What We Don’t Know Can’t Hurt Us (Right?)

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Hey, I have an idea!

Let’s stop collecting any information. About our economy. Our standard of living. Our educational progress. The well-being of our veterans and people with disabilities. The condition of our nation’s homes. How well our farmers are doing.

Let’s just live in an information vacuum, blithely ignoring the good and the bad (what you don’t know can’t hurt you, right?), drifting along in a state of blissful know-nothingness. Wouldn’t life be simple?

Okay, I’ll ‘fess up. This is not an original idea. I stole it from sophomore Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC-3), who just introduced a bill (H.R. 1638) to cancel the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), Economic Census, Census of Governments and every other survey the agency conducts, except the once-a-decade population count. Oh, and bye-bye Census of Agriculture (transferred from Census to the Agriculture Department in 1997). Sayonara, adios — no more data.

I think I get where Rep. Duncan is coming from. His biography says he wants to create a new congressional Committee on the Elimination of Nonessential Federal Programs, “with the express purpose of reducing federal outlays.” No data? No way to identify society’s challenges and to allocate federal resources prudently. Mission accomplished.

Cool! Then we might not need congressmen, because just about all of them rely on Census Bureau data to justify their existence. Rep. Duncan’s website offers great “Resources” for businesses, linking to Business USA, a program started by President Obama (yikes!) in 2011. On the Business USA website, I found this nugget on the Twitter feed: “Who Are America’s Job Creators?” Important question, so I went to the blog by the SBA Administrator Karen Mills. Well, wouldn’t you know… there are 28 million small businesses in the U.S.; they create two out of three new jobs and employ half of the country’s workforce. “But when you dive into the data,” Ms. Mills blogs, “you see that not all small businesses are the same.” Whoa, stop reading… can’t continue this important analysis without the data, which presumably comes from the Economic Census (cancelled!) and follow-on surveys (cancelled!).

Rep. Duncan also offers “Guidance and key resources to help eligible grantseekers find information on federal grants, loans, and nonfinancial assistance for projects, as well as on private funding” on his Resources page. 3rd Congressional District businesses, please go no further, because in FY 2008, ACS data guided nearly 70 percent of all federal grants (Brookings Institution report). Scratch those opportunities off your list.

Given the recent tragic events in Boston, it’s probably a safe bet that most lawmakers support funding to bolster state and local resources to combat various threats to peace and safety. Rep. Duncan provides a link on his website to help localities in his district find information on Homeland Security Grants, as well as equally important Assistance to Firefighter grants. Wait, hold up… scratch those programs; both rely on ACS data to determine eligibility. Sorry, local law enforcement officials and first responders; you’ll have to look elsewhere for support.

Under Transportation issues, Rep. Duncan tells us that, “infrastructure is a legitimate government function.” Good, I’m with you so far. The congressman goes on to say he supports legislation to phase out federal involvement in highway and mass transit programs, turning over all responsibility to the states and eliminating “costly federal mandates.” Okay, I don’t necessarily agree, but let’s assume the congressman’s position for a minute. And just how is South Carolina supposed to decide where to allocate its transportation dollars: better roads in Charleston, or Anderson (“The Electric City!”)? Without comparable, high-quality, small-area data (available from only one source: the U.S. Census Bureau), Palmetto lawmakers presumably will be throwing darts at a map (or maybe holding a sweepstakes – YES!). Anderson officials, by the way, really want you to know that the city is a magnet for businesses because it sits on the busy I-85 corridor. Sadly, businesses won’t know where to set up shop, because they rely on ACS and Economic Census data to understand local markets, workforce, commuting patterns and economic activity in prospective new locations.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT-3), original cosponsor of H.R. 1638, good to hear from you again. I applaud your focus on economic recovery (whether or not I agree with your approach); the fiscal plan described on your website clearly lays out the potential problem of deficit and spending in relation to gross domestic product. Wait… we won’t be able to calculate GDP without the quinquennial Economic Census, which provides the baseline data on classes of business enterprises, economic output, producer incomes, investment in assets and other measures of economic activity. (Worse, I’ll be deprived of one of my favorite statutory words: quinquennial!) Seems hard to make the case for one fiscal plan over another without, well, data on the economy. Just sayin’.

