The American Community Survey: It's Common Sense!

March 8, 2013 | 4:10 pm
Celia Wexler
Former contributor

UPDATE Tuesday March 19 (see below)

We at the Center for Science and Democracy believe that our democracy thrives when debate about public policy is driven by independent data. That makes our public discourse more rational, and more civil. When information guides our public policies they also are more likely to be effective and well-thought-out.

So it is particularly distressing that a bipartisan U.S.  Census survey begun by the Bush Administration could be killed by Congress as early as this month. Last year, the House, after limited debate, voted to approve two proposals harmful to the American Community Survey (ACS).  One of the proposals the House approved, by a vote of 232 to 190, barred the Census Bureau from spending any funds for this extremely useful government effort. In the Senate however, cooler heads prevailed and the program was saved.

But as Congress debates spending levels for the 2014 fiscal year, this fight is likely to resume, as early as this month. Indeed, on March 5, as a winter storm knocked out most of Washington, House appropriators were questioning the cost of the survey. Defunding the ACS would save about $240 million annually, or just 0.006% of federal spending.

Granted, tight times demand fiscal discipline. But cutting this Census survey entirely would make it nearly impossible for Congress to be guided by real information when deciding how to allocate precious federal dollars.

The ACS is very helpful to communities, businesses and the government when it comes to allocating resources around the country. Photo: Flickr user vonderauvisuals

What is the ACS?

The survey is a science-based good-government tool. Every ten years, the government embarks on as a complete and full-scale survey of the population as possible. But things can change a great deal within a decade.

The ACS keeps that information more up to date. Monthly, the Census Bureau surveys 295,000 households, or about 3.5 million households a year.

The forms are mailed and responses are mandatory. The questions are detailed, but the Census is interested in the data, not the people who give the answers. Their anonymity is protected.

The point of the survey is to provide communities, businesses and the federal government the information they need to allocate resources. The school board has to know whether there’s been a baby boom and they’ll have to build schools in the years ahead. Businesses want to know whether a new neighborhood has gentrified and may be a good location for an upscale shop. The government annually allocates more than $400 billion in federal funds across the nation, and the survey helps guide where that money goes.

The survey is so valuable that the effort to save it has brought together business, consumer, and civil rights groups along with demographers and statisticians. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce strongly supports it. Last year, the Chamber’s chief economist said that the survey helped its larger businesses understand “geographic distinctions and other granularity in the economy.”

A Shining Example of Science and Democracy

Our Founding Father James Madison understood the critical role that data could play in our burgeoning democracy from the very beginning. Photo: Flickr user cliff1066â„¢

Its elimination also would be the antithesis of democracy guided by science. And it would cause James Madison, the patron saint of freedom of information, whose birthday is marked on March 15, to turn in his grave.

After all, it was Madison who promoted the idea of a census as tool for governing based on knowledge. Madison envisioned a census that would yield detailed information, data that would give legislators “an opportunity of marking the progress of the society, and distinguishing the growth of every interest.”

So what’s the objection?

Fighting Against The Survey

Last year, Rep. Daniel Webster (FL) proposed eliminating the ACS because it was unconstitutional, a waste of money and intrusive. Webster inveighed against questions that ask, for example, about commuting times to give local officials a better handle on transportation needs, or that try to ascertain the number of Americans who may be disabled, elderly or otherwise incapacitated. As he put it: “[A]t no point does the Constitution require me to tell the Census Bureau whether I have difficulty concentrating or whether or not I can climb stairs.”

According to media accounts, Webster also opposed spending money on a survey he viewed as useless because it was “random.”  His remark seemed to display an unfounded mistrust of the widely used statistical method of random sampling.

Webster’s amendment passed, as did another amendment offered by Rep. Ted Poe (TX), who proposed making the survey voluntary. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul also proposed that the ACS be voluntary. Of course, the problem with a voluntary survey is that it would cost a lot more to do the follow-up to households that don’t reply, and the survey would not be as reliable. “If it’s voluntary, then we’ll just get bad data,” said Kenneth Prewitt, a Columbia University professor who used to direct the Census Bureau.

Fighting For Facts 

The ACS has its Congressional champions. One of the strongest has been Sen. Jay Rockefeller (WV), who last Congress introduced a resolution reminding his colleagues of the importance of the survey, of its bipartisan roots, and of its usefulness.

As this blog is being written, we don’t know whether the efforts to kill or cripple ACS that we saw in 2012 will be repeated this year.  What’s disheartening is the realization that this threat, and all the other threats to fact-based public policy, cannot be dismissed.

UPDATE Tuesday March 19 10:30 AM: Two bills have been introduced in Congress to make the ACS voluntary. In the House, Congressman Edgar Poe (R-TX) introduced H.R. 1078 along with 18 cosponsors. In the Senate, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced S. 530 along with three cosponsors. Both bills have been referred to committee.