Census Bureau accused of falsifying numbers

If this story from the New York Post is confirmed, it’s one of the blockbuster stories of the decade.  It looks as if suspicions that the Labor Department’s unemployment surveys include false data have been borne out:

In the home stretch of the 2012 presidential campaign, from August to September, the unemployment rate fell sharply ??? raising eyebrows from Wall Street to Washington.

The decline ??? from 8.1 percent in August to 7.8 percent in September ??? might not have been all it seemed. The numbers, according to a reliable source, were manipulated.

And the Census Bureau, which does the unemployment survey, knew it.

In essence, the monthly unemployment report is complied from two surveys: employer and household.  The employer survey tends to be fairly accurate, since companies naturally maintain reliable real-time data about how many people they employ.  But it’s not inclusive enough, because there are forms of employment it doesn’t catch, so a survey of 60,000 households is also conducted, and the results are factored into the final Labor Department report.

The Labor Department doesn’t actually conduct the household survey.  They farm it out to the Census Bureau…. which just happens to have been moved under the command of the White House in 2009.  It’s one of the first things Barack Obama did when he took office.  There was sharp criticism of the move at the time, from people who worried that the Census data would be manipulated by White House operatives for political purposes.  From a February 2009 report by Fox News:

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, told FOX News on Monday that he finds it hard to believe the Obama administration felt the need to place re-evaluation of the inner workings of the census so high on his to-do list, just three weeks into his presidency.

“This is nothing more than a political land grab,” Chaffetz said.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, told the Salt Lake Tribune that the move “shouldn’t happen.” He and Chaffetz are trying to rally Republicans “before its too late.”

“It takes something that is supposedly apolitical like the census, and gives it to a guy who is infamously political,” Bishop said of Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who would be tasked with overseeing the census at the White House.

[…] “The last thing the census needs is for any hard-bitten partisan (either a Karl Rove or a Rahm Emanuel) to manipulate these critical numbers. Many federal funding formulas depend on them, as well as the whole fabric of federal and state representation. Partisans have a natural impulse to tilt the playing field in their favor, and this has to be resisted,” Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, told FOX News in an e-mail.

To return to the New York Post expose, a Census worker was caught fabricating data for the household survey in 2010… and “a knowledgeable source says the deception went beyond that one employee – that it escalated at the time President Obama was seeking reelection in 2012, and continues today.”

The employee who got in trouble back in 2010 says there was pressure from higher-ups to reach a 90 percent response rate on those survey phone calls, and he was told to fabricate as much data as necessary to hit the target each month.  According to the Post, the details of his case have never been disclosed until now.  Evidently the Census Bureau didn’t even tell the Labor Department about it.  Some Census officials wondered why a more far-reaching investigation was not initiated.

To turn a skeptical eye toward the Post report, the allegations about phony unemployment data cooked deliberately to make Obama’s economy look better (well, less awful) before the 2012 election look to be supposition on the part of writer John Crudele, based on what his source told him.  Crudele’s piece includes no further testimony from the source to support the accusation that fraudulent activity intensified during the election, or that it was deliberately intended to assist the Obama campaign.

Crudele makes it clear he’s a longtime critic of the politicized Census Bureau – among other things, he thinks they were deliberately churning through their own temporary workers to inflate employment figures in 2010 – and he says he’s ready to hand over all of his materials on this new scandal to investigators from the Labor Department and Congress.

It’s worth remembering that the September 2012 jobs report was particularly anomalous, including a hard-to-explain drop in the official unemployment rate from 8.1 percent to 7.8 percent, which of course was touted heavily by the Obama political machine as evidence that his job-creation policies were working.  (And they’re still working, because last month the unemployment rate… whoops, it went up to 7.3 percent, and the true unadjusted rate remains mired in double digits, where it has been ever since Obama took office.)

As The Blaze recalls, former General Electric CEO Jack Welch was tarred and feathered by the media for saying, via Twitter, “Unbelievable jobs numbers.  These Chicago guys will do anything…. can’t debate so change numbers.”  He later conceded that the wording of this statement was “incendiary,” but stood by his criticism that the September totals were “downright implausible,” and had been deliberately manipulated.

For my part, as a longtime student of the fascinating process of compiling unemployment reports, I’ve always been skeptical of claims that the figures were deliberately manipulated in a crude and direct way.  They’re inaccurate as hell, because the process of compiling the report is enormously complex.  It takes time for the data to roll in.  As noted above, a good deal of it boils down to taking a monthly poll and asking if the respondents have a job, and we all know how even the most clinical poll can include mistakes and anomalies.  I suspect most of the number-crunchers at the Bureau of Labor Statistics would rather wait two or three months to release any conclusive reports, because the figures really aren’t ready in the first week of the following month, when the much-discussed headline-generating unemployment report is expected.

I am, in short, willing to cut the crew at BLS a lot of slack.  But the story Crudele tells at the New York Post is plausible, and he’s got sources to back it up.  Further investigation seems warranted, including an investigation into why none of this has been investigated until now.  I’m going to want harder evidence before I buy into a deliberate conspiracy to cook the numbers in the last few months before the election.  I’m not ruling it out – the Obama Administration’s dishonest conduct has left it a free-fire zone for cynicism.  But that doesn’t mean a sensational allegation like this should be taken immediately at face value, especially since it would appear that a Census scramble to pump up its response numbers could produce the same effect, without an explicitly political motivation.  Crudele seems confident that such a motivation existed.  He’s right to call for official investigations to confirm or deny it, especially since other important decisions are influenced by the unemployment report on a constant basis.