A $73 billion debt. An economy projected to shrink by 11 percent. Nearly one in five people—who are U.S. citizens—living in poverty. An estimated $95 billion in hurricane damages. These numbers truly reveal the severity of Puerto Rico’s plight. They also underscore why reliable and reputable data will be indispensable to guide Puerto Rico out of the crisis and into sustainable recovery.
Unfortunately, the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics (PRIS), the only independent government agency in charge of crunching Puerto Rico’s numbers—over 300 statistical data sets, methods, and results—is about to be dismantled by its Legislature and Governor Ricardo Rosselló.
Next week, the Puerto Rico House and Senate are set to consider the approval of Senate Project 809, dealing a fatal blow to PRIS. The measure proposes the elimination of the Institute, replacing it with the Puerto Rico Statistics Program within the Department of Economic Development and Commerce (DEDC). It also abolishes PRIS’ independent expert-led Board of Directors and the executive director’s position, and requires the DEDC and its Secretary to outsource all of PRIS’ functions.
The elimination of PRIS is being touted as a cost-saving measure, a good thing for Puerto Rico’s bankrupt government. This makes no sense. PRIS has consistently reduced government costs, and improved the efficiency and quality of public services in Puerto Rico. For example, over the past 10 years, PRIS has established systems to prevent Medicaid fraud, creating savings of about $10 million per year for the Puerto Rican and U.S. government.
Since 2007, when it began operating, the Institute has been severely underfunded. PRIS’ annual budget has been roughly $1 million, instead of the $5 million per year recommended by law. This is a drop in the bucket of Puerto Rico’s consolidated budget, which over the past 6 years has averaged $22 billion annually. Imagine if the U.S. Census Bureau, PRIS’ counterpart, had to operate with such a strapped budget.
Some may think that eliminating PRIS and relying on hired contractors to manage the statistical functions of Puerto Rico is harmless. However (and regrettably), the government of Puerto Rico does not have a good track record when it comes to the transparency and cost-efficiency of government-issued contracts (remember Whitefish?). Puerto Rico's statistical and data collection systems have been plagued by inaccuracies, inefficiencies, lack of credibility, and claims of manipulations for decades. PRIS has drastically reduced many of these issues producing independent and unbiased statistics through rigor and transparency.
In 2010, PRIS corrected Puerto Rico’s mortality statistics, which the local Department of Health had undercounted for years. PRIS also improved the way causes of death are classified, ensuring that all deaths are taken into account. These more accurate statistical tools would have been invaluable in calculating the official death toll from Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico last September. However, PRIS was never included in this process and has been shut-out of a panel, created by Governor Rosselló, that will review the number of deaths attributable to the hurricane. Several independent reports by Latino USA and the Center for Investigative Reporting, The New York Times, and Santos and Howard, 2017, among others, and which have been dismissed by some Puerto Rican public officials, indicate that the numbers reported by the Government of Puerto Rico are off by up to 1,000 deaths.
PRIS is well respected and trusted by the international scientific community, nonprofits, the private sector, and governmental agencies. In 2016, the Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth in Puerto Rico noted that PRIS is a “highly professional, autonomous, and apolitical organization that is bringing greater transparency to economic, financial and fiscal conditions on the island.” PRIS is in charge of including Puerto Rico’s data in federal and international surveys by the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Education, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), among others. The agency has received funding from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to establish a violent death surveillance system in Puerto Rico, which will become part of the U.S. National Violent Death Reporting System. Recently, PRIS was put in charge of the Puerto Rico Open Data portal to increase access and transparency of statistics in Puerto Rico.
The political power move being made by the Rosselló administration not only jeopardizes PRIS, but Puerto Rico’s reputation and future. If PRIS is eliminated, Puerto Rico’s statistical systems are likely to become highly politicized, like many other programs and agencies in the archipelago are.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that PRIS is under siege. In 2010, PRIS’ executive director Dr. Mario Marazzi was suspended for demanding that the Labor Department publish the Consumer Price Index, which the latter had been overestimating, causing Puerto Ricans to unnecessarily pay more for everyday items like gasoline. In 2017, Governor Rosselló dismissed several members of PRIS Board of Directors who held PhDs in statistics, economics and demographics and replaced them with a lawyer and an accountant, because the former were not part of his circle of trust.
As the American Statistical Association, the largest society of statisticians in the world, stated in a recent petition (full disclosure: I am one of the main signatories) “[t]rusted and accurate statistics are a cornerstone of a well-functioning democracy and a healthy economy.” As a scientist and Puerto Rican, I believe that the success of Puerto Rico’s recovery from its long-standing recession and the devastation of Hurricane Maria hinge on reputable statistics. Dismantling the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics would make Puerto Rico’s current state worse and undermine recovery efforts, because the archipelago would be making decisions blindly, relying on bad data, information that could be biased and inaccurate.
I would hope that Governor Ricardo Rosselló—a former researcher who campaigned on his scientific training—should know better than anyone that at this historic crossroads, it is critical that Puerto Rico’s policies and plans being based on rigorous and reliable numbers and evidence. Otherwise, the archipelago would be charting its path forward blindly. However, the actions of his administration suggest that politics trumps data and statistics (especially when they are inconvenient).
Sign the petition to ask the Governor and Legislature of Puerto Rico to preserve the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics.