction or elimination (see the January 2006 Footnotes [p. 2] Vantage Point budget prognostications).

At risk is the collection and dissemination of data crucial to both private- and publicsector decisionmakers and to policymakers working to refine government programs and increase public accountability. These datasets help quantify employment, population, income, businesses, wealth, medical insurance, participation in government programs, poverty, and myriad other indicators of the nationís social health. They provide the empirical basis for analyses aimed at improving service, facilitating business decisions, and otherwise keeping our democracy functioning well. Many of these indicators allow comparisons across time and geography and permit valid assessments of government programsí efficiency and efficacy.

With a few exceptions, programs within research agencies such as the Census Bureau and the National Institutes of Health are facing flat or declining budgets. Potential impacts are numerous but include data central to research and evaluation. Tight fiscal constraints are manifest by program reductions for FY 2007 and beyond, and the result has been a flood of ďAction AlertsĒ to members of the academic research and public advocacy communities, spawning a deluge of letters to Members of Congress who must act on the Presidentís budget by fall 2006. (See ASAís action alert at

On the Chopping Block

A key example is the Census Bureauís proposed elimination of SIPP (the Survey of Income and Program Participation), the nationís only large-scale, representative survey designed to assess a range of federal programs focused on the well-being of American families. Begun in 1984, this $40-million annual longitudinal survey tracks families over time and quantifies, among other important issues, factors such as immigration, child care, and family structure. It helps assess whether federal programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Medicaid, Social Security, and unemployment insurance are helping families meet basic needs and move upward economically. In short, SIPP allows public accountability for social programs involving several hundred billion tax dollars.

SIPP data underlie thousands of scholarly publications as well as government and independent policy reports on poverty, income mobility, job stability, and health care coverage, according to a letter to Congress from the Center for Economic and Policy Research. With questions on 70 income sources collected quarterly from about 40,000 households, SIPP is the only large-scale dataset that allows before-and-after comparisons of policies affecting social and economic dynamics.

Sociologistsí SIPP Research

ASA members have used SIPP to produce cutting-edge, award-winning research. Among the best known is path-breaking work by Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro, Black Wealth/White Wealth, winner of the 1995 C. Wright Mills Award. This work shows that demographic and socioeconomic characteristics, such as occupation and education, explain relatively little of the differences in Americansí net worth. The authors concluded that about 70 percent of the wealth gap between African Americans and whites is explained by race. Other award-winning SIPP-based work is that of Lynne M. Casper and Suzanne M. Bianchi, Continuity and Change in the American Family: Anchoring the Future (winner of ASAís 2002 Otis Dudley Duncan Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Social Demography). Sociologists also use SIPP effectively in the classroom. Philip Cohen at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill has used SIPP data for seven years in undergraduate teaching because of their unique comprehensiveness, reliability, and adequate sample size for demographic research. He considers the data indispensable for undergraduate sociology.

The Census Bureau maintains that it can do a better job less expensively by using administrative records from public agencies. While zeroing out SIPP, the Bureau has budgeted $9.2 million for this new administrative records-based survey, the Survey of Income and Wealth Dynamics. However, as researchers know: (1) Relying on administrative records of people who participated in federal programs cannot provide comparable information on people who do not participate, so we cannot evaluate the effect of programs on economic and social well-being; (2) For federal programs such as unemployment insurance, administrative records provide no information on family structure; (3) Linking administrative data to other datasets such as the Current Population Survey or the American Community Survey will raise privacy-law issues that may limit researchersí access to the linked datasets; and (4) There is always uncertainty when there is no longterm financing or plan for developing the administrative records-based surveys.

More than 400 individuals, including sociologists, signed a March letter to Congress, urging full funding for SIPP. ASA also is among the scientific organizations that have urged preservation of this integral component of government policy assessment. Without SIPP, it will be more difficult to know the impact of the recent budget cuts to domestic programs. The social science community must actively work to preserve important federal data. Long-standing data systems are not perfect, and sociologists often lament their imperfections, but new or improved federal data systems are not likely to be forthcoming while the nation faces severe federal budget cuts and deficits. .

Sally T. Hillsman, Executive Officer