House votes to eliminate American Community Survey

By Steve Pierson posted 05-11-2012 12:40

In a blow to smart, efficient government and data-driven decisionmaking, the House voted on Wednesday to eliminate the American Community Survey (ACS). The rolling survey sent monthly to 250,000 households was established in 2005 to replace the Census Long Form and asks questions on demographic, housing, social and economic characteristics. The ACS data are invaluable to federal, state and local governments and also benefit researchers and the business community, where the data are frequently referred to as the "gold standard."

ACS elimination by the House occurred during the floor debate of the FY13 Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) Appropriations bill (which includes NSF, BEA, BJS and NIST) when Congressmen Daniel Webster (R-FL) and James Lankford (R-OK) offered an amendment prohibiting use of funds in the CJS bill for conducting the ACS. The amendment passed 232-190 with 4 Democrats* voting yes and 10 Republicans* voting no. Immediately prior to this amendment, the House approved by voice vote an amendment by Congressman Ted Poe (R-TX) probihiting CJS funds be used for enforcing the ACS being mandatory.

Wednesday's vote is the culmination most recently of attacks on the ACS that go back to a 2009 bill by Congressman Poe making the ACS voluntary (which he introduced again in this Congress) and include a 2010 Republican National Committee (RNC) resolution to either eliminate the ACS or make it voluntary and a March 2012 hearing on the Poe bill. (See my blog entry on that hearing, House Panel holds hearing on making American Community Survey voluntary.) The main concerns voiced in Wednesday debate were the intrusiveness of the questions (e.g., "Does your home have a flush toilet?") and response being mandatory.

Some speculate that the Senate and Administration will not agree to the elimination of the ACS or making it voluntary but it is imperative that we tell our elected officials about the importance of the ACS. As statisticians, we can also peak to the extensive protections in place at the Census Bureau, and the professionalism of its employees, to protect a respondent's privacy.

As noted above, ACS data are essential to smart government at all levels. In his 2010 Brookings Institution report, “Surveying for Dollars: The Role of the American Community Survey in the Geographic Distribution of Federal Funds," Andrew Reamer, now a research professor at George Washington University’s Institute of Public Policy, documented how ACS data helped guide the distribution of more than $400 billion in federal assistance. Accurate ACS data are therefore essential to ensuring the assistance go to where Congress intended it go.

State and local governments use ACS data for everything from economic development to transportation and natural disaster planning to service delivery (schools, hospitals, elderly care, housing, mental health…). Put another way, accurate data help avoid the building of bridges, roads, hospitals and the like that go under-utilized.

For more on the use of ACS data by federal, state and local government, see this one-pager developed after the 2010 RNC resolution.

In addition to contributing to smarter, more efficient government, ACS data contributes economic development and growth. As Ron Wasserstein stated in his CJS Oral Testimony on March 22 (referring to economic statistical data in general), the data help determine "where to place a new retail outlet or siting a manufacturing plant. The data help answer questions on available workforce, potential customer base, infrastructure and inventory." Indeed, the following Census Bureau videos illustrate how three private sector groups use ACS data: 

In the March hearing on a voluntary ACS, the three external witnesses -- from the American Enterprise Institute, National Association of Realtors, and Greater Houston Partnership -- all spoke about how important ACS data were (and all agreed it should be mandatory). Subcommittee Chair Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and Full Committee Chair Darrell Issa (R-CA) also affirmed how important the ACS is.

Articles on the topic also discuss the strong support of groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. See, for example, this Business Week article by Matthew Phillips, "Killing the American Community Survey Blinds Business."

An analogy I like to use when discussing the importance of economic statistical data is that of ship having to navigate a difficult strait (rocky outcroppings, sandbars, tricky currents/tides, ...) in rough weather and with other ships present. Complicating the picture is the need to cut the budget for the voyage. While there are many ways to trim the budget, I would contend that one does not want to cut a budget that would in any way undermine navigational data, whether it be geographic topography, weather, currents, or ship and iceberg locations. If anything, I’d want more reliable data.

See also:

*The ten Republicans voting no were: Judy Biggert (IL), Brian Bilbray (CA), Charlie Dent (PA), James Dold (IL), Jim Gerlach (PA), Chris Gibson (NY), Nan Hayworth (NY), Patrick McHenry (NC), Glenn Thompson (PA), and Mike Turner (OH). The four Democrats voting yes were: Dan Boren (OK), Gene Green (TX), Kathy Hochul (NY), and Larry Kissel (NC).

1 comment



06-13-2012 13:34

So who benefits by eliminationg the ACS? Why whould there be such an effort to stop it? Who is behind that? Follow the money?