Category Archives: Congressional Oversight

REALLY???

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

Sometimes, words escape me. (At least, words that are printable in a respectable, philanthropy-funded blog about the sacred foundation of America’s democratic system of governance, still the envy of the modern world, imperfect though it is.)

So let me just say this: Really, Congress?

The very first task the founding fathers gave you in the U.S. Constitution—to direct the taking of a census once every 10 years—and you kick the can down the road? With the decennial clock ticking and the window of opportunity to figure out how to make it all work for less money closing fast? Words are failing me.

Lawmakers are trying to wrap up a broad spending bill for fiscal year 2015, which started on Oct. 1, before a short-term funding measure runs out Thursday night. The draft bill, unveiled Tuesday, allocates $840 million for the account covering the 2020 Census, $123 million less than the budget request. Congress essentially is cutting the proposed ramp-up for decennial census planning by almost half. The Obama Administration’s proposed 28 percent funding boost might sound like a lot, but as Arloc Sherman of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities noted in a recent Huffington Post blog, mid-decade ramp-ups for the 2000 and 2010 Censuses were 30 percent or more.

Most of the increase the bureau requested relates to 2020 Census planning. 2015 is a pivotal year: the Census Bureau will conduct three major field tests to inform its selection of the 2020 Census design by next fall. A fourth test, scheduled for late summer, will evaluate revised questions on race, ethnicity and household relationship, as well as strategies for boosting Internet response and for helping language minorities participate.

Congress doesn’t want to pay more for the 2020 Census than it did for the 2010 count. The Census Bureau has to meet that goal while maintaining accuracy and trying to reduce the historic, disproportionate undercount of people of color, low-income households, rural residents and young children. It will take a big change in census methods to pull this off, as well as careful research, testing and preparation to be sure those reforms work. The payoff for investing in the groundwork now is significant: $5 billion in potential savings from automating response options and field work and from tapping government and commercial databases to update the address list and reduce costly door-to-door visits. All promising ideas, but we won’t know if they can produce a lower-cost and equally or more accurate census until we see and weigh the evidence.

Now the Census Bureau is really in a bind. It is wrapping up the first test, which focused on administrative records, aerial imagery and other governmental and commercial sources to update the master address list and digital mapping system. Preparations are underway for two tests—one in Maricopa County, Ariz.; the other in the Savannah, Ga., media market—with a “Census Day” of April 1. These are crucial research opportunities in census-like environments: the bureau will evaluate the use of administrative records to streamline and reduce the cost of door-to-door follow-up visits; targeted digital advertising to boost self-response among hard-to-count demographic subgroups; ways for people to respond via the Internet without a pre-assigned identification number that links them to a specific address; and new contact and notification strategies to cut down on paper communications and encourage prompt participation.

These initiatives aren’t incremental improvements on traditional census methods. They are significant departures from the tried-and-true mail and door-knocking design. They might work. They might not. But the Census Bureau can’t wait another two or three years to figure that out. It has one year to decide which methods hold enough promise for saving money without sacrificing the accuracy of the count and the quality of the data, in order to move ahead with IT systems and operational development. The decision is already a year overdue, thanks to previous budget cuts and sequestration.

Delaying or streamlining the 2015 tests would put effective 2020 Census reform in serious jeopardy. If the bureau pushes ahead with the full testing schedule, something else has to give. The Census Bureau can’t put off systems development; the risk of failure is too great. Other vital components of a successful census—the Partnership Program and advertising campaign— could be put on the back burner.

Other programs funded through the same account might take the brunt of the budget cut. The bureau could trim American Community Survey coverage of group facilities such as college dorms, military barracks and nursing homes, or cut out data products; it could slow down planning for the 2017 Economic Census. It could ditch its new initiative to build an enterprise system for data collection and processing, which it hopes will replace numerous (and costly) survey-specific systems.

I don’t know what hard choices the Census Bureau will make in the coming weeks and months. But here’s what I do know: Congress is responsible for a fair and accurate decennial census. The Constitution says so. And right now, it is really blowing it.

Trying to Read the ACS Content Tea Leaves (Good Luck With That)

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

There’s a certain je ne sais quoi to the way Congress deals with the census. One minute, lawmakers are trying to deep-six the Census Bureau’s signature American Community Survey (the modern day census “long form”). The next, they’re ignoring the Census Bureau altogether. Or they’re using it as a piggybank for their favorite programs. Those would be the programs that largely rely on census data to allocate the money legislators from both parties pilfered from the Census Bureau. It’s all very confusing.

But the Census Bureau has tried to rise above the hopelessly mixed signals from Congress (We don’t like what you do. We don’t care what you do. We don’t want to pay for what you do, even though everything else we do depends on it. What exactly is it that you do?), forging ahead with the most rigorous review to date of questions on the ACS.

The Census Bureau is completing the first phase of its multi-year ACS Content Review effort. On October 31, it published a notice in the Federal Register proposing to eliminate several questions that the agency concluded pose a greater burden on the public, relative to the benefits of the data to policymakers and program administrators. The bureau has cool scatter-plots and matrices and charts that show how ACS questions stack up on a cost-benefit analysis, but the bottom line is that Congress itself has asked for most of the data, directly or indirectly, to set policy, allocate resources, and implement programs. A handful of questions tip the scale too far on the cost side and are on the chopping block for the 2016 ACS.

