On May 9 the House voted to kill the American Community Survey, which collects data on some 3 million households each year and is the largest survey next to the decennial census. The ACS—which has a long bipartisan history, including its funding in the mid-1990s and full implementation in 2005—provides data that help determine how more than $400 billion in federal and state funds are spent annually. Businesses also rely heavily on it to do such things as decide where to build new stores, hire new employees, and get valuable insights on consumer spending habits. Check out this video of Target (TGT) executives talking about how much they use ACS data.
Here’s Webster’s reasons:
Last night, U.S. Representative Daniel Webster delivered on his promise to streamline government and stop wasteful spending by offering an amendment to prohibit taxpayer dollars from being used to conduct the American Community Survey, a program that could cost taxpayers upwards of $2.5 billion over the next decade.
Clearly outside the scope of what is intended or required by the Constitution, which calls only for an “enumeration” every ten years, the survey tramples on personal privacy. The 28 page survey includes questions requiring respondents to:
• Describe their emotional condition;
• Detail what time they left for work and how long it took them to get home; and
• Declare whether they had difficulty dressing or needed help to go shopping.
Failure to answer these questions is punishable by fines up to $5,000.
and here’s the response from the Census Bureau:
Detailed information on the demographic, social, economic and housing characteristics of the nation have been collected since the first census. For many decades, these questions were asked of every person and household. Starting in 1940, the development of statistical sampling theory at the Census Bureau allowed the collection of these detailed data for only a sample of the population. From the 1940 Census through Census 2000 most households were asked to provide responses to a short set of questions (the so-called “short form”), while a small sample were asked a longer set of questions (the so-called “long form”). In Census 2000 about 15 percent of the addresses were given the long form.
After the 1990 Census, Congress raised concerns about falling census participation and rising costs. Congress and Government Accountability Office supported the Census Bureau’s efforts to explore alternatives to the long form, with the goals of simplifying the census, containing costs, and producing more timely information to inform policy
decisions and legislative actions; were kept informed of the research results and detailed plans; and ultimately appropriated funds to fully implement the survey beginning in 2005. When the ACS was developed, the Census Bureau was challenged to give the nation more timely information that was cheaper to produce and less burdensome on potential respondents.
Demands for current, nationally consistent statistics from a wide variety of users led federal government policymakers to consider the feasibility of collecting social,
economic, and housing data continuously throughout the decade. The benefits of providing current statistics, along with the possible reduced costs to the census, led the Census Bureau to plan the implementation of continuous measurement, what is now known as the ACS.
So, extra questions on the Census, and now the ACS, are ‘clearly outside the scope of what is intended or required by the Constitution’ despite the fact that they have been around since the first Census in 1790 when, everyone except Webster would agree, the people who wrote the Constitution were still around. Also, the ACS was designed to reduce the length of the decennial Census and so reduce its cost. Here and later, the reasons for some of the extra questions are given and later it’s noted that these extra questions were deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court and the questions need to be approved by the Congress. Webster wonders why anyone should know ‘what time they left for work and how long it took them to get home’. The Census Bureau has an answer:
Transportation planners at all levels of government use ACS commuting statistics to guide transportation improvement strategies, predict future travel demand, and gauge the amount of pressure placed on transportation infrastructure. Transportation policy issues often operate at small geographic levels, in some cases involving a single neighborhood, or the interconnection of several non-adjacent neighborhoods. While standard ACS data products provide basic information on means of travel to work, travel time to work, place of work, and departure time at relatively large geographic summary levels, transportation planners require demographic and commuting information for smaller areas. Further, information that captures the “two-sided” nature of the residence-to-workplace commute is crucial for making transportation investment decisions. That is, a more complex and useful story about commuting patterns emerges when residence location is coupled with workplace location generating a commuting “flow.”
Why, it’s almost as if the Census Bureau has good reasons for asking the questions it asks.
In summary, Webster wants to get rid of the ACS to save money even though it was instituted to save money, because it’s unconstitutional even though the Supreme Court has declared it is constitutional, and the questions asked shouldn’t be asked even though the answers are used to help people and make the government and businesses more efficient.