The ACS: Big Brother, or Democratic Capitalism at Its Best? (You Decide!)

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

It’s appropriations season (not to be confused with the closing NBA and NHL seasons, or the full-throttle MLB season, but a sport in its own right nonetheless). That means census stakeholders are on high alert for the latest assault on the Census Bureau’s invaluable — and vulnerable — American Community Survey (ACS).

Let’s take stock of the nation’s largest sample survey, shall we? Following the 1990 census, with disappointing mail-back rates and the highest recorded disproportionate undercount of people of color, lawmakers theorized that the much-maligned census long form — sent to roughly one in six households to measure key socio-economic characteristics — might be dragging down the once-a-decade population count. (Long form response rates were about 12 percent lower than those for the universal short form.) They urged the Census Bureau to find a better way to collect information necessary for decision-making.

The Census bureau launched its signature replacement survey nationally (despite ill-timed budget cuts) in 2005. Congress seemed satisfied. The 2010 census, pared down to just six topical questions for all households, held its own in terms of projected mail-back rates, accuracy, on-time completion and staying within budget (significant technology glitches notwithstanding).

But Congress also was changing. A crop of junior lawmakers who valued limited government above all else soon had the ACS in its crosshairs. First, Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) proposed making ACS response voluntary. Not swayed by a hearing on the bill at which every witness (except Rep. Poe) opposed the idea, the House passed an amendment (May 2012) to last year’s Census Bureau appropriations bill. Emboldened, the limited-government gang quickly followed up by snuffing out ACS funding entirely.

Cooler heads prevailed in the Senate, although the final FY2013 Continuing Appropriations Act calls for an independent study of the consequences of making the ACS voluntary. But the survey’s critics are not giving up. Rep. Poe and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) reintroduced bills not only to make ACS response optional, but to require a clear opt-out message on the form.

Not to be outdone, Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) decided the Census Bureau shouldn’t do anything at all except count the population every 10 years. No more ACS; goodbye, Economic Census, Census of Governments, Census of Agriculture, and countless other smaller but vital surveys that tell us how our people, communities, economy and business sector are faring.

Given the all-out assault on the ACS, you’d think the survey was a mini version of the NSA phone and email dragnet, designed to breach the privacy of average, law-abiding Americans. But a new coalition in Minnesota shows just how wrong the critics are, and how the survey supports informed decision-making and prudent resource use in virtually every sector of everyday American life.

Minnesotans for the American Community Survey (MACS… cute, huh?) wants members of Congress to know that they rely on ACS data to make policy, operational and fiscal decisions that affect the quality of life in your community and neighborhood. From local chambers of commerce and municipal service and infrastructure agencies to nonprofits serving children and the elderly and people with disabilities and refugees and low-income mothers — the very people who make our communities tick —  organizations need reliable, timely, consistent and comprehensive information to guide the work they do: where to locate stores and what products to sell; how to meet growing transportation needs and mitigate traffic congestion; what type of housing development best meets the needs of residents; who needs health care and help paying for it; whether workforce skills and educational levels match the needs of companies that want to locate in the state.

Dakota County’s Office of Planning and Analysis is a member of MACS. The state’s third-largest at around 400,000 people, Dakota is an all-American county, equal parts urban, suburban and rural, with a high median household income and low family poverty rate. How do we know this? The ACS, of course. What does the county government do for its residents? It helps maintain 440 miles of roads and 81 bridges; protects its natural and agricultural areas; offers job training at workforce centers; prepares for natural disasters and health emergencies; and provides for children in need. I may be going out on a limb here, but I suspect Dakota County doesn’t do any of these things blindly. It uses data derived directly or indirectly from the ACS to evaluate and project the needs of its citizens, and to meet those needs efficiently. Do the data give the county an excuse to spend taxpayer money, as some critics of the ACS have charged? Hardly; Dakota boasts one of the lowest county tax rates in the state.

The Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce is also part of MACS. The organization helps “grow member businesses and the region,” according to its website. It’s currently promoting a huge development project in downtown Minneapolis that will offer office space, housing, retail, dining, parking and park space. And how does a project like this attract investors, stores, home buyers or renters, and business tenants? I’ll go out on a limb again, but I’m pretty sure the glossy brochures feature plenty of economic, social and demographic facts, derived largely from the ACS.

The ACS isn’t Big Brother. It’s your city, community, neighborhood: the construction workers, transforming downtown Minneapolis; the small business owners and store clerks, offering dry cleaning at convenient locations and clothes you want at the mall; the health care clinics, treating children in low-income households when they’re sick; the county planners, making sure there will be enough elementary schools to serve a growing number of young families; transportation systems, accommodating people with disabilities and the elderly; and workforce centers, helping returning veterans match their skills to available jobs.

We do our part as Americans by answering a few questions that add up to a portrait of our everyday lives (and most of us will never have to, anyway). We see the aggregate statistics — and watch our communities flourish. That’s democratic capitalism at its best.

2 responses to “The ACS: Big Brother, or Democratic Capitalism at Its Best? (You Decide!)

  1. Dr M.Vijayanunni,former Census Commissioner and Registrar General of India

    Terri Ann,that was another good write up giving the historical background of the considerations that led to the discontinuance of the census long form and the introduction of the ACS and your considered and well-argued support to it in the light of the continuing uncertainties relating to it.Many seem to think(wrongly,of course) that such additional surveys are meant solely to ensure the jobs in the census establishment,which is not the truth. May more voices like MACS make themselves heard in the larger interest.