Let’s stipulate that the survey can appear daunting to those who receive it each year. That would be less than 3 percent of American households, although if you believe ACS opponents, you’d think the government had all of us chained to our desks, depriving us of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness until we answer 72 questions about ourselves, our families and our homes. The range of topics can make it seem like the Census Bureau is being a bit nosy. Naysayers like to point to questions about what time people leave for work or whether people have difficulty dressing or bathing. I am confident these critics do not include legislators who issue triumphant press releases about traffic congestion mitigation projects and services for people with disabilities they secure for folks in the home district.

But, where was I? Oh yes, scrubbing ACS content for errant questions. Turns out that questions on your marital history, what you studied in college and whether there’s a business or medical office on your property don’t produce information that legislators and government agencies use widely.

It’s a good thing, by the way, that the Census Bureau still plans to ask whether you are married or not. For the 2000 Census, the bureau decided to move the “marital status” question from the short form, which everyone gets, to the long form sent to a sample of households. Ultra-conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) balked at this slap to a sacred family institution, and his colleagues adopted a resolution to keep the query on the 100-percent form. (Unfortunately for them, timing is everything in a census: the questionnaires had already been printed when the resolution passed.) House members had already jumped on the “more data is better” bandwagon, with more timely bills to add questions on family caregivers, home computer use and Internet access, and to preserve the ancestry question. But once the enumeration started, lawmakers raced to distance themselves from the forms flooding mailboxes; there were seven proposed House bills from March to May 2000 to limit the number of census questions Americans must answer (in most cases, just name and number of people in household). I do not think the law requires consistency in census gripes.

For the current round of questionnaire trimming, the Federal Register comment period closes on Dec. 30, 2014. The agency plans further research on alternative sources for data gathered in the ACS (such as administrative records) and the wording of questions, some of which is problematic. (Millennials, for example, can’t relate to “dial-up service” on the Internet access question. Go figure. Boomers probably have nightmares just seeing the term. Screeeeech ….)

I’m betting that demographers, researchers and policymakers interested in STEM education will fight to save some of the questions the Census Bureau wants to drop. The bureau must finalize all ACS content decisions (adding and dropping questions) before the April 1, 2017, legal deadline for submitting census topics to Congress; the actual questions go to the legislature one year later.

Congress will have the final word on content, which might be difficult to parse when the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. The House has voted twice to make ACS response voluntary (a stake in the heart of small-area data) and once to eliminate the survey altogether. Yet, lawmakers want the data to divvy up $400+ billion annually for highways and transit, education, emergency preparedness, rural development, food and housing assistance, job training, and much more. Good luck with that when the data disappear.

A False “Falsification” Alarm

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

It’s the first Friday in May, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) will report the unemployment rate and job growth numbers for April. The monthly jobs report is a time-honored tradition dating back to 1940. The U.S. Census Bureau collects the data in the Current Population Survey, a joint project of Census and BLS.

The labor force stats are highly anticipated, driving the stock market this way or that and providing fodder for the latest political sound bites from both sides of the aisle. But can Americans trust the numbers?

Last November, while I was assessing the damage to 2020 Census planning and ongoing American Community Survey (ACS) caused by the recent government shutdown, the New York Post’s John Crudele provided a rude awakening from my daydreams of Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin pie. On November 19, 2013, he ran a column with the bombshell headline: “Census ‘faked’ 2012 election jobs report.” Whoosh! The allegation — that the Census Bureau, with the White House’s blessing, falsified employment numbers to boost the president’s reelection chances in 2012 — spread like wildfire among critics of the administration, with Crudele himself fanning the flames with subsequent conspiracy theories about the Census Bureau firing and rehiring 2010 Census workers to boost job creation numbers in advance of the mid-term elections. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee leaders promptly announced an investigation into the “shocking” allegations, asking the census director whether the agency’s data are “reliable, and if not, whether Census Bureau officials knowingly and intentionally fabricated the data on which they are based.”

I bit my tongue at the time; the focus of this blog and The Census Project’s work is the decennial census and related ACS. But I’m publicly putting a rhetorical period at the end of this sad story because, as the New York Post columns irresponsibly (and falsely) imply, maybe Americans shouldn’t trust any numbers emanating from the nation’s best-known statistical agency. And if people lose confidence in the Census Bureau’s integrity, maybe they’ll take a pass when the next census or survey questionnaire appears in their mailbox (or on their computer screen). (Note to conspiracy theorists: Please don’t complain when response rates in the next census come up short in your congressional district.)

