Tag Archives: ACS

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.

A Fine Kettle of Budget Fish

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Last spring, the census world was in turmoil.

First, the venerable House Committee on Appropriations voted (H.R. 5326) to slash $92 million from the Census Bureau’s FY2013 budget request ($970.4M), most ($85.9M) of which would affect core programs — including the American Community Survey (ACS), decennial census planning and the quinquennial (I love saying that word!) Economic Census — in the Periodic Censuses and Programs account. Then, the full House of Representatives decided Americans could “just say no” to the ACS by making response optional instead of mandatory. This seemingly innocuous change would reduce mail response by 20 percent (more for some population subgroups) and boost survey costs by more than a third ($60-$70 million), according to a 2003 test. (For the benefit of legislators with short-term memories, it was Congress that mandated the test.)

But wait, to heck with having a choice, lawmakers said; let’s just scrap the whole survey! And while we’re at it, let’s cut an additional $24 million from Periodic Censuses… which left the Census Bureau to wonder if it could pull off the 2012 Economic Census and ACS (even if Congress let it) at all.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that Congress can make some dubious decisions. But talk about biting the hand that feeds you! According to a Brookings Institution analysis, lawmakers allocated $416 billion in federal grants, direct payments and loans based on data derived directly or indirectly from the ACS. Call me obtuse, but how would Congress distribute that money if the data suddenly disappeared? Throw darts at a map of states and counties? Hold a highway-money lottery? (And don’t tell me that not allocating those funds is a golden opportunity to reduce federal spending; when was the last time a member of Congress turned down funds to pave a highway or assist firefighters in his or her district?)

Over in the “gentleman’s club” (clear throat), appropriators managed to stay calm, proposing a FY2013 funding level in line with the president’s request. The full Senate couldn’t quite muster the strength to take up the Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill (S. 2323) before lawmakers raced home for the November elections. But House and Senate negotiators are now working to set final budget numbers for the Census Bureau before a temporary FY2013 funding bill (the Continuing Resolution, which extended agency operations at FY2012 funding levels) runs out on March 25. Let’s hope House members awake from a nine-month slumber with renewed sagacity and see the error of their penny-wise, pound-foolish ways.

Meanwhile, the president will send his FY2014 budget blueprint to Congress no earlier than March 4, at least one month later than a toothless law requires. But not to worry, there’s lots of intervening excitement brewing. The so-called “sequester” of the FY2013 budget — the product of legislators’ failure to actually agree on budget numbers for the fiscal year that started many moons ago — will take effect on March 1 unless Congress… well, agrees on something. If it doesn’t, federal agencies will have to cough up $85 billion, amounting roughly to a 5 percent across-the-board cut for non-defense domestic discretionary programs.

This week, President Obama challenged Congress to avoid that consequence by specifying funding cuts (coupled with revenue increases, which Republicans aren’t eager to embrace, but I’m not here to argue fiscal policy) before the budget coach turns into a pumpkin. What will happen between now and then is crystal-ball material, but Commerce Department Inspector General Todd J. Zinser had some wise observations for Congress at a Senate hearing last summer: “[T]he Census Bureau must analyze the 2020 decennial [census] design alternatives and make a decision by the end of fiscal year (FY) 2014… Decisions made during this decade’s early years will be critical for setting the course for how well the 2020 count is performed and how much it will ultimately cost.” With the Economic Census off the launch pad, the remaining two core programs — the ACS and the 2020 census — will feel the greatest budget squeeze absent sufficient funding for the Census Bureau. And the nation will be headed for a data vacuum or an expensive, incomplete decennial count, or both.

Are you still with me? Good, because it seems like we’ve gone from last spring’s mess to complete budget disarray. Good luck trying to keep up with this winter’s mayhem!

* * *

Correction: My last blog post mentioned a Census Dress Rehearsal in 2018. Historically, the Census Bureau has conducted a dry-run in two or three locations in the year ending in “8,” to evaluate operations in a census-like environment. But alas, there will be no such walk-through this decade. Former Census Director Robert Groves significantly retooled the planning phase of the census for 2020, in order to contain costs and take advantage of other opportunities (including using the American Community Survey as a test bed) to evaluate and tweak components of the census design. I apologize for the error — maybe I’m just getting nostalgic?

Elections Matter

by Phil Sparks

Elections matter. Even “status quo” elections. In the House of Representatives, there are still American Community Survey (ACS) skeptics. In the Senate, our ACS champions are still there or were re-elected. Finally, the Obama Administration has yet to be fully engaged on the ramifications of the next federal budget in regards to Census 2020 or the ACS.

The second half of the Census Bureau’s FY 2013 budget will have to be approved by Congress and the president in the early spring of next year. The Bureau’s current operating budget for the coming months has been “flat-lined” at the levels of the last fiscal year. However, this means that current Census 2020 planning will continue short-term. This planning includes such things as the naming and preliminary meetings of the National Advisory Committee (NAC) for the next decennial (although both the size and the composition of the committee are certainly disappointing to many census stakeholders). Further, the important internet test of the Bureau’s ability to capture census information via cyberspace will be done in January as part of the monthly ACS. These are both important planning developments.

