What exactly is the American Community Survey for?

Via here and here, it seems Republicans have decided that the American Community Survey is too intrusive (the bill is here):

This week, the U.S. House voted 232-190, mostly along party lines, to prohibit the Census Bureau from using federal funds to conduct the survey. All four of the House members from East Tennessee voted in favor of the legislation.

The Census Bureau introduced the survey in 2005 to replace the “long form” questionnaire that had been used in the census count taken every 10 years. The idea was that the ongoing survey would provide statistical data on a regular basis, instead of the once-a-decade figures generated under the previous questionnaire.

But Duncan and others argue the survey is so detailed that it amounts to an invasion of privacy.

Duncan said he can’t think of any reason why the government needs to know how Americans get to work, how many bedrooms are in their homes or whether or not they have hot and cold running water — all questions that are posed on the survey.

“It’s just ridiculous how detailed these questions get,” Duncan said. “It seems to me there’s just almost no privacy anymore, and it just keeps getting worse and worse.”

Yes, it’s a mystery why they ask these questions. It’s not like the Census Bureau has a site explaining why questions are included … oh wait they do. Yeah, but is there really a reason to ask how Americans get to work?

Meeting Federal Needs

Basic knowledge about commuting patterns and the characteristics of commuter travel come from responses to these questions. The commuting data are essential for planning highway improvements and developing public transportation services, as well as for designing programs  to ease traffic problems during peak periods, conserve energy, reduce pollution, and estimate and project the demand for alternative-fueled vehicles. These data are required to develop standards for reducing work-related vehicle trips and increasing passenger occupancy during peak periods of travel.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) plans to use county-level data in computing gross commuting flows to develop place-of-residence earnings estimates from place of work estimates by industry. In addition, BEA also plans to use these data for state personal income estimates for determining federal fund allocations.

Community Benefits


These data form the database used by state departments of transportation and the more than 350 metropolitan planning organizations responsible for comprehensive transportation planning activities.

Metropolitan planning organizations use these data to manage traffic congestion and develop strategies to mitigate congestion, such as carpooling programs and flexible work schedules.

Public transit agencies use these data to plan for transit investments, identify areas needing better transit service, determine the most efficient routes, and plan for services for disabled persons.

Emergency Preparedness

Police and fire departments use data about where people work to plan emergency services in areas of high concentrations of employment.


Data are used to identify patterns of discrimination in hiring among minorities and other population groups within labor markets.


Financial institutions use data about commuting patterns and occupation to define market areas for describing lending practices and the effects of bank mergers.

Well, perhaps but there couldn’t possibly be a reason to know whether we have hot and cold running water.

Complete plumbing facilities are defined as hot and cold running water, a flush toilet, and a bathtub or shower. These data are essential components used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the development of Fair Market Rents for all areas of the country. Federal agencies use this item to identify areas eligible for public assistance programs and rehabilitation loans. Public health officials use this item to locate areas in danger of ground water contamination and waterborne diseases.

Ok, but to be fair to Representative Duncan, I actually had to go to the Census Bureau’s web site to find this out. And that sounds like work. I should also note that Duncan didn’t say something as stupid as Rep. Webster:

“This is a program that intrudes on people’s lives, just like the Environmental Protection Agency or the bank regulators,” said Daniel Webster, a first-term Republican congressman from Florida who sponsored the relevant legislation.

“We’re spending $70 per person to fill this out. That’s just not cost effective,” he continued, “especially since in the end this is not a scientific survey. It’s a random survey.”

Really, he seems to think that making a survey random means it’s not scientific. He also stated the ACS is unconstitutional, here’s the Census Bureaus’s response to an earlier such question.

Not to be outdone, the Senate has introduced a bill to make filling out the ACS voluntary.

You can read more about this here, here, and here.

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