The Link Between Quality of Data and Quality of Life

Recently there has been a lot of debate about whether the data being used to calculate the consumer price index (CPI) will cost US taxpayers further down the line. But the problem of inadequate measurement actually goes much deeper than current headlines suggest, and the trail of costly mistakes made or proposed leads directly back to Congress. Shortsighted congressional attacks on funding for data collection and preservation will significantly damage everyone's quality of life, not just those affected by changes in the CPI.

Right now efforts to measure the actual quality of community life, not just local "economic growth," are rapidly increasing at the local, regional, and state level. Some examples of quality of life measures being used include the number of children being born into poverty, the number of people finishing high school each year, the number of trees being planted in cities, the amount of toxins in drinking water, or the amount of pollutants in the air.

At the first national conference on quality of life indicators, held Nov. 22-23, 1996, in Denver, 166 representatives from 150 local quality of life indicators projects, ranging from Maine to Hawaii, gathered to share their stories, discuss methods, and devise strategies for further action.

One of the more engaging projects reported at the conference was the Hawaiian Ke Ala Hoku project. Organizers asked 6,000 of the state's children to write from their hearts about the kind of future they wanted to see in Hawaii. The result was a set of 13 quality of life indicators that will be used to help create the future these Hawaiian children dream of having.

But keeping track of such indicators could be hard. The growing threat to data collection and preservation at the federal level was one of the hottest topics at the conference. In its haste to reduce the federal deficit, Congress has plans to cut funding substantially over the next 10 years for data collection by federal agencies, including the year 2000 census. The cuts will hurt quality of life measurement projects at every level - federal, state, and local.

Even local projects depend on federal data gathering for many important categories of information about their environments, social conditions, and economies. One example of a proposed data funding cut with big quality of life implications: last year's attempt to delete Occupational Safety and Health Administration funding for research on the incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome, a growing workplace safety issue. Fortunately, the cuts were prevented. But those who favor such cuts haven't given up.

Savings from these cuts would be minuscule, according to Robert J. Samuelson, writing in The Washington Post (Dec. 4, 1996). Damage, however, will be major and lasting, since sound information is fundamental to good public policy - a fact recognized by the writers of our Constitution, who mandated a national census.

TerriAnn Lowenthal, project director of the Washington-based Census 2000 Initiative, which was organized by the Communications Consortium Media Center, has expressed concern that Congress will not even be willing to allocate adequate funds to prepare for the upcoming turn-of-the-century census.

We need to be reforming and improving data gathering at all levels of government, warns Brad Crabtree, Washington associate at Redefining Progress, and co-author with Jill Chopyak of a forthcoming study of the subject. Recent reports about the new federal welfare legislation confirm this point. Congressional mandates for tracking individuals through the welfare system assume a level of data collection and accessibility that does not yet exist anywhere in the country.

Better, not less and worse, data will also be needed to create an official set of quality of life indicators, so that national policy can be freed from the misleadingly narrow gross domestic product measurement of "economic growth." An inability, because of inadequate data, to monitor what is happening to our quality of life could in the long run cost us dearly in unpleasant - and preventable - social, economic, and environmental damage.

There is a lot of loose talk these days about what kind of debt we are passing on to our children. But a "know nothing" information policy at the dawn of the information age is a contradiction neither we nor our children can afford.

* Susan C. Strong lives in Orinda, Calif., and is co-founder of The "Who's Counting?" Project.

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