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Government Surveys: How Statisticians Protect Your Identity

Government Surveys: How Statisticians Protect Your Identity

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 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.