Congress takes up probe of fake unemployment data

Tim Cavanaugh | Contributor

The House Oversight Committee has joined an investigation into the faking of Census Bureau unemployment data that began in the New York Post Sunday.

“These allegations are shocking,” Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas, chairman of the subcommittee on Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service and the Census, wrote in a letter Monday night to U.S. Census Bureau Director John H. Thompson. “If true, there may be a systemic problem at the Philadelphia Regional Census Office, where the alleged data fabrication occurred. These allegations also raise the prospect that the fabrication of data is a widespread problem.”

Farenthold was referring to Jon Crudele’s Post story quoting a Census employee reportedly caught faking results, as well as an anonymous source asserting that the corruption is widespread.

The named employee, Julius Buckmon, told Crudele he was ordered to make up information by superiors at Census, which conducts the monthly employment survey on behalf of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The employment survey includes a detailed questionnaire and requires extensive follow-up reporting with respondents.

According to Crudele, the Census Bureau has had trouble getting its required 90 percent response rate for the New York and Philadelphia regions, and Buckmon was told to make up the gap with fabricated interviews. The bureau also appears not to have looked into the problem when it was pointed out.

In response to an inquiry about why there had been no probe of an alleged fabrication in the 2010 Current Population Survey, Philadelphia-based U.S. Dept. of Commerce statistician Joal Crosby wrote, “Unable to determine why an investigation was not done for CPS.”

Farenthold is now demanding information in seven areas by December 3. He requested communications related to the Current Population Survey; email to and from Buckmon; Buckmon’s chain of command; falsification-related emails to and from Crosby; Buckmon-related documentation from the inspector general’s office; communications on data collection between the Philadelphia office and Census Bureau headquarters; and a list of CPS supervisors.

The New York Post report does not deliver on its opening suggestion that the fabrication may have accounted for the steep August and September 2012 drops in the topline unemployment figure — from 8.2 percent to 7.8 percent — that seemed suspiciously well-timed in the months before President Obama faced a reelection vote amid a moribund economy.

Nevertheless, the possibility of corruption in an agency whose function is specified by the U.S. Constitution had Republicans talking.

“If it can be verified, this is corruption at the deepest level of government,” California Rep. Duncan Hunter told The Daily Caller. “That’s the real issue, not that they changed the number by 0.4 percentage points or something. It’s that we have a government bureau that you and I and everybody else depends on for these numbers. If they’re cheating, that changes the whole game.”

In 2012, Hunter sponsored a bill that would have changed the “headline” unemployment measure from the current U-3 (which counts“total unemployed, as a percent of the civilian labor force”) to the more comprehensive U-5 (which adds up “Total unemployed, plus discouraged workers, plus all other persons marginally attached to the labor force, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus all persons marginally attached to the labor force”).

The U-5 figure is typically about 1.5 percent higher than U-3. Most unemployment categories track each other very closely. Hunter told TheDC he is still working on the effort to replace the headline figure.

The headline debate is a hot topic for unemployment buffs. “I think the bigger story is the distortions introduced by the definition used for the standard measure of the unemployment rate,” John Miller, a professor of economics at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, told TheDC. Miller is holding out for headline figure of U-6, which also counts underemployed workers. The U-3 headline, he said, “under-reports the number of people who want a full time job and don’t have one. ”

Politicization of the Census Bureau has been a source of regular friction in the Obama administration. When he announced his withdrawal from consideration as Obama’s first Secretary of Commerce in February 2009, then-Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, cited as one of his reasons an administration plan to have the Census Bureau director report to White House staffers in addition to the Commerce Secretary.

The falsification alleged by the Post would have taken place under Thompson’s predecessor Robert M. Groves, a sociologist whose 2009 confirmation as Census Bureau director was held up by Republicans concerned about Groves’ support for “statistical sampling” to increase the counts of poor and minority populations. Majority leader Sen. Harry Reid of Utah forced a vote in the Democratic Senate, and Groves served apparently without incident until April 2012, when he left to become provost of Georgetown University.

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