Category Archives: American Community Survey

My Lucky Day (A real ACS household in the family!)

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

I’m so excited; I might jump right out of my skin!

My dad just called from Connecticut. “Terri,” he said breezily. “We just got something in the mail from the Census Bureau. It’s called the… let’s see… the American Community Survey.” My heart soared!

Dad (age 83) seemed to appreciate the importance of the mailing they received. But I launched into my speech anyway. I described how special my parents were — one of only 295,000 households in the whole country to get the world’s premier survey each month. How the data are used by businesses, their local and state governments, federal policymakers. Everyone! Okay, he really didn’t need much convincing, but I had to practice my pitch.

“The ‘postcard’ I have says we can do this online,” dad said. He, who has never used a computer in his life (doesn’t even have a cell phone), started reading off the URL. I confirmed that would probably be the easiest way to respond; mom (age 81) is quite computer-literate. Sensing my glee at encountering a real, live ACS household, dad suggested they could wait until I came home for Passover in two weeks, so I could enjoy the experience with them. “NOOO!!! You really should do it now,” I counseled, explaining how the Census Bureau would have to send another letter, perhaps with a paper form, or even telephone for their responses, if they waited too long.

“Okay, well, your mother is busy tomorrow, but we’ll set aside some time the next day to do this.” Such a civic-minded person, my father.

There was one more question: “So, if we do this on the computer, how do they know that it’s us entering the information?” Good question, dad-with-the-engineer’s-mind. I ticked off facts about unique identifiers, barcodes and geo-coding each address to an exact location, which in the low-tech speak for which I am well known probably amounted to, “Trust me, they know what they’re doing.”

I can’t wait to hear about their survey-responding experience when I see them in a couple of weeks. But if they start complaining about nosy or ridiculous questions, I’m sending them straight to the Census Bureau’s new (relatively) Respondent Advocate. (I’m looking at you, Tim Olson.)

As I hung up the phone, I thought back to when my then 11-year-old daughter was crushed when we didn’t get the 2000 Census long form. Probably the only person in the entire U.S. of A. to feel let down by this omission. (“No, we can’t trade with a neighbor who might have received one.”)

People get excited for different reasons. Hey, whatever floats your boat!

From the Ashes… The Poe Bill Rises Again

House Committee to Vote on Voluntary American Community Survey Bill Next Week

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

This week, the College Board announced that it would overhaul the dreaded SAT test, to reflect more realistically the knowledge that students acquire in high school and the skills they will need to succeed in college. In that spirit, let me pose a strategic-thinking question:

Let’s say you’re a member of Congress. A committee on which you serve holds a hearing on a bill making response to a unique, irreplaceable and vital government survey voluntary, because the sponsor believes the government has no business collecting data on the characteristics of the nation’s population or households. Every witness at this hearing, other than the bill’s sponsor himself, opposes the bill. Those speaking against the proposal include a conservative think tank, a major housing industry association, and a leading business sector organization from the sponsor’s own home town; other diverse stakeholders submit their objections in writing.

The top agency official responsible for the survey tells your panel that making response optional would have serious, adverse consequences for a data source used by state and local governments, business and industry, transportation planners, school boards, advocates for veterans and people with disabilities, higher education systems, emergency preparedness agencies, community nonprofits — yes, the list goes on and on. He points to a congressionally-mandated field test showing that survey response rates, especially by mail, would plummet, and costs would rise by nearly a third (+$66 million dollars) at a time when Congress is squeezing the agency’s budget. The agency would no longer be able to produce essential demographic, social and economic estimates for less-populous areas of the country, including 41 percent of U.S. counties, small cities, villages, towns, many school districts, neighborhoods and American Indian reservations. “Modern societies rely on accurate statistics, and the ACS is a cornerstone of our country’s statistical infrastructure,” the agency director concludes.

Taking all of this information into account, your next logical step as an elected representative is to:

A: Conclude that the bill is misguided and would not serve the interests of the nation, or even the branch of government of which you are a member.

B: Ask the agency that administers the survey to ensure that it only collects data required to implement federal laws, establish eligibility for formula grants, and allocate federal program funds — all of which Congress directed.