Next spring, Washington policymakers will again be challenged by an agreement to continue the ACS at its current budgetary and operational levels. This current deadlock will be little noticed by official Washington. Business, government and nonprofit groups which depend on reliable, localized ACS data for planning and policy purposes will need to keep an eagle eye on the ACS budget process over the next several months.

The Census Project and its allies and supporters will be updated on a continuing, regular basis as before. In addition, the Project, working with its supporters, is putting together a wide variety of fact sheets detailing how ACS data is integral to planning and policy for things like veterans’ needs, children’s programs, housing, transportation, business and public health. We must ensure that the upcoming debate on the usefulness of the ACS clearly demonstrates the downside of cutting back or eliminating this important component of the decennial census.

Now that the election is over the real work begins!

The American Community Survey: Blessed by the Founding Fathers

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

I’ve been losing sleep ever since several members of Congress (including a former judge!) posited at a congressional hearing last month that the Census Bureau was overstepping constitutional bounds by requiring people to answer questions on the American Community Survey (ACS).  The ACS relieved the decennial census of its long-form burden after Congress urged the Census Bureau to streamline the decennial count and provide policymakers with more timely information.  But more on that in a moment.

Now, I’m an advocate of informed decision-making.  I think we Americans have a duty to help our nation understand its collective condition and shared future direction.  But an unconstitutional government intrusion into our private lives?  Not on my watch.  The idea that our census agency has been violating fundamental tenants of our treasured founding blueprint since the nation … well, became a nation … has been keeping me up at night.

Fortunately, none other than “Father of the Constitution” James Madison has come to my rescue.  When the House of Representatives debated the very first census bill in 1790, this founding patriarch and primary author of the Bill of Rights observed that lawmakers now had “an opportunity of obtaining the most useful information for those who should hereafter be called upon to legislate for their country if this bill is extended so as to embrace some other objects besides the bare enumeration of the inhabitants; it would enable them to adapt the public measures to the particular circumstances of the community.  In order to know the various interests of the United States, it was necessary that the description of the several classes into which the community was divided, should be accurately known; on this knowledge the legislature might proceed to make a proper provision for the agricultural, commercial, and manufacturing interests, but without it they could never make their provisions in due proportion.”  (As cited in Government Accountability Office, Legal Authority for American Community Survey, B-289852, April 4, 2002)

I couldn’t have said it better myself (though heaven knows I’ve tried).  But let me translate into 21st century English.  The census gives us a chance, Madison said, to collect data that lawmakers can use to make informed decisions that meet the needs of the nation’s people and communities — decisions related, for example, to the agricultural, business, and manufacturing sectors.  A range of data beyond the number of people in each household, which backers of a voluntary ACS suggest is the only constitutionally permissible purpose of the census, would ensure that Congress allocated resources based on actual conditions.  Imagine that!

As for the ACS, it was Congress, starting in 1991, that not-so-gently nudged the Census Bureau to give up the traditional vehicle for collecting demographic and socio-economic information — known as the “long form” — and to continue its “embrace … of other objects” (to quote the oh-so-eloquent James M.) on a more frequent basis from a sample of households spread out across more years.  Congress never suggested that the ACS would not continue to be a part of the census, perhaps knowing full well that lawmakers had tied half a trillion dollars annually in domestic program funding to the results.

Of course, Congress has been known to pass legislation that doesn’t quite pass constitutional muster.  That’s why we have the Supremes, who determined in 1870 that Congress has unquestionable power to require both a population count and the collection of additional statistics in the decennial census.  (The Legal Tender Cases, Tex.1870; 12 Wall., U.S., 457, 536, 20 L.Ed. 287)  It’s just what our fourth president envisioned to help the legislature, of which he was then a part, make wise decisions.  Whew!

I’m sleeping better already.  Sweet dreams!

The Responsibilities of Being American

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

Three lawmakers argued unmindfully,
“We view government surveys unkindly.
Census law shouldn’t force
Us to be a data source,
And we’d rather make policy blindly!”

Okay, maybe I have too much time on my hands. (Plus, I’m trying to get in the St. Patrick’s Day spirit.)

But at a hearing last week, a House subcommittee considered a bill (H.R. 931) to make response to the American Community Survey (ACS) voluntary. The consequences for the collection and publication of useful data about the nation’s economic and social conditions and progress could be catastrophic. And, I would venture, not well considered by the idea’s proponents.

Granted, the millions of Americans not surrounded daily by the wonders of census data are probably saying, “Well, that makes sense!” Who wants to answer a survey with 50+ questions about themselves and their families, their homes and incomes, and their commuting habits? (Most households will never have the honor; the survey is sent to only 3.5 million addresses a year. Even over a five-year period, fewer homes must answer the ACS than were required to answer the census long form it replaced starting with the 2010 Census.)

For starters, all public witnesses at the hearing made strong cases for keeping ACS response mandatory, in order to maintain the quality and usefulness of the vital data we get from the survey. We’re talking about representatives from the conservative American Enterprise Institute, the business-oriented National Association of Realtors and the nonprofit Greater Houston Partnership (the bill’s sponsor is from the Houston area).

I visited Houston’s website. The city boasts a “thriving business economy” and directs people interested in Houston’s business and trade to the Partnership. The economic development group’s lead researcher testified [.pdf] that business decisions “are now data driven” and called the ACS “one of the most important tools in our kit” to attract business investment from around the globe. And why must response to the survey remain mandatory? Because, as the Partnership and other stakeholders pointed out, mail response to a voluntary survey would drop dramatically; to gather enough responses to maintain data quality, the Census Bureau would have to increase the sample size (more households would get the darn survey) and spend more money (30 percent more, tests have shown) to collect data by telephone and in-person visits.

Did someone say more money? Didn’t Congress just whack the Census Bureau’s budget the past two years? Without that unlikely additional funding, economic development agencies across the country can kiss their useful toolkits goodbye. That doesn’t sound like a very pro-business and pro-economic growth strategy to me.

Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Subcommittee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) questioned the constitutional authority for gathering any information beyond the number of people in a household, used to divvy up seats in the House of Representatives after each decennial population count. Let me make this easy: Article I, §2, giving Congress responsibility for taking a census “in such Manner as they shall by Law direct,” combined with Article I, §7, giving Congress the authority to make laws.

Laws such as Title 13, U.S.C., §141(a), in which Congress authorized the Secretary of Commerce to conduct the census “in such form and content as he may determine, including the use of sampling and special surveys … the Secretary is authorized to obtain such other census information as necessary” and the related §141(g), defining the ten-year census as one covering “population, housing, and matters relating to population and housing” (all emphasis added). And §182 of the same title (known at the “Census Act”), allowing the Commerce chief to conduct surveys producing “annual and other interim current data” between censuses. Don’t forget §221, requiring people to respond to the census and to annual and interim surveys.

Then there are the hundreds of federal laws allocating almost half a trillion dollars a year (yes, you read that correctly) based directly or indirectly on data from the ACS, to states and localities for education, road improvements, mass transit, physical and mental health services, rural businesses and farm labor housing, affordable housing for the elderly and people with disabilities, economic development, and energy improvements. Did I mention outreach to disabled veterans? (Yes, I’m shameless. But I didn’t pass these laws. Congress did.)

Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), sponsor of the voluntary ACS bill, is a former judge and prosecutor with a deep interest in preventing and addressing the terrible consequences of crime. In 2008, he noted that the government spends billions of dollars on the criminal justice system. “The cost of crime is not cheap,” the congressman said, “… [but] the price is worth it to ensure order, safety, and appropriate punishment for those who fail to follow the law.” That year, the State of Texas received $32 million in federal taxpayer dollars to help keep communities safe — based on ACS data alone.

Are Chairmen Issa and Gowdy suggesting that Congress made all of these laws, and that the Census Bureau (and its historical equivalents, some of which were temporary committees Congress established every 10 years to oversee the enumeration) gathered information similar to the content of today’s ACS in violation of the Constitution since the first census in 1790? Boy, I sure hope not! Quelle horreur!

Speaking of French, Canada decided to do something similar a few years ago, relegating its census long form to a voluntary survey. The country’s head statistician resigned in protest.

Finally, the privacy concerns. I understand the objection: Government shouldn’t have a right to request personal information. Except maybe our income, which we are required to report to the IRS annually. But the Census Bureau doesn’t have a right to ask about it … anyway, as I was saying … Rep. Gowdy said ACS data might be useful, but Uncle Sam “does not have an overriding state interest to force people to divulge their private matters.”

Fortunately, the Census Bureau does not want a dossier on every American. It does not do anything with your personal answers. It takes our responses and turns them into a statistical portrait of our nation, our states, our cities and communities. To help us understand collectively where we came from and where we are going. If we’re headed into a ditch, I want to know in advance. You know, to prepare. And maybe turn in a different direction.

Yes, we Americans have a right to privacy. But we also have responsibilities. We have a shared history and will have a shared future. I don’t want to live in a country that drifts along without transparent, objective benchmarks to guide it. I want to know that my elected officials have a reason for making the decisions they do. I want my tax dollars aimed at neighborhoods that need and deserve the assistance. I want my city and county to have data that will attract new investment and job opportunities.

I want information that lets me hold my national, state and local government officials accountable. To me, that’s the best part about being an American. But I can’t do that if I don’t do my part. And my neighbors don’t do theirs.