The Obama Watch

Damned Statistical Lies

Obama's Census grab pays off — as predicted.

By 4.17.14

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Back in 2009, President Obama made one of his first of many unprecedented executive moves: He snatched the Census Bureau out of the hands of the commerce secretary and placed it in the White House.

Conservatives were outraged. They predicted that this consolidation of power could result in skewed and biased Census reports. They warned that once the president owned the data, it would be the end of objective government statistics. The left laughed, and told them to calm down and retire the slippery slope arguments.

As Noah Rotham pointed out yesterday—turns out conservatives were right after all.

For the first time in over thirty years, the Census Bureau has decided to change its health care survey questions in order to supposedly produce more accurate data.

What appears on the surface to be a simple shift in procedure will have strikingly political implications. The sudden overhaul of the questionnaire means the data from 2013 forward showing how many Americans have health insurance cannot be compared with the past three decades of seemingly reliable information.

As Megan McArdle noted, since the implementation of Obamacare the press has been eagerly awaiting certain information to judge whether the health law is working—including how many of the previously uninsured now have health insurance. We thought the Census numbers would be available by 2015. Now that the process has been drastically altered, however, we might never get the facts.

As reported by the New York Times:  

An internal Census Bureau document said that the new questionnaire included a “total revision to health insurance questions” and, in a test last year, produced lower estimates of the uninsured. Thus, officials said, it will be difficult to say how much of any change is attributable to the Affordable Care Act and how much to the use of a new survey instrument.

“We are expecting much lower numbers just because of the questions and how they are asked,” said Brett J. O’Hara, chief of the health statistics branch at the Census Bureau.

In fact, the Times reported that a test of the new methods revealed a 10.6 percent uninsured rate, whereas the old numbers came to 12.6 percent. That’s a significant difference.

Obama sold his signature health care law on the Census Bureau’s inflated numbers: that in 2009, nearly 46 million Americans were uninsured. Now, after that metric has become what Megan McArdle calls “the gold standard” by which to measure Obamacare’s success, it suddenly and inexplicably gets altered.

Officials say this change has been in the works for years, but a memo obtained by the Times reveals even Census workers see the problem with switching methods. The memo called it “coincidental and unfortunate timing,” which is being much too kind. “Ideally,” it said, “the redesign would have had at least a few years to gather base line and trend data.”

Nobody can blame critics like McArdle for being cynical over Obama’s intentions. This wasn’t a move for accuracy. It was clearly done for political advantage: to improve Obama’s legacy and save the Democrats in the mid-term elections.

The data we expected to analyze in 2015 will be released in the fall of 2014—just in time to bolster the Democrats’ approval ratings before November. The readjusted numbers will undoubtedly make Obamacare look like a success, even if the changes are solely attributable to the new metric.

But this is nothing new. Time and time again the president has issued executive orders to soften the blow of Obamacare and redeem his fellow Democrats in 2014. He delayed the employer mandate, he extended the deadlines, he delayed the cancellation day for millions more insurance plans. Now he continues the trend of unilaterally changing whatever he needs to brunt the health law’s electoral blow.

With Republicans staking everything on Obamacare in 2014, if Obama keeps stacking the deck, the upcoming months could be more challenging than the GOP expected.

That’s the advantage of getting to write the law, run the country, and make up the facts. 

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About the Author

Natalie deMacedo is a student at Hillsdale College where she is studying English and Journalism. As part of Hillsdale's Dow Journalism Program, she works as a staff reporter and assistant editor for her school paper, the Collegian. She also interned at the Old Colony Memorial in Plymouth, Mass. - her hometown.