C: Hold a future oversight hearing to explore ways the agency can improve the questionnaire, minimize burden on the public by re-engineering field procedures, and address concerns about privacy in an information-dependent era.

D: All of the above.

E: Two years later, schedule a vote on the bill anyway because, hey, who cares if no one thinks the bill has any merit; we’re Congress, and no one thinks anything we do makes sense! Plus, mid-term elections are around the corner.

If you selected answers “A,” “B,” “C,” or “D,” do not fret. The College Board announced that, as part of its overhaul, it will not penalize wrong answers! But if you still think you deserve credit, you might write to members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which will vote next week (Wednesday, March 12) on H.R. 1078, a bill sponsored by Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) to make response to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (part of the decennial census) optional.

And if you’re still looking for irony, consider this: Then-Census Director Robert Groves, testifying before the committee on March 6, 2012, noted that The College Board uses ACS data in their efforts to increase the number of students who graduate from college, especially those from high-poverty communities.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to lie down with a cold pack on my forehead (again).

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Editor’s Note: For more information, please read:

 

A Salute to Our Veterans (Courtesy of the ACS)

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Let me start with a timely salute to our nation’s veterans. All 21 million of them, including 2.4 million African American and 1.2 million Hispanic former service members. Shout-outs to Killeen, Texas, and Clarksville, Tennessee, where veterans comprise a quarter or more of local residents. Hats off to the more than nine in ten veterans with a high school diploma — a greater proportion than the general population. And is it any wonder that these patriotic fellow citizens are twice as likely as non-veterans to hold a job in public administration?

Oh, sorry, I digress from the focus of this blog. But really, people, it’s important that we know this stuff — and more — about those who defend our freedoms. About three-quarters of our living military veterans served worldwide while the country was at war. More than a quarter of both Gulf War and post-9/11 era vets live with a service-connected disability. Nearly 30 percent of veterans reside in rural areas, but rural vets represent 41 percent of those enrolled in the VA health care system. Veterans in rural communities are more likely to have at least one disability compared to non-veteran rural dwellers.

Raise your hand if you know where I’m going with this. That’s right: a lot of what we know about our veterans comes from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). Businesses, nonprofits, and federal, state and local leaders use ACS data to understand and address the needs of veterans — from job training and employment assistance, to health care, to housing, and more. Who among us wouldn’t want that for our former soldiers?

So why, oh why, in the words of Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), sponsor of a bill to cancel the ACS (and just about every other Census Bureau program), are Americans “fed up with these mandatory census surveys and [they’re] asking us to stop the harassment”?

Ummm, no, they’re not. Okay, maybe a few are grumbling. According to the Census Bureau’s new cheerleader for harassed Americans (officially called the Respondent Advocate), roughly 60 percent of households answer the ACS without any prodding at all. With a little encouragement and explanation, by phone or in person, the response rate jumps to 97+ percent (weighted). Of the 3.54 million households in the 2012 ACS sample, less than 8,000 refused to participate (and no one, I can assure you, was hauled off to jail). Let’s see: that’s a refusal rate of (drumroll) two-tenths of a percent. The 535 members of Congress were so deluged with anti-ACS complaints that they sent the bureau (another drumroll, please) 187 letters on behalf of distraught constituents over the past 18 months.

Sure, the ACS questions could use a systematic review and some fine-tuning; thorough training will help ensure positive interaction between survey takers and responding householders. I suspect the Census Bureau has been a little behind the eight ball in acknowledging thoughtful concerns about parts of the survey; it’s finally on the right track, I think. More on these efforts in my next blog.

But let’s stop pretending: ACS critics aren’t falling on their data swords for countless (no pun intended, census fans!) Americans abiding stoically in the shadow of government overreach. Ideology — namely, a belief that government can require little of the governed, coupled with an aversion to the sort of federal assistance dispensed on the basis of ACS data — is driving the campaign to weaken (with voluntary response) or eliminate the survey.

And that’s okay. (Yes, you read that correctly.) If you don’t believe that government has a fundamental interest in producing objective, comprehensive data to inform and guide decision-making, go ahead and make your case. Explain and defend the consequences or propose a practical alternative. Just please drop the cover of phantom citizens cowering behind mailboxes, dreading a nosy questionnaire and the prospect of devoting an hour of time to help the world’s greatest democracy function smartly. Most Americans, it seems, are wiser than you think. And they all love our veterans.