Hello, Rep. Steve Southerland II (R-FL-2)! I see you just introduced the “Strengthening Rural Communities Act” (H.R. 1632), directing 3-5 percent of existing Rural Development Essential Communities Facilities money for technical assistance. The bill would “make it easier for rural communities to thrive by providing the technical assistance and project planning they need to strengthen public safety, public health, and public access to upgraded services.” A worthy goal, indeed.

The Agriculture Department administers the Community Facility Grants Program to help very small communities develop “essential” facilities, such as health care and childcare centers. Wait… the program gives priority to low-income rural areas — those with “median household incomes below the higher [sic?] of the poverty line or 60% of the State non-metropolitan median household income.” The only source of that information for rural areas would be the American Community Survey. Sorry, 2nd Congressional District residents; if you want to demonstrate a need for these grants, you might have to stand outside looking poor (because your congressman has cosponsored a bill to eliminate the availability of any data to prove it). (Good thing Marianna, Blountstown and other 2nd District communities have already taken advantage of project planning assistance to build or upgrade water and wastewater projects, according to the congressman’s website. Without the ACS, no more USDA Water and Waste Disposal Loans and Grants, worth $45 million in FY 2008.)

I think I’m getting one of my famous census headaches. But while you join me with a cold pack on your forehead, trying to take this all in, let me say there is a redeeming provision in this otherwise absurd bill. It eliminates the mid-decade census! What? You didn’t know Congress authorized a second census in the year ending in “5?” Well, that’s because Congress never funded one! But obviously lawmakers thought in 1976 that it might be a good thing to have more data about the condition of our communities and well-being of our population. Whatever were they thinking back then?

24 responses to “What We Don’t Know Can’t Hurt Us (Right?)

  1. To paraphrase Stephen Colbert, Data have a well-known liberal bias.

    • As Sen. Daniel Moynihan said, we are entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts. Census Bureau statistics are not biased; they tell the story of who we are, how we live, and where we are going (collectively) . . . policymakers are then free to make their own decisions based on information available to all, and “the people” can hold them accountable based on their own views of government and the well-being of their communities. Authoritarian governments make decisions for their uninformed populations; I don’t think that’s where this nation wants to go!

  2. Jane Traynham

    I think we should allow the states that want to opt out of the ACS and other objective surveys the opportunity to do that so they can come up with their own methods of planning for and funding disasters, veterans needs, transportation enhancements, services for elderly and children, school siting, job training – geeze my list is getting long.
    Better for the rest of us to not have to split the funding pie in so many pieces, plus the overall deficit gets reduced because that unnecessary spending is not wasted on the states that have opted out.

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

    Terri Ann,that was an eloquent,well-argued and forceful plea against thoughtless abandonment of useful data-collection exercises based on the short-sighted argument of saving federal funds!

    • Thank you, Dr. V! I’ve tried every rational argument in support of preserving reliable, comprehensive, and timely data for informed decision-making and support of the democratic process . . . but when reason fails, I guess a little humor can’t hurt!

  4. Another great post! Thanks.

  5. Oh ! that you would find some speck of empahty for what this represents!
    “WASHINGTON (AP) — A new audit finds that the Census Bureau wasted millions of dollars in preparation for its 2010 U.S. population count, including thousands of temporary employees who picked up $300 checks without performing work and others who overbilled for travel costs.

    Federal investigators caution the excessive charges could multiply once the $15 billion headcount begins in earnest next month unless the agency imposes tighter spending controls, according to excerpts of a forthcoming audit obtained by The Associated Press.

  6. Bob, the press article you cite references either a GAO or Dept. of Commerce Inspector General report. Both watchdog agencies continually audit the work of the Census Bureau (and other government agencies); their findings and recommendations are intended to help Congress conduct its oversight, and the agencies perform their work better. The decennial census is the nation’s largest peacetime mobilization; it will never be perfect. The auditors’ findings helped the Census Bureau spot areas where it needed to implement more controls as it hired three quarters of a million temporary employees to conduct preparations and the count itself. Yes, any mistakes are unfortunate; fortunately, both GAO and the IG have recently reported that the 2010 Census was very well conducted overall and more accurate than the previous two counts. Thanks for reading the blog.

