Published: May 19, 2012
THE American Community Survey may be the most important government function you’ve never heard of, and it’s in trouble.
It is, more or less, the country’s primary check for determining how well the government is doing — and in fact what the government will be doing. The survey’s findings help determine how over $400 billion in government funds is distributed each year.
But last week, the Republican-led House voted to eliminate the survey altogether, on the grounds that the government should not be butting its nose into Americans’ homes.
“This is a program that intrudes on people’s lives, just like the Environmental Protection Agency or the bank regulators,” said Daniel Webster, a first-term Republican congressman from Florida who sponsored the relevant legislation.
“We’re spending $70 per person to fill this out. That’s just not cost effective,” he continued, “especially since in the end this is not a scientific survey. It’s a random survey.”
In fact, the randomness of the survey is precisely what makes the survey scientific, statistical experts say.
Each year the Census Bureau polls a representative, randomized sample of about three million American households about demographics, habits, languages spoken, occupation, housing and various other categories. The resulting numbers are released without identifying individuals, and offer current demographic portraits of even the country’s tiniest communities.
It is the largest (and only) data set of its kind and is used across the federal government in formulas that determine how much funding states and communities get for things like education and public health.
For example, a question on flush toilets — one that some politicians like to cite as being especially invasive — is used to help assess groundwater contamination for rural parts of the country that do not have modern waste disposal systems, according to the Census Bureau.
Law enforcement agencies have likewise used the data to predict criminal activities like methamphetamine production.
Their recent vote aside, members of Congress do seem to realize how useful these numbers are. After all, they use the data themselves.
A number of questions on the survey have been added because Congress specifically demanded their inclusion. In 2008, for example, Congress passed a lawrequiring the American Community Survey to add questions about computer and Internet use. Additionally, recent survey data are featured on the Web sites of many representatives who voted to kill the program — including Mr. Webster’s own home page.
The legislation is expected to go to the Senate this week, and all sorts of stakeholders are coming out of the woodwork.
“Knowing what’s happening in our economy is so desperately important to keeping our economy functioning smoothly,” said Maurine Haver, the chief executive and founder of Haver Analytics, a data analysis company. “The reason the Great Recession did not become another Great Depression is because of the more current economic data we have today that we didn’t have in the 1930s.”
She added that having good data about the state of the economy was one of America’s primary competitive advantages. “The Chinese are probably watching all this with glee,” she said, noting that the Chinese government has also opted not to publish economic data on occasion, generally when the news wasn’t good.
Target recently released a video explaining how it used these census data to determine where to locate new stores. Economic development organizations and otherbusiness groups say they use the numbers to figure out where potential workers are.
Mr. Webster says that businesses should instead be thanking House Republicans for reducing the government’s reach.
“What really promotes business in this country is liberty,” he said, “not demand for information.”
Mr. Webster and other critics have gone so far as to say the American Community Survey is unconstitutional. Of course, the basic decennial census is specifically enumerated in the United States Constitution, and courts have ruled that this longer form of the census survey is constitutional as well.
Some census watchers — like Andrew Reamer, a research professor at the George Washington University Institute of Public Policy — say they do not expect the Senate to agree on fully eliminating the American Community Survey (as well as the Economic Census, which would also be effectively destroyed by the House bill).
Rather, Mr. Reamer suspects, Republicans may hope that when the Senate and House bills go to a conference committee, a final compromise will keep the survey, but make participation in it voluntary. Under current law, participation is mandatory.
If the American Community Survey were made voluntary, experts say, the census would have to spend significantly more money on follow-up phone calls and in-person visits to get enough households to answer.
But Congress also plans to cut the census budget, making such follow-ups prohibitively expensive.
“If it’s voluntary, then we’ll just get bad data,” saidKenneth Prewitt, a former director of the census who is now at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. “That means businesses will make bad decisions, and government will make bad decisions, which means we won’t even know where we actually are wasting our tax dollars.”
Catherine Rampell is an economics reporter for The New York Times.