Enlightening Congress: A Novel Idea!

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…
(George Gershwin)

Census stakeholders, the lazy days of the August congressional district work period are almost upon us. House and Senate appropriators have dutifully blessed their respective versions of the appropriations bill (H.R. 2787/S. 1329) covering Census Bureau activities for the fiscal year beginning October 1. The two chambers are miles apart — $138 million, to be exact — on how much to invest in the nation’s most publicly familiar statistical agency, but I think we can safely say it will be a while before they settle on a final number (that’s what the ubiquitous continuing funding resolution is for — buying time!).

But please don’t fall asleep in your lounge chair for the rest of the summer, people; we have work to do. You see, appropriations bills aren’t just about the money. Shall we take a moment to reminisce? Little more than a year ago, House members were considering the Fiscal Year 2013 Commerce funding bill, which (by the way) knocked 40 percent off the Census Bureau’s budget request for 2020 census planning. But I digress. The real excitement started when Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) offered a neat idea: Let’s make response to the American Community Survey (ACS) optional! Sure, every witness (save the congressman himself) at a hearing on Poe’s bill to accomplish this goal strongly objected to it. ACS response rates would plummet; costs would rise substantially; data quality would diminish to the point where the Census Bureau might not be able to produce any data for the nation’s smallest areas (which might include 41 percent of counties). But why let dismal facts get in the way; the amendment breezed through by simple voice vote.

Not satisfied with a weakened ACS, Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL) took to the floor to ask why we need the survey at all. It’s an invasion of privacy! The government has no business snooping into our personal lives, financial status and housing conditions! The Constitution only permits a headcount! Poof! Funding for the ACS went up in smoke on a mostly party-line vote.

Perhaps I can articulate the anti-data collection arguments more vividly. “Is nothing to escape [the Federal government’s] inquisition or its tax gatherers? Are even our hens and chickens to be listed, and an authenticated expose forwarded to Washington?” Or how about, “It seems to me that they imply an invasion of domestic privacy which it is essential tyranny to enforce and slavishness to submit to. [And] I invite Republicans to join me in the contumacy to the Federal power… “. How’s that for eloquence! The writer, by the way, was John H. Pleasants, editor of the Virginia Whig newspaper, needling Democratic Census Superintendent William Weaver, a Van Buren administration appointee, in 1840.

Fanning the flames of census controversy between the Whigs and the Democrats, Rep. Alexander Stephens (Whig-GA) challenged the collection of data beyond a strict population count in the 1850 census on constitutional grounds. As the Congressional Globe (precursor to the Congressional Record) documented on May 1, 1850, Mr. Stephens “thought it perfectly clear, that as that clause of the Constitution authorized nothing but an enumeration of the people, the action of Congress should be confined to that subject alone.” (In those days, Congress passed a new census bill each decade, establishing the enumeration’s parameters.)

Rep. James Thompson (D-PA), proponent of the bill authorizing the 1850 count, pushed back. “What is the constitutional question that has been presented here? It is said that we have no power to take these statistics. … Sir, we possess the power to procure this information upon another ground … It is the right to enlighten the legislative mind… Why do we ask these questions with regard to age? Because we want to know the physical condition of the country.” Imagine… trying to enlighten the legislative mind. Or, as columnist George Will (yes, he of staunch conservative pedigree) wrote in a recent column (The Washington Post, 7/12/13), abolishing the ACS (and making response voluntary) “would require government to be unnecessarily ignorant.”

Fast-forward 163 years. When Congress returns from its summer recess, we should be ready for Round Two (or five or ten; historical examples abound) of the never-ending assault on the collection of data that informs decision-making and resource allocation in almost every sector, public and private, of our society. Hopefully, for every Rep. Stephens (GA, 1850) still roaming the Capitol halls, there is a Thomas Jefferson (a champion of limited federal government powers!), who advocated gathering census data beyond a mere headcount to produce “facts highly important to society.”

