By Terri Ann Lowenthal
In March 2000, with the nation’s crown jewel of civic activities in full swing, a certain candidate for president who would later call 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home, famously told a reporter that he wasn’t sure he would fill out the census “long form” if he received one. Then-Texas Governor George W. Bush suggested that the lengthier questionnaire sent to a sample of households might represent unwanted government intrusion into Americans’ personal lives.
Maybe there’s something in the water in Texas. Fast-forward 15 years, and another Lone Star politician believes even more firmly that the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) — the modern version of the long form — is an “invasion of privacy.” The head of the Appropriations panel that funds the bureau, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), thinks we should let Americans opt-out of this civic duty.
But I shouldn’t pick on Texas. Sen. James Lankford made his distaste for the ACS clear at a recent Senate oversight hearing on the 2020 Census. As the Oklahoma Republican described it, survey takers were all but stalking his constituents, door knocking incessantly and parked at the curb for hours, waiting for someone to come home and ask put-upon Sooners what time they leave for work (those would be the journey to work questions, folks). Scary stuff for a mother home alone with her kids, the senator said grimly. (We will pause here to consider whether answering the survey on-line or by mail when it first arrives with the message, Your response is required by law, might alleviate these spooky encounters. And then we will move on.)
Making response to the survey voluntary might not be a strong enough antidote for government nosiness and over-zealous survey takers in Sen. Lankford’s book. In 2012, while still in the House, he co-authored an amendment to nix the ACS altogether. A majority of his colleagues went along for the ride, largely along party lines. The Senate didn’t sign off on this rather drastic reaction to a vital survey that many U.S. households will never see. But the freshman senator now has a plum seat on the very panel that funds the Census Bureau. This story may not have a happy ending.
But maybe I can pick on Texas, because Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) just reintroduced his ACS opt-out bill (H.R. 2255). The congressman explained in an op-ed (The Humble Observer, Houston, May 15, 2015) that people are tired of government snooping into how many toilets and working sinks are in their homes. Perhaps people living in one of the nation’s largest metro areas are unaware that two percent of American homes, and more than three percent of Appalachian region homes, still lack full indoor plumbing. For 50 years, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) has used census “long form” and, now, ACS data to identify impoverished areas and upgrade housing quality across a 200,000 square mile area that is 42 percent rural. Making ACS response voluntary could eliminate reliable data for many rural areas. (We will pause once more to gently remind the Houston lawmaker that the ARC’s plumbing improvement and other anti-poverty efforts are ubiquitous in eastern Kentucky, whose representative in Congress, Rep. Harold Rogers, is grand pooh-bah of the all-powerful Appropriations Committee.)
Speaking of Kentucky, Sen. Rand Paul (R), through his libertarian-colored glasses, has carried the “voluntary ACS” legislative banner for several years. He’s been a little busy running for president this year, though, and hasn’t reintroduced a bill to save Americans from the crushing (45 minute) burden of filling out a survey that helps legislators make smart decisions. (No, we will not stop here for a joke about how data for smart decision-making might be a wasted resource when it comes to Congress. Rather, we will contemplate what Sen. Paul might say if he were asked about answering ten census questions during a 2020, instead of 2016, presidential run.)
Perhaps other lawmakers would do well to consider the information vacuum north of the border before jumping into the data-less abyss. Canada, sophisticated in so many ways, decided to scrap its mandatory census long form in favor of a voluntary National Household Survey in 2011, succumbing to conservative hand-wringing over the longer questionnaire’s perceived manifestation of government overreach.
The results of this policy shift were predictable (and predicted; Canada’s chief statistician resigned in protest when Parliament passed the law). Response rates to the voluntary survey plummeted from 94 percent to 69 percent. The cost went up by $22 million in an effort to keep the survey representative by increasing the sample. But non-response remained unacceptably high among harder-to-count population groups, and Statistics Canada could not produce reliable socio-economic data for a quarter of all localities, mostly small communities and rural areas.
Canadian policymakers and businesses that rely on census data to assess the nation’s economic and social needs have had a few years to absorb fully the voluntary survey wreckage, and they don’t like what they see. Or, to be more precise, what they can’t see. The president of the Canadian Association of Business Economics wrote in a Toronto Globe and Mail op-ed (Nov. 5, 2014) that the highest non-response rates are in rural and low-income areas “where the need for robust data is arguably most pressing to support sound decision making.” Policymakers can’t compare conditions between towns, counties, and regions in many cases, while neighborhood comparisons simply are of “questionable feasibility,” Paul Jacobson observed. Toronto’s public health agency, tasked in part with improving health care for the city’s low-income residents, has stopped using the unreliable long form data altogether.
The Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Restaurants Canada, Toronto Region Board of Trade, and other influential business groups are now pressing to restore the mandatory long form. Many of their U.S. counterparts are urging Congress not to make the same mistake Canada did.
Here’s what doesn’t sit right with me about the voluntary-ACS campaign: You can’t make participation in a portion of the decennial census optional, without somehow making democracy optional. We Americans have a lot of rights; whatever happened to our sense of collective responsibility for preserving our democratic ideals? You know, “Ask what you can do for your country.” Helping elected leaders spend public funds wisely through an objective data-lens, available for all to view, doesn’t seem like too much to ask.
So, ask not what your country can do for you… unless, of course, you are still sitting in traffic on US 290 in Houston. Then, by all means, claim your share of federal highway improvement funds — doled out, in part, based on ACS data — before you tell your government, as Rep. Poe patriotically put it, to leave you alone.