The Option of Ignorance: Gutting the ACS Puts Democracy at Risk

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

In a blog post last summer, I waxed incredulously about the ease with which the U.S. House of Representatives dismissed the need for reliable, objective and comprehensive data to guide public and private decision-making and resource allocation, first by voting to make response to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) optional and then to eliminate funding for the survey altogether.

No matter that a myriad of laws Congress itself passed require the data to distribute aid to states and localities for schools, roads and local transit, health care, rural development projects, services for people with disabilities and veterans, and other basic societal functions. Never mind that American businesses use ACS data to locate new plants and stores, determine workforce capabilities, and meet the needs of customers (such as families with children and senior citizens, language minorities, and people with disabilities) — in other words, day-to-day decisions that grow the economy. Forget state, regional and local authorities who rely on ACS data to plan emergency response services, law enforcement strategies, transportation and waste disposal systems, after-school and elder care programs, and other basic functions that make communities tick. Don’t even mention provisions of the Voting Rights Act that require ACS data to ensure access at the polls for limited English proficiency voters.

Two new bills would have us believe that the right of Americans to just say no to a few, simple questions from the Census Bureau outweighs the need of elected, community and business leaders to make informed and transparent decisions in a democracy. H.R. 1078 and S. 530 — similar to bills introduced in the 112th Congress, but sneakily more alarming — would make ACS response voluntary. Just to make sure everyone (especially the teensy percent of U.S. households that are in the monthly sample) knows: the proposals require a statement in the ACS instructions that response (to all but the basic name, address, number of people in household) is optional. As in, “Hey, Americans, this survey really isn’t all that important, so feel free not to respond!”

The bills’ sponsors, Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), want to be very sure the Census Bureau doesn’t ask about a person’s religion in the ACS, even though the law already prohibits the Census Bureau from compelling any person “to disclose information relative to his religious beliefs or to membership in a religious body.” (Title 13, USC §221) Hmmm… perhaps this completely unnecessary new provision might gin up further disdain for census surveys among those who believe government already overreaches? Just sayin’.

House members already approved, by breezy voice vote, an appropriations bill amendment making ACS response voluntary. So it’s not a stretch to worry about momentum building around the new Poe/Paul proposals or similar amendments to the next round of funding bills.

Let’s envision the nation’s largest, most comprehensive and important baseline survey as a choice for the next five years. Americans will be told they can decide whether to answer any or no questions (other than name, rank and serial number). By the time the 2020 Census rolls around, more Americans just might believe data aren’t important at all, and sit out the next decennial count.

Mahatma Gandhi had it right. When he called for a general strike against British civil authority, he was nevertheless wise enough to encourage participation in India’s census. This nation needs objective, reliable information, not only to function efficiently, but to ensure that Americans can hold their government accountable for its decisions. It’s a pact that makes a true democracy work, and to suggest that the people have rights but no responsibilities is starting to sound… well, un-American.

14 responses to “The Option of Ignorance: Gutting the ACS Puts Democracy at Risk

  1. Terri Ann, our agency is planning to send letters again to our MD representatives to protest this. Any other game plans being discussed?
    Thanks for the blog.

  2. Thanks for your continued support, Jane. Stakeholder strategy now is simple: educate, educate, educate. Most lawmakers don’t know enough about the ACS, nor do they make the connection between collecting data (i.e. surveys) and the information they and their staffs use – probably on a daily basis – to make decisions. So it’s incumbent on those who use the data for real-life, practical purposes to connect the dots, using clear examples and spelling out why seemingly “nosy” questions yield information in the aggregate that tells us where to locate bus routes, senior centers, after school recreation centers. and new stores, or where highways will need improvements, or where handicapped accessible facilities are especially important, etc. We just have to keep up the education process!

  3. Dr M.Vijayanunni,former census commissioner & registrar general of India

    Terry Ann,Glad to see that you cited the Mahatma Gandhi instance about census appropriately at the earliest opportunity,as you had mentioned earlier. During my work as census commissioner of India,for a large preparatory conference on the 2001 census of India the Home secretary had wanted some talking points and one of the points given by me

  4. Dr M.Vijayanunni,former census commissioner & registrar general of India

    was this Gandhi instance which had been picturesquely,and to great historical value, recorded in the 1931 census of India report.And the Home secretary gratefully included it in his speech to be received with great appreciation!