Will census history forever repeat itself? If so, beware the Ides of March, for that is when Congress finally wrapped up the 2013 funding bills this past winter (six months late, naturally). For the sake of an informed nation and transparent government, let us pray that lawmakers see the folly — and danger —of plunging the world’s greatest democracy into an information black hole. And just in case prayer fails us, let’s hoist ourselves out of our late summer stupor and ask our elected officials why “we shall do better if we act in the dark, than if we have light; that we shall do better to remain in ignorance, than if we obtain information.” (Thank you, Rep. Thompson of Pennsylvania. And, no, we will not be counting chickens in the ACS!)

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.

Lessons from North of the Border: Why a Voluntary ACS Could Wipe Some States Off the Map

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

What if we took a survey and no one answered? Or, to be more realistic, only two-thirds of us did?

That’s what happened north of the border recently. The Canadian Parliament decided to do away with the nation’s mandatory long-form survey and replace it with the voluntary National Household Survey (NHS). Statistics Canada (StatCan) reported the results of the first NHS, conducted in 2011, this week. Instead of the 94 percent response rate achieved with the 2006 mandatory long form, only 68 percent of households returned the voluntary survey. Instead of having reliable data for 97 percent of the country, only three-quarters of Canada’s localities will have a picture of their socio-economic conditions.

In abolishing the mandatory survey, conservatives decried the burden on Canadians of revealing “personal” information to the government. How ironic, then, that in order to make up for projected falling response rates, StatCan increased the number of households that received the survey, from one in five to one in three. That’s a 65 percent jump!

Now that we’ve recovered from the initial shock of a proposal (H.R. 1638) to axe just about everything the Census Bureau does, legislation to make American Community Survey (ACS) response optional might seem relatively tame, if not harmless. Think again, census stakeholders.

Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), citing “big government at its worst,” reintroduced a bill (H.R. 1078) to let people ‘just say no’ to all or part of the survey. (See my March 20, 2013, post.) A 2003 field test of a voluntary ACS, which Congress demanded, gave a glimpse of the stiff consequences of such a significant change in methodology. Response rates would plummet, especially for traditionally hard-to-measure population groups, and costs would skyrocket (by at least 30 percent), as the Census Bureau scrambles to ensure enough response to produce accurate data for towns, small counties, rural communities, neighborhoods and smaller population groups such as veterans, people with disabilities and ethnic subgroups. The Canadian experience, the first of its kind to our knowledge, bears this out.

Congress doesn’t seem in the mood to allocate more money for good data; the Census Bureau already is reeling from an 11 percent budget cut this year (13 percent if you count the $18 million dip into the Working Capital Fund). The bureau might have to follow StatCan’s lead and put a warning on all small-area data estimates: Use at your own risk due to high non-response error. Translation: The data are flawed because some population groups are less likely to respond than others and therefore skew the representation of the sample.

More likely, we might not see any data for small areas because the bureau won’t have the money to compensate for plummeting response rates by increasing the sample size (that’s sampling error, folks) like StatCan did. Forty-one percent of U.S. counties are home to less than 20,000 people; even with a mandatory ACS, the Census Bureau must aggregate data over five years to accumulate enough responses to yield statistically valid estimates for these areas.

New York? Most counties are larger, although we’d lose information about communities and neighborhoods within counties, making it difficult for local governments and businesses to target services and investment dollars. But bye-bye to most of Montana, the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas, Idaho and Iowa. You can wipe half of Texas, Nevada, Wyoming and Utah, much of Colorado, Missouri, Georgia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Arkansas and Minnesota, and not insignificant portions of other states off the map. No data for 95 percent of American Indian reservations and Alaska Native areas, most elementary school districts, and more than half of secondary school districts. How is anyone supposed to make rational decisions without all of this local information?

Meanwhile, joining the list of conservative voices that appreciates the value of objective, reliable data to support decision-making is The Weekly Standard. A May 20 article calls the ACS “one of the most robust and important tools we have for measuring and understanding American trends.” Ironically, The Weekly Standard admonished the Census Bureau for deciding, because ACS content is now a zero sum game, to drop the question on how many times a person has been married, to make room for questions on use of health care subsidies and premiums that will help policymakers assess the effectiveness of the Affordable Care Act (okay, Obamacare).