  7. Bob, I should add that while some problems with implementing an activity as large as a census are inevitable, and always unfortunate, I don’t think they justify, in any way, doing away with all data collection and all information we need in a democratic society. The Census Bureau is still a well-run agency, staffed by committed, highly-qualified civil servants. (And, no, I’ve never worked there!)

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

    Also,the audit observations selectively quoted by the press give only one side of the picture from their perspective, and can be properly and impartially evaluated only when it ia juxtaposed with the reply to it from the censua bureau.

  9. I know that the Census is a non-partisan operation, but let’s not mince words. The root of the problem is that the GOP has veered off into fanaticism. Reality must be forced to conform with ideology. If the numbers don’t add up to support that ideology, the numbers get tossed. It’s really no different than dictatorships and totalitarian regimes. The same kind of governments that the GOP claims we are in a perpetual state of war against. The GOP’s stance is not new either. Cuts to childhood immunization programs were made during the Reagan Administration. The Census Bureau’s national health survey reported increases in childhood diseases that could have been prevented by by immunizations after the Reagan cuts went into effect. The GOP’s response? They cut funding for the Census health survey. As you’ve pointed out, it’s even worse now. The GOP doesn’t want any unbiased statistics at all. This can only end in disaster.

  10. I am a law abiding citizen , a stay at home wife & mother and I do not want to answer the “American Community” survey from the US Census Bureau which asks me what time my husband leaves home each day & exposes that I am home alone and “vulnerable” as I am alone all day with my child. The survey asks a ton more personal questions … i.e.. do we own a smart phone, laptop and do we have any mental health condition!?! Why does the Government need to know?! this is an unconstitutional intrusion of our private house hold !!

    This survey is not about our economy. It’s about invading the average law abiding citizen’s rights. We want to live a quiet peaceful life without being harassed and open the doors for a potential tyranical government.

    Dont tell me this is for my protection. This survey will not help fight crime. No criminal is going to truthfully answer a survey. Only a law abiding, God fearing citizen such as myself will truthfully answer and pay the high price by not only having our privacy invaded but our security also.

    Please please bring some pressure to Washington DC with H.R. 1638: Census Reform Act of 2013 and let’s get this thing moving!

    Thanks,
    Laura

  11. Pingback: Where Have I Heard This Before? (or, History Repeats Itself) | The Census Project Blog

  12. b l bosworth

    Like virtually every federal agency, the census bureau has been operating to advance the radical progressive socialist agenda to overthrow Constitutional government in the US. The use of skewed or blatently fraudulent data furnished by the census bureau is one of the pirmary tactics that has been used for decades.

    • The constitution must be respected at all times.

      • Upholding the purity of the constitution and integrity of our country is worth fighting for! We can not be so quick to give up our freedoms to privacy and we must not cave to intimidations.

    • The constitution is not for cowards . It take guts to take a stand and respect it.

  13. Pingback: Lessons from North of the Border: Why a Voluntary ACS Could Wipe Some States Off the Map | The Census Project Blog

  14. Thanks for your comments, Laura. I think it’s worth considering that in totalitarian regimes and under dictatorships, the “people” have no information at all with which to hold elected officials accountable, like we do in a true democracy. The U.S. Census Bureau does not interpret or “spin” data; it collects and reports information about the nation’s conditions, and it’s up to our elected officials to make decisions based on that information. And as citizens, we can then say, “Why are you building a senior center here when data show that more seniors live there and need transportation to get to shopping or leisure activities?” or “Why are you fixing that highway when the data show much heavier commuter traffic on this other one?” In a democracy, we all start with the same information (from the Census Bureau or other federal statistical agencies) and then decide how to allocate or invest limited resources. The data is the messenger, not the message!

  15. Pingback: The ACS: Big Brother, or Democratic Capitalism at Its Best? (You Decide!) | The Census Project Blog