WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A cost-cutting plan by the Census Bureau to kill off its Statistical Abstract was under fire this week from pundits and policy experts who rely on the annual collection of census data.
Published since 1878 and now nearly 1,000 pages, the abstract summarizes key metrics -- some weighty and some just interesting -- on the social, political and economic shape of the United States and beyond.
Question: How many shopping centers does the country have? Answer: 104,919 as of 2009, up from 68,484 in 1986.
Question: Which is the most popular pet -- dogs or cats? Answer: There are more cats than dogs in the United States, but more households own dogs than own cats. Reason? Cat people, on average, own more than two cats; not so with dog owners.
Question: How many American children live in poverty? Answer: 13.4 million as of 2008, versus 11.1 million in 1980.
Such information can be found online from an ever-expanding multiplicity of sources, but Stat Abstract devotees say it uniquely puts all these facts in one, convenient place, with footnotes that point the user to other sources for details.
"I am a devoted fan of the Stat Abstract," wrote economics columnist Robert Samuelson in The Washington Post on Sunday.
Bemoaning the decision to end it, he wrote, "If Census doesn't rescind its misguided death sentence, the agency could contract with some wealthy private foundation to support the abstract."
The bureau said in its fiscal 2012 budget report to Congress that it could save $2.9 million a year by terminating the abstract. It said the move was a "difficult decision." Both the printed and online versions would be discontinued.
Paul Krugman, a columnist for The New York Times who is often at odds with Samuelson on policy issues, in a column on Monday also protested the bureau's judgment.
"The Statistical Abstract is a hugely important resource; experts in a particular field may not need it, but it's invaluable to non-experts," Krugman wrote.
"Killing the publication for the sake of a tiny saving would be a truly gratuitous step toward a dumbed-down country. And believe me, that's not something we need more of."
(Reporting by Kevin Drawbaugh; Editing by Jackie Frank)