Hidden Treasure

A puzzling Census Web site impedes support for the bureau's mission.

Hidden in the recesses of the Commerce Department's Census Bureau Web site (www.census.gov) is a treasure trove of fascinating information about who we are as a nation. You could spend hours aimlessly poking around, haphazardly bumping into random but enlightening facts such as the percentage of population with bachelor's degrees in 1940 (4.6); the leading country of birth of foreign-born in 1930 (Italy) versus 2000 (Mexico); or the projected U.S. population in 2050 (419,854,000).

One recent Census report found that 49 percent of U.S. businesses are home-based. Another announced that Flagler County, Fla., was the fastest-growing county in the nation for the second consecutive year.

Unfortunately, as wide-ranging and engrossing as Census data can be, much of it will never be known to the American public. That's because the bureau's Web site is as maddening and unnavigable as it gets. Unlike, say, the data-rich and easy-to-follow Web site maintained by the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov), the Census site is poorly organized, not intuitive and laden with demographic jargon.

The acronyms, summary files, estimates and projections are indecipherable enough to the casual user, but the Census Bureau exacerbates the situation by layering in a few other confusing designations-such as the American FactFinder and Quick Facts.

An impenetrable Web site might not matter so much if it weren't for the financial squeeze confronting the bureau. Congress has proposed cutting as much as $53 million from the bureau's 2007 budget, an especially painful reduction since the agency is beginning its preparations for the 2010 census.

At a time when the Census Bureau needs as much support as it can get, there is no public outcry and precious little media attention. It's worth considering whether this is evidence of the opacity, inadvertent as it might be, surrounding the agency's vital work.

As it stands, the only defense of the Census Bureau comes from academic researchers, demographers, commercial interests and others whose work depends on the amazing data the agency compiles. For their purposes, the Web site is just fine since it appears to be designed with them in mind.

While it's naïve to think that a more user-friendly site might stave off raids on the bureau's budget, a more inviting Web presence would go a long way toward creating the kind of popular constituency that Congress respects. At the moment, it is far too easy to dismiss advocates of increased funding as the usual supplicants.

Here's how Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who chairs the Federal Financial Management, Government Information and International Security Subcommittee, responded when Census Director C. Louis Kincannon testified that the 2007 budget cuts could potentially increase costs for the 2010 count. "It is the height of arrogance for the Census Bureau to threaten Congress with huge cost increases when it is unable to explain how it uses the money it already has," said Coburn. "Until Census makes a stronger case for why it needs more money, I will do everything I can to make sure the budget cuts in the House and Senate stand."

In the House, where the proposed cuts are largely the product of shifting $50 million from the Census Bureau to a law enforcement federal grant program, a similar mind-set has taken place. "Sometimes you have to prioritize," Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., said in June. "Right now, we need more help on the streets with crime than we do in the Census Bureau."

That kind of logic always will be a problem for the bureau. But if members like Souder or Coburn knew that many of their constituents were deeply enamored of the Census Bureau and its attempts to chronicle the demographic majesty of this nation-something the Web site doesn't currently facilitate-it might be a different story.

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