Houston, We Have a (Traffic) Problem

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

Houston-area residents have been wasting a lot of time in traffic. Fortunately, Federal Highway Administration funds have helped expand the US 290/Hempstead Corridor, the major artery bringing commuters to and from their jobs in and around the Lone Star State’s largest city.

I know this because Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) highlighted the $267 million in federal grant money for this project on his congressional website. Rep. Culberson is the new chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that decides how much money the U.S. Census Bureau should get every year.

I don’t know a whole lot about the US 290 expansion project, but I instinctively like it. I’m impatient by nature, and there is nothing I dread more than sitting in traffic.

Right now, there are millions of Americans fuming in their cars and on crowded transit platforms and buses, wondering why their duly elected representatives can’t do something to ease the pain of their daily slog to work. Enter Congress, which helpfully authorizes and funds massive transