Shortsighted: House wants to cut Census data collection
Each year, the Census Bureau asks 3 million American households to answer questions on age, race, housing, health and other demographic markers to produce timely information about communities, states and the country at large.
This annual socioeconomic snapshot is known as the American Community Survey, or ACS. It is an improvement on the old once-a-decade data collected from long-form Census questionnaires, and it has long had bipartisan support.
Earlier this month, however, the House of Representatives voted to eliminate the ACS on the grounds that it was an unconstitutional invasion of privacy and a waste of money.
"This is a program that intrudes on people's lives," said Daniel Webster, a Republican Congressman from Florida who sponsored the 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 survey's randomness is precisely what makes it scientific, according to experts. Furthermore, the Constitution explicitly allows Congress to collect demographic data on the American public "in such a manner as they shall by law direct." The results of the ACS do not identify individuals surveyed.
As for the expense, The Washington Post writes that eliminating the ACS "is like declining to buy stethoscopes in order to reduce health-care expenses: The up-front savings would be relatively tiny in exchange for untold billions in costs to the economy down the line." Indeed, this proposal would have serious negative effects on the federal government and its state and local partners, as well as businesses and non-profits across the country.
The importance of high-quality, objective and universal ACS data for public and private-sector decision-makers cannot be overstated. The federal government alone allocates more than $450 billion annually in program funds to state and local governments based in whole or in part on ACS data. Additionally, state legislatures rely on ACS population data for redistricting. Equally important, businesses of all sizes rely on ACS data on a daily basis to help make vital decisions about where to locate and expand, what goods and services to offer, the scope of employee training to offer and long-term investment opportunities. Non-profit organizations use the ACS to guide services to those most in need and to measure the successes of their programs.
At the Bell, the objective, consistent and comprehensive information about Colorado's social, economic and demographic attributes the ACS provides is an invaluable resource for our research-based policy analysis. Our two substantial reports on Colorado's working families, Opportunity Lost (2004) and Opportunity Still Lost (2010), both rely extensively on census data, much of which comes from the ACS. The rigorous investigations we conduct into the state of working Coloradans would not be possible without this data.
The Senate is expected to vote on the legislation soon. Last Thursday, we submitted a letter to Senators Bennet and Udall urging them to support continuation of a comprehensive and rigorous ACS. We hope their colleagues will do the same.
– Alec Arellano
Article posted on May 23, 2012