Yesterday, the Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General (IG) issued a report on its investigation into the Post-fueled allegations of systemic, widespread and politically motivated data fabrication. You can read the report, but here’s the bottom line. The IG found no evidence that the admittedly-guilty survey taker’s supervisors told him to falsify survey data. (The Census Bureau did investigate and terminate the employee who provided the “facts” for Crudele’s theory — in 2011, one year before the supposedly cooked job numbers were published!) There was no evidence that supervisors changed survey responses or tried to hide reports of data fabrication. No evidence that the Philadelphia Regional Census Office manipulated unemployment data before the 2012 presidential election. (Columnist Crudele wildly suggested that the Philadelphia regional director could be involved in such a scheme because, you know, the City of Brotherly Love is awfully close to Washington, D.C. I cannot make this stuff up.) And no evidence of widespread survey data falsification within an alleged Philly office cabal.

The inspector general did identify general weaknesses in Census Bureau procedures for detecting and preventing data falsification. I hope the agency works quickly to institute the IG’s recommendations for strengthening protocols in this area.

But don’t bother looking for a mea culpa in the New York Post. In an initial column yesterday, John Crudele proffered that Current Population Survey response rates are suffering because the census regional offices “seem reluctant to falsify the surveys,” now that the IG, Congress, and Mr. Crudele himself are watching. At 7:19 p.m., he posted a response to the IG’s report. Surprise! The columnist accused the inspector general of a “whitewash” and called for a special prosecutor to investigate the investigation.

Hey, when a thoroughly independent review doesn’t reach the conclusions you’ve already insisted are true, the only recourse is to keep investigating until someone agrees with you! Some people just haven’t met a conspiracy theory they’re willing to give up. The rest of my fellow Americans should look beyond the sensational headlines and have confidence that the foundation of our democratic system of governance and the tools for an informed electorate — both the envy of much of the world — are in good hands.

Reason Prevails (At Least for Now)

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

Sometimes, I just don’t get stuff.

Take, for example, the decision to schedule a vote on H.R. 1078. I muddled through last week with my lingering census headache, trying in vain to divine why a House committee — two years after it examined the pros and cons of making American Community Survey (ACS) response voluntary and heard only a chorus of cons (except from the sponsor of a bill to do just that) — decided to move the bill out of committee anyway.

I considered the arguments against the ACS.

The survey is unconstitutional. Which, I agree, would be a really bad thing. Except the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1870 that Congress has the constitutional authority to require both a population count and the collection of additional statistics in the census. (The Legal Tender Cases, Tex. 1870; 12 Wall., U.S., 457, 536, 20 L.Ed. 287) Many federal cases have since described the census as more than a simple headcount, from the very first enumeration in 1790. I think I’ll go with the Supremes on this one.

Speaking of the first census: that’s when James Madison (then a mere member of Congress) made sure that the first Census Act allowed the collection of “useful” social and economic information to support decision-making and resource allocation. A Founding Father seems like a credible source for original intent, don’t you think?

The survey poses an unreasonable burden on the public. Which also would give me pause. Except that only 2.5 percent of U.S. homes receive the ACS each year (and some of those are vacant). The ACS only gathers information needed to divvy up federal grants prudently, implement federal programs and enforce federal laws. I’m going out on a limb here, but if Congress enacts those laws and programs, isn’t it a tad illogical to turn around and say we can’t collect the data? (See, this is why I’m plagued with headaches.)

Speaking of public burden: I can’t quite grasp how making survey response optional addresses the problem. You see, both Census Bureau testing and Canada’s experience with its first voluntary census long form demonstrated that more households would need to get the ACS in order to overcome a precipitous drop in response rates and maintain a representative sample to produce valid estimates. Seems like more of the public would be burdened. Just sayin’.

I think the Census Bureau is taking congressional concerns about response burden seriously. It’s doing a comprehensive review of ACS topics and requiring federal agencies to justify their need for the data under federal law or regulation. The wording of questions can be problematic, too. Would you believe that some, er, younger people don’t know what dial-up Internet connection is? (Geez, I can’t be that old.) And some survey recipients raise a skeptical eyebrow when asked what time they leave the house and return home from work. Yes, commuting flow data are essential for transportation planning at all levels of government, but maybe there’s a way to pose the questions that doesn’t conjure up images of burglars waiting for a chance to strike. I’m happy to report that the Census Bureau is addressing these issues and more before it submits 2020 Census and ACS content and question wording to Congress in 2017 and 2018, respectively, as required by law. (Ummm, yes, Congress has signed off on all of the questions currently in the field.)

We can’t be sure that personal data will remain confidential. You know, we can’t be sure of anything in this world (I know, except taxes and death). We can only consider the record and the odds. Here’s what we do know. The confidentiality safeguards in the Census Act (13 U.S.C. §9, §16, §214) are the strictest on the books. The Census Bureau can’t reveal your individual responses to any other agency or entity, for any purpose — not law enforcement, not legal proceedings (criminal or civil), not tax collection, not even national security — period. Punishment for breaching those protections is steep. The Census Bureau has never, to my knowledge, violated the terms of its authorizing statute.

After census stakeholders raised a collective chorus of objections (again!) to making the ACS a voluntary survey, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee cancelled the vote on H.R. 1078. Sometimes, reason prevails.

And sometimes the respite is brief. Another mark-up or an appropriations amendment could be just around the corner. At least we’ll be armed with the facts.

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…!!