Today Trump Gags the EPA. Tomorrow the GOP Strangles the Census.

HUD data map
The Department of Housing and Urban Development's geospatial data is under attack. What's next? Image: HUD

In its first days in power, the Trump administration has already taken alarming steps to restrict public access to information. The White House imposed gags on EPA and USDA employees (though the latter was quickly rescinded) and limited communication from other federal agencies. The EPA’s climate change page is expected to go dark soon.

The GOP clampdown on information and research is bigger than Trump. Congressional Republicans introduced a pair of bills last week to roll back Obama administration fair housing reforms, and buried in the “Local Zoning Protection Act” is a stipulation that seeks to curtail the production and distribution of data about racial segregation.

David A. King is a professor in the school of geography and urban planning at Arizona State. Photo: ASU
David A. King. Photo: ASU

“The bills would also prohibit federal funds from being used for the HUD database containing geospatial information regarding community racial disparities and disparities in access to affordable housing,” according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition.

David King, a transportation and land use researcher at Arizona State University, thinks this attack on research is a preview of what’s to come under Trump and the GOP Congress. We spoke over the phone about the implications of cutting off federal research and data collection, and why that would limit our understanding of how transportation and planning policies affect people. Here’s our interview, lightly edited for length and clarity.

So Republicans have introduced a bill that would limit some housing data. How would that affect your work?

I study transport and land use. These are data that I’ve come across but they’re not particularly central to what I do. I view this as part of a broader attack on publicly available data, which is part of the backbone of social science in the U.S.

I will be surprised if the ACS [American Community Survey] survives the Trump administration.

The ACS was supposed to supply more timely data [between full 10-year Census reports]. With the Census you wouldn’t start getting the data till three or four years later. By that point it’s three or four years old and that’s the only data you have for the next decade.

The ACS is a much smaller sample but it’s ongoing.

What makes you think Republicans will try to eliminate the ACS?

They’ve been trying to for decades. [Editor’s note: background here.]

The Census is required by the Constitution, but it’s just about counting people. You need to know how many people there are and you can allocate Congressional seats. Anything beyond that, many Republicans view as illegitimate.

What do the objections stem from? Is it about money?

It’s about privacy. They seem to be happy to spend money on things they like.

Within the last few years the GOP has launched a number of attacks on the ACS. The last time it was a hot-button issue was three years ago.

Part of the problem is the ACS isn’t working as well as we hoped. People aren’t responding to the same degree. The sample is turning out to be much smaller than expected. There’s issues with the ACS. To me that means they should fix it, not eliminate it.

The idea that we’d stop collecting data on housing — these are the same attacks being made on the ACS, on climate science. The GOP has just been going against data for a long time.

Isn’t detailed Census data very useful to businesses for things like market research?

Corporations like Target have been coming out in support of it.

There’s many more data substitutes than there used to be. There’s so much data out there. Social media data, data from private firms.

So how would this affect your work as a university professor who studies transportation?

If we lose housing data, if we lose demographic data, if we lose ACS data, we won’t be able to evaluate the distribution of benefits associated with transit systems. There’s problems with the equitable distribution of transportation. We know that that’s a problem because we’re using these government data sets.

You’ll end up with people that are essentially the most vulnerable in society not being counted. There are still going to be lots of data about people using credit cards [wealthier people].

I noticed there are only Republican sponsors on these bills.

This is solely a GOP thing. I suspect you’re going to see a lot of these type of bills go through because Trump doesn’t care. That’s my opinion of the Trump administration. It’s on record that the GOP has been trying to kill this for decade. They control all levels of power and they can do this if they want.

This would be a perfect type of thing to try to sneak under the radar right now because most Americans aren’t going to care … until it’s too late. There’s only so much outrage that anybody can have.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The Republicans have dominated public policy at the federal level since 1980, and with most people becoming worse off, they have tried to eliminate public data since the 1990s.

    The difference is the Democrats have changed sides. Now that public employee pension costs are soaring, there is data they want to hide or get rid of too.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Do you ever get tired of making the same comment?

