Faithful readers of The Scrapbook may remember the small scuffle that ensued when the Census Bureau briefly proposed removing a question about “number of times married” from its annual American Community Survey. The question is our best tool for understanding patterns of marriage and divorce, and when the bureau nonchalantly suggested ditching it, sociology nerds broke out their pitchforks, metaphorically speaking.

The bureau happily reversed course. But even after the episode was over, no one understood why it had happened in the first place. Into the breach steps a Scrapbook reader who works at the Census Bureau and watched the entire thing unfold with some amusement. The reader’s letter is below:

In early 2012, the ACS entered negotiations with HHS. The subject was the addition of two questions on health insurance (“Do you pay a premium?” and “If so, is it subsidized?”) to the survey. At the time that this proposal was submitted for public review, the ACS heads knew that in order to keep “respondent burden” from increasing, they were required to axe at least one question and avoid lengthening the survey form. The marital history question was the sacrificial lamb.

A second notice in a later Federal Register went out, proposing the removal. .  .  . In contrast to the first, though, this proposal garnered public feedback​—​a whole 300 “negative” responses’ worth. The Census Bureau decided to back down, which also meant killing the new health insurance questions. And while it’s rumored that HHS threatened to take the issue to the White House, the un-proposal went to and was approved by OMB.

And that’s the story, at least as much of it as my pay grade allows me to know.

It’s not surprising to learn that the nefarious actor was the Health and Human Services department, from which little good has come in a long while. What is surprising​—​shocking, really​—​is that even at this late date, the outraged emails of 300 citizens can move Leviathan. If only the rest of the federal government exhibited as much good sense as the Census Bureau.

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