Raise your hand if you remember what happened the last time the Census Bureau tried to mess with a census question on marriage? Well, before the 2000 count — when the census long form still ruled the data world — the bureau thought it might streamline the short form that everyone received, by shifting a question on marital status to the sample (or long) form. You would have thought someone proposed abolishing Mother’s Day! Very conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC), incensed at the inference that marriage was no longer a “sacred institution” — and who had been complaining for years that the census form was too long — proposed an amendment (to the Transportation appropriations bill, 106th Congress) in support of keeping the question on the short form.

So, we have some conservatives railing against the public burden of so many nosy questions, and others urging the government to keep asking how many times you’ve been married. While Sen. Helms and conservative colleagues (e.g. John Ashcroft, Sam Brownback) were fighting to save the marriage question, the same Senate went on record urging Americans to answer only the long form questions they liked in the 2000 census. Yes, I feel a census headache coming on…!!

Where Have I Heard This Before? (or, History Repeats Itself)

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

So where do we go from here, census stakeholders? Let’s take stock.

As I reported in my last blog post, nearly a dozen House members think it’s a good idea to do away with every survey and census — except the once-a-decade population count — the U.S. Census Bureau conducts. With a few legislative votes and the stroke of a president’s pen, they would leave the world’s greatest democracy with virtually no useful information on which to base prudent decisions and with which to hold elected officials (like themselves) accountable.

Some observers are understandably shocked — shocked! — at the absurdity of such a proposal. Whatever could the proponents be thinking?

According to a press release, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), is acting on behalf the many annoyed constituents who believe the surveys are “invasive.” Many? Really??? Given the small sample size of non-census surveys, only a tiny fraction of the congressman’s constituents would ever be asked to fill one out. While the congressman acknowledges the need for “some” economic data, he is confident there are other ways to gather it that don’t involve “harassing people” or “invading their privacy.” “Americans are tired of too much government meddling in their daily lives,” Rep. Duncan assures us. (Except, I’m sure, when potholes need filling, a doctor’s visit is paid for through Medicare or Medicaid, classrooms are too crowded, or they really would like a new senior center close to public transportation.)

This all sounds vaguely familiar. In fact, it sounds like an effort to up-end the census (and related American Community Survey, which used to be the census long form)… circa 1970.

You see, that’s when a group of young conservatives, in a mailing to (presumably) other conservatives, wrote: “The citizen’s right of privacy is directly violated when the federal government attempts to force us to answer questions that are none of the government’s business… The point is not what questions are being asked,” the authors declared, “but that a federal agency dares to institute a process that will pry into the core of our individual lives.” They also organized anti-census demonstrations at federal buildings.

And they might have stirred every limited-government soul to dodge the census, except that one very notable conservative decided to call their bluff. Renowned columnist James J. Kilpatrick, himself a recipient of the anti-census diatribe, countered the “privacy” argument in an op-ed (Washington Evening Star, 2/22/70; syndicated elsewhere):

“Is it true that such information is ‘none of the government’s business?’ On the contrary, such information is of the first importance to government. How else can public policies be fashioned wisely? Where should schools be built, and water lines laid, and parks established? How many people will be using what highways and airports when? The economic and demographic information coming from confidential Census reports… is vital to every public and private undertaking that rests upon a knowledge of what our country is.”

There’s something else going on here aside from vague concerns about “privacy.” In the required “Statement of Constitutional Authority,” here’s what Rep. Duncan submitted in support of H.R. 1638:

“Article I Section 2 notes the need for an Enumeration of the people necessary for the apportionment of Congressional districts. That is the true purpose of the Census Bureau. This legislation seeks to return the Census Bureau to the Constitutional intent of the Founding Fathers by eliminating non-Constitutional additional enumerations that the Bureau undertakes today.”

So there we have it. The sponsors believe that the federal government does not have the authority to gather information from the people in order to produce statistics that guide fiscal and social policy-making and the allocation of government resources. Funny, this also rings a bell; the 1970 protesters labeled the census a “violat[ion] [of] our rights under the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Amendments to the Constitution.”