  • Larry Littlefield

    This is a new comment. Until recently the Democrats could be counted on to back the collection and dissemination of data.

    I started getting worried when the data for NYC pension costs was mis-reported to the Census Bureau, and certain tables disappeared from NYC budget publications. Just in the past year. Something completely new.

  • Maggie

    I work in economic and financial research. When the Republicans briefly shut down the federal government in 2013 out of their pique over the affordable care act, one of the sudden challenges in doing the job was when actual government data, information on the US that’s been collected and published for 80 years or so, was released late. What’s the unemployment rate? What was inflation last month? How many jobs were created this quarter? Where are wages going for workers in Indiana and Michigan? We didn’t know and Joe Q Investor didn’t know, because Congress had shut down the Bureaus of Labor Statistics and Economic Analysis for a week or two.

    ACS data is a godsend in making investment decisions. The Republicans may not realize it yet, but the professionalism, idealism, transparency and competence of federal government functions like Census, BEA, BLS, etc, is part of what makes the US widely admired around the world.

  • Larry Littlefield

    And they don’t get the respect they deserve in my opinion. I have also worked with these agencies and their data for decades, along with the NY State Department of Labor.

    The decreasing share of people and organizations cooperating and sending back the mail forms is an indicator of the decline of American citizenship…people want to suck out, but not put in, to their communities. Perhaps because in places such as NY where people are willing to put the most in, others just suck out faster.

    What they should be doing with agencies like this (and USGS, NOAA, NIH, CPB) is what the did with the disparate agencies that now form the Department of Homeland Security. Collect them into a single “Department of Science, Statistics, and Public Information.”

  • Maggie

    I respectfully disagree that this represents the decline of citizenship or that a reorganisation or consolidation is what’s needed. I think people – specifically investors and decision makers – just want to have trust in the ongoing credibility of government and judgment of its leaders. Trump is sprinting in the opposite direction.

    The people who rely on this include everyone with a defined benefit pension and a defined contribution 401(k). If we can’t trust the government to be reality-based with economics, demographics, and fiscal projections, worst-case scenarios around the world and in the states are easy to find.

  • aw82

    Isn’t it the “Local Zoning DECISIONS Protection Act”? That one word really changes the tone. I can’t find much if any reporting on that act, but on Senator Mike Lee’s website it looks like the intent is to allow cities to practice exclusionary zoning.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Yes that is probably what is going on. And I had been expecting a backlash like this since the suburbs started getting poorer.

  • B. Barker

    So a set of statics
    that has too small of a sample size to be useful may be discontinued. Let’s
    save the money and tell these city planners to get out of their offices, walk
    the streets, ride mass transit, and yes even drive during rush hour. Then maybe then they would get a clue about
    what is happening in the real world. Don’t
    even get me started on how the census bureau has been caught faking data.

  • thielges

    You’re thinking that random and inconsistent anecdotal data collected by lay people is better than objective, consistent data collected by professionals?

  • Drew Levitt

    Please, do get started on “how the Census Bureau has been caught faking data.” I look forward to your providing a credible source for this claim.

  • c2check

    Will states, MPOs, or other bodies step up to fill in the gap if the feds stop collecting anything except population?

    I’d imagine at least age info would be pretty important for a lot of reasons.

    Combined with the crackdown on voter “fraud”, I wonder if it would be useful to have better residency records (as many countries do) where you must register in your municipality when you move. It could account for records and data on births and deaths in addition to intra-US migration, allowing for automatic updating of voter records and basic demographic data. (although this obviously misses a lot of info that would be critical for social, economic, racial, or environmental equity)

  • J

    When? Where? Evidence? #AlternativeFacts

  • jetsam

    What this article fails to mention is that the ACS is mandatory, with steep fines ($5000) for those that refuse to participate.I was all for this survey until I learned of that; indeed, I think some of the questions are inappropriate and would not be asked in private survey. But current law makes answering these questions compulsory; one does not get to opt out by remaining silent, as with criminal investigations.

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