  5. Dr M.Vijayanunni,former census commissioner & registrar general of India

    The disjoint in my reply as two separate pieces is because of a malfunction while typing in and I just went on to complete the post since that was the only way to see it through.
    And sorry about misspelling your name Terri as Terry in my reply!

  6. Thank you for providing the most appropriate historical reference to Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. V! (I know what you mean about typing “malfunctions;” I’m very low-tech myself and can barely figure out the basic “apps” on my Blackberry!) We are still fighting an uphill battle to preserve good data here in the U.S., but we march onward!

  7. Thanks, Terri Ann. Everyone time I read one of your posts, I get so mad! Have posted on why you think some legislators are so intent on de-funding the ACS? I’m curious.

  8. As one who is currently engrossed in filling out the survey form, I can attest that it is actually pretty long and takes some time to complete. That being said, I consider it an honor as well as a responsibility of citizenship since this type of information is truly necessary and helpful for the distribution of resources, services, and funding around the country. I live in a a poor state – Alabama – and am well aware of the importance of having the federal government be aware of living ocnditions here. (Ironic, of course, that many Alabama politicians tend to be in the camp of those who want to shrink or dismantle the federal government). That members of congress are seriously contemplating making the response to the American Community Survey simply volumtary is astounding and dismaying.
    Simultaneously working on my federal and state income taxes right now as well as the ACS, I feel a bit burdened but accept this as a necessary responsibility of living in a civilized society. As an American citizen I accept this reponsibility. As an academic reference librarian I feel honored to be able to directly contribute to the storehouse of government information to be used by future researchers, policymakers, andd others.

    • Tim, sorry for the delay in acknowledging your thoughtful comments and personal observations. No question that filling out a government survey isn’t first on everyone’s “to do” list. But I completely concur with your conclusion that we (as Americans) have some civic responsibilities to help our government (at all levels) and society (businesses; non-profits) function effectively, prudently, and knowledgeably. Data from the American Community Survey is perhaps MOST useful at the local level, to understand and address basic conditions and needs, such as where to locate senior centers and parks for kids, how to address traffic congestion and improve transit, where to open small businesses and market products locally (which improves economic and job growth right at the community level), and how to plan for future needs such as new schools and job training programs.
      Thanks again for taking the time to read our blog and for your interest in this often obscure but important issue of governance in a democratic society!

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  10. Aristotle Washinton

    The American Community Survey is a slap in the face to any who abide by our founding documents. We know exactly what questions are allowed constitutionally by the Census and that does not include the raft of personal questions in the current form. I don’t expect people who support big government and want their lives led by dictators to understand this, but the majority of Americans don’t want these intrusions into our lives and the American Revolution fought against powers that squeezed the people too hard for too long.

  11. Julian, good question, and I’m hesitant to ascribe motives beyond what’s been stated publicly: ACS opponents believe it represents an overly-intrusive federal government and goes beyond the authority granted Congress in the U.S. Constitution (Article I, sec. 2) to conduct a census every ten years. Of course, James Madison himself emphasized the need for comprehensive data to guide public policy, and the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the broader collection of data in the census beyond a basic population count. Some ACS critics have criticized the survey as a way for government to dole out federal funds to the less needy among us. Other ACS supporters suggest that ACS critics simply don’t want the public to know about the extent of conditions in economically disadvantaged communities. Whatever the motives behind efforts to undermine the ACS, it’s incumbent on the broad range of stakeholders who rely on the data, and the Census Bureau itself, to demonstrate exactly how the “nosy” questions translate to meaningful information that drives countless public and private sector decisions day in and day out. And I continue to maintain that without such a comprehensive picture of our nation — publicly accessible unlike in many countries — Americans would have no way to hold their elected officials accountable (as they should) for their decisions and expenditure of our tax dollars. Information = transparency = accountability in a democracy!

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