Not so, states’ rights advocate Kilpatrick shot back. Not only do legislators have broad authority with regard to census-taking (i.e. “in such manner as they shall by Law direct”), the columnist said, they have the power to regulate commerce. “Nothing in the Constitution prohibits the Congress from combining its powers in useful ways. Thus a Census question on the houses we own, and the plumbing and heating in them, may not relate narrowly to ‘enumeration,’ but it relates reasonably to commerce — and it scarcely reaches ‘the core of our individual lives’ [quoting the anti-census mailing he received]. The same thing is true of questions relating to our jobs and how we get to them.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself, Jim, though heaven knows I’ve tried.

Having defended the need for informed decision-making (is there any other worthwhile kind in a democracy?), I fully understand why survey recipients might view the questions as odd, at best, or maybe nonsensical or even intrusive. The Census Bureau has a responsibility, too, to explain clearly the purpose of questions to households fortunate enough (smile) to receive one, as well as to limit follow-up calls and door-knocks to a reasonable number for people who clearly don’t want to be bothered. Kudos to the agency for finally establishing a Respondent Advocate for Household Surveys, to be the ears and voice for people wondering what the heck the government really wants to know (e.g. not when you leave the house, but how many cars are on the road during rush hour!) and advise the Census Bureau on how to make surveys more user-friendly.

Now, if only our elected officials would demonstrate some leadership and help illuminate the need for objective, reliable data, instead of pretending we can live in a society that doesn’t even calculate the unemployment rate!

The Cycle of Life, Part Two: Time to Ramp It Up

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Last week, I gave a little tutorial on the lifecycle cost of a decennial census. You know: “The seasons, they go round and round, and the painted ponies go up and down.” Up and down are the operative words; right now, the cycle is in up mode. Meaning the Census Bureau needs modest funding increases each year to stay on an efficient, productive research and planning schedule that will save billions of dollars in implementation costs over the entire lifecycle.

Did I just date myself terribly? (“Like” if you remember that song!) But, I digress. President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2014 (FY2014) $982.5 million budget request for the Census Bureau barely budged over his request for the current year. Embedded in that overall agency number is $486 million for the 2020 Census, which includes the ongoing American Community Survey (ACS).

The ACS is really a bargain, folks. Its $242 million price tag is an infinitesimal half a thousandth of a percent of the federal aid directed prudently (Congress enacts the formulas, after all) each year to states and localities for schools, roads and transit systems, rural economic development projects, health care, job training, crime prevention programs, and other state and local activities, based (directly or indirectly) on data the ACS yields annually. Businesses and community-based nonprofits use the data to make billions (and billions and billions) of dollars in investment and program decisions that spur job growth, commerce and economic development. And the survey is now a two-for-one deal: it’s a rolling test bed for new methods and systems that could reduce 2020 Census costs considerably.

Speaking of 2020 (just around the corner… see my last blog post!), the president requested an increase of $154.2 million to finish the research and testing phase, allowing the Census Bureau to select a design framework and move forward with operational and systems development in subsequent years. Key elements of census reform could include broad use of administrative records to keep the address list up-to-date and to identify unresponsive households during the enumeration, as well as multi-mode response options that take advantage of the latest tech gadgets. Without thorough research and testing, the bureau might fall back on a far more expensive (but tried and true) paper and pencil design. Which Congress already has said it won’t pay for, by the way.

As Commerce Inspector General Todd Zinser warned Senate and House appropriators this week, “To achieve cost savings, the Bureau is exploring new and innovative design alternatives based on evidence from its research and testing operations. However, the Bureau may be seeing signs of delays due to budget reductions and schedule slippage in its 2010 decennial census evaluation program and the 2020 decennial research and testing program.”

The problem, in other words, is that the Census Bureau already is positioned fiscally to fall behind, because Congress whacked about 13 percent from its 2020 Census budget request for the current year, what with sequestration and across-the-board cuts. The bureau will need its full FY2014 request of $244.8 million for 2020 Census planning just to stay on top of things.

So here we are, once again, facing an uphill battle for a reasonable investment in two of the nation’s premier statistical programs, both of which return far more to a democracy and informed decision-making than they will ever cost. Time to buckle down, census stakeholders, and fight the good (if often unrecognized) fight!

The Cycle of Life: Pay Now Or Pay Later

By Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Lifecycle.

Probably makes you contemplate caterpillars and butterflies as spring blossoms start to appear. Or, maybe babies and grandparents; The Lion King.

Me? As usual, I’m wringing my hands about the lifecycle of a census. The planning, preparation, promotion, implementation, numbers crunching. The census lifecycle goes up and it goes down — and then up again — but there is no plateau.

Research and test; develop methodology, operational plans and systems; prepare to launch; execute; tabulate and publish data. Repeat every 10 (the constitutionally required decennial census) or five (the legally required Economic Census and Census of Governments) years.

2020 seems light-years away. But consider the following:

  • A mere seven years from now, census forms will be in the mail (or online or your smartphone or whatever latest gadget I’ll be too old to master).
  • In six years, field workers will be canvassing the nation’s streets, rural roads and remote dirt lanes to be sure all addresses are in the system.
  • Just five years down the road, the Census Bureau will submit the 2020 Census questionnaire to Congress; in four, it will send lawmakers the topics it will include on the form — both submissions are required by law.
  • In three years, Census staff will be mired in final, targeted research and testing of the 2020 design (using the American Community Survey, if lawmakers haven’t pulled the plug, as a primary cost-effective test-bed), operations development, and complex IT systems testing.
  • Next year (that’s 2014, folks), the agency will choose the basic design for the 2020 population count.

My, my… where does the time go?

Here’s the rub: there is little flexibility in the lifecycle; no “down time” to push back decision-making; no “give” in the schedule without risky and often costly delays down the road. Census planning and preparation are up against two immutable deadlilnes: Article I, section 2, of the U.S. Constitution, and a codified census date — April 1, 2020.

There’s no putting it off. There are no do-overs. The Census Bureau has to get it right the first time, on time.

Let’s stipulate that putting the 2020 Census on a 2010 Census design path will cost too much money — $30 billion, according to government agency watchdogs. That’s why major design changes are in the works now. By the end of next year, the Census Bureau must have a framework for 2020 that will allow development and thorough testing of multi-mode response options (but my dad, who will then be 88, will still fill out his paper questionnaire, I promise!), IT platforms to support appropriate use of existing data sources (also known as administrative records), evolving communications strategies to reach a diverse (age, race and ethnicity, type of community, language) population, and streamlined field operations overseen by six, not the previous 12, regional offices. Investing now in this essential planning will yield a census lifecycle cost of $13 – $18 billion, depending on the design chosen. Hey, now we’re talking real savings!

It all seems like a logical means to a rational end, except Congress doesn’t seem to get this lifecycle thing yet. For the current fiscal year (2013), the president had requested $970.4 million for the Census Bureau, including $711.3 million for the account covering the 2020 Census and ACS. The House slashed $75.6 million from the 2020 Census planning pot in its first stab (and I do mean that figuratively and literally) at the Commerce Department funding bill last May, even deciding to axe the ACS altogether. The Senate was more generous in its first go-round, although it couldn’t resist dipping into the Working Capital Fund again to come up with the money. But as Congress struggled (and struggled) to avoid sequestration (unsuccessfully) and then enact a final funding measure as the fiscal year clock ticked away, the Census Bureau lost a few tens of millions here and a few tens of millions there — and before you could say “prudent investment,” the need for a modest budget ramp up of 3 percent had become a budget cut of roughly $126 million, or 13 percent.

The hapless 2012 Economic Census — you know, the one that yields little secrets, like how well the economy is doing — really took it on the chin. FY2013 is the peak year in its short five-year lifecycle; now there’s not enough money to produce key economic data on time. The administration requested an exception from forced spending cuts, probably figuring it might be nice to know about payrolls, business investment and industry competitiveness when economic recovery is front and center, but Congress wouldn’t go along. Another likely casualty is the Survey of Business Owners, an add-on to the quinquennial (I love that word!) Economic Census which produces the only information on women-, minority- and veteran-owned businesses. We’re not just cutting budgets anymore; we’re losing information that helps us spend the money we do have wisely.

Tomorrow the president will unveil his budget request for FY2014. And it seems to me that Congress has a choice: it can pay now, to reduce total census costs conceivably by half — or it can pay later. More; much, much more.

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.