Why Congress Must Save the American Community Survey

As if the drama surrounding the reauthorization weren’t enough, there is another transportation battle brewing between the House and Senate. Last month, the House voted to eliminate funding for the American Community Survey, which is the Census Bureau’s way of getting a yearly pulse-check of how the country is doing and where investment is needed. The Senate’s version of the Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill [PDF], approved at the committee level, does not include this ill-advised amendment to defund the survey.

Rep. Daniel Webster thinks this form is an unconstitutional threat to privacy. (It's also the best assurance that the government is spending its money wisely.) Photo: ##http://www.planetizen.com/node/31053##Planetizen##

The difference in the bills will have to be resolved in conference or in a year-end agreement on the FY2013 budget. A Senate floor vote has not yet been scheduled to take up the bill.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the American Community Survey. In addition to state- and local-level demographic information such as income, employment and housing, the survey includes data on where Americans work, how we get to work, and how long we take to get there. It’s the primary source of information on rates of bicycle commuting, for example, and advocates and planners carefully analyze its results to determine when more bike infrastructure is needed.

No other survey done by the government – or anyone else – provides such a rich source of information about the economy and American society.

In the unlikely event that the House bill becomes law, transportation planners could be left without a reliable guide for making decisions. The survey results guide the distribution of more than $400 billion, including funds for transportation projects.

The U.S. Department of Transportation, states and local governments use the findings to develop transportation plans and identify the need to fund public transportation, roads and transit options for the elderly and disabled.

Businesses also rely on the data to decide where to establish operations, recruit workers and gain information on consumer behavior. Eliminating funding for the ACS would leave the business community without a reliable data source to make intelligent decisions and avoid wasteful spending.

In introducing the amendment to eliminate funding, Representative Daniel Webster (R-FL) cited constitutional and privacy concerns. He compared the Census Bureau to the Environmental Protection Agency and bank regulators, saying that these agencies intrude on people’s lives.

These comments expose this freshman’s lack of understanding of what the American Community Survey is and does.

It’s an annual, more detailed version of the decennial census, replacing the old “long form” survey. As for the allegation that it’s unconstitutional: Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution says that the census will be conducted “in a manner as Congress shall by law direct.”

“They don’t seem to recognize that a number of the questions on the ACS have been asked since 1850,” said Andrew Reamer, Research Professor at George Washington University’s Institute of Public Policy. “James Madison and Thomas Jefferson and a series of presidents since then were strongly in favor of using the census to collect data for public policy purposes.”

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has proposed a bill that would make participation in the ACS voluntary, which would have the effect of making the data highly unreliable. Webster used the term “random” pejoratively when describing the ACS – not understanding, apparently, that its randomness is what makes it scientific.

Under current law, completion of the survey is mandatory and, in theory, households that refuse to complete it could be subject to a $5,000 penalty. But the Census Bureau has no enforcement powers and no one has ever been fined. However, because completion of the survey is legally required, compliance rates are extraordinarily high, making the results highly reliable.

During debate on the Webster amendment, much was made of the sensitive nature of some of the questions. But this objection is meaningless because the survey protects the confidentially of the information and the identity of the respondents. Besides, Congress could simply direct the Census Bureau to revamp the questionnaire to make it less intrusive rather than get rid of the entire program.

Beyond the zealousness that the House action showcases is a broader trend on the Hill to govern based on anecdotes rather than data.

In an interview with Science Magazine, Robert Groves, the outgoing director of the Census, decried the “gigantic mismatch” between the wealth of data about the state of our economy and  society, and the interest by policy makers in using that data as part of their decision making process.

“I’ve devoted my life to trying to improve the quality of statistical information, and it is disappointing to see how little of that is used to make decisions,” he said.

The silver lining of the House’s misguided decision to kill the ACS is that it’s unlikely to be replicated in the Senate. The two-year Senate transportation bill (MAP-21), passed in March of this year, explicitly calls for an “outcomes-driven approach” by states and localities to track the performance of transportation programs. The American Community Survey gives transportation officials the necessary tools to pursue this approach.

Both House and Senate transportation proposals mandate the increased use of formulas to distribute highway funds with the aim of improving surface transportation and the movement of goods on the nation’s highways. Those funding formulas are derived from ACS data.

If a focus on smart decision-making doesn’t save the American Community Survey, maybe pressure from the business community will. Negative reaction to the legislation has come from pro-business publications like the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg-Business Week.

The American Community Survey is critical to good decision-making in transportation and many other areas of our lives and our communities. All eyes are on the Senate, where, hopefully, cooler heads will prevail.

  • Meh

    Really? Why do they ask fro your name and date of birth? It’s a statistics! All they should care how many people lives in the apartment and their age range. I am 40 or 35 to 40. There is none of your business if was born in Sep 1 or July 6. The less data is exposed the better. We constantly loosing credit cards and login info is being hacked. All I need is more shit on PAPER dropped into the mail box and marked: oh look, here is private data. This is bullshit. Our building was burglarized 3 times over 3 years. Now I need to write my name and say when I leave home to work in that form? No, Provide secure online form and so less clerks will sit na go through the paper bullshit. Or ask more then 7% population but make it optional.
    ACS is full of shit. Don’t say we ar ein danger – your current state is in danger. make it better! automate system – you will need a lot less money from the budget too!

  • Gus S.

    You obviously haven’t received one.

    There are so many problems with the ACS I don’t know where to start. It goes way too far and the information is a blue print to when your house is empty, when a young woman arrives home from work, how much money you can expect a house or person to have, etc… not to mention your race, religion, and ethnicity.

    Also, the information is there for everyone in the household to see. What if you have housemates that you don’t want to share this information with?

    Are you saying this information isn’t going to be leaked to big business or other special interest groups? How naive are you?!

    The “American” Community Survey made me sick to my stomach. It is anything but American.

  • Ian Turner

    @9b8abd6ede1c968004a9341156a44a4c:disqus : Can you point to even a single documented case where ACS data was leaked to anyone outside the US census? If trusting the US census to keep data confidential is naive, then assuming it will be disclosed is paranoid.

    Lots of organizations have data that would let you know “when a young woman arrives home fgrom work”, such as phone companies, banks, and Google. They are generally good at keeping that data away from burglers and rapists, but again, if you have a counterexample, I’m all ears.

    I think you do raise a legitimate privacy concern with respect to information-sharing with roommates. My guess is that if this were an issue, the census taker would be more than happy to take the census verbally and keep the answers confidential.

  • Fuckyou

    If I want valuable information, I have to pay for it. 

  • Anonymous

    “It’s also the best assurance that the government is spending our money wisely”

    Fixed this for you.

  • REALLY??

    The Census Bureau will gladly accept forms with no name and only age as opposed to name and birth date. Please respond by phone if mailing the form is a problem. Your info is only valuable when combined with others from your area. Most of this info is publicly available anyway but what company or government agency has the funds to pay to track it down. ACS is the most efficient way of gathering this info. Please show me one question on a form that you have not already given out to someone else.  Facebook posts tell when you are home or not. Housing info is given out to mortgage companies and want ads to rent your home. Income is given to IRS ( and you better get it right). How many times do you stand in public and talk about your job on the cell phone not knowing who is listening. Those people are your neighbors. I for one see no problem in giving my info for ACS as long as I know that I am truly talking to Census workers on the phone. I do not want to mail mine in. Too many people handling my info. You have the choose on the phone if you want to give a IDK  or Refuse to answer on some questions. You can also ask what is this question used for. I for one found this easy and quick to do on the phone.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I’ve got a better idea.  Make participation in all federal statistical series, save the decennial census, a state option — but keep the funding the same.  Instead of data for the U.S., we’ll have data for the U.S. minus backward, ignorant states, and better data at that.

  • Tooredthree

    Now I am hysterical, laughing, rolling on the floor.  If, as the article says, “The U.S. Department of Transportation, states and local governments use the findings to develop transportation plans and identify the need to fund public transportation,……..”
    Who with two brain cells would believe that.  When the government decided to wast all of our taxpayer money buying buses and hiring people to drive them, and then filling them with fuel, the wonderful survey should have told them NOBODY WANTS TO RIDE THEIR DAMNED BUSES.  So, they are driven around (just because we have them), always empty except for the driver.  Hrmpf…………my city/county/state government forgot to look at the “survey”.

  • Robert Gillispie

    American Community Survey violates our constitutional right to privacy….repeal it

  • Herb Green

    YOU ARE FOOLLS, the survey is total BS & an UNCONSTITUTIONAL invasion of privacy…..threatening fines & jail, while not doing squat about real crimes, undocumenteds, etc. The FEDS need to give it up & PS- Obama may like it but it was born bak in 2oo3 by DUbya’s people, in any case, ignore it it is BS- why in the world do they need to know how much $ I make, If I spent a night @ a friedns house (it asks are you gay or striaght…!) kakakakak

  • Herb Green

    How much $ i make, does anyone EVER stay with you, do you stay with anyone else, where did you live LAST YEAR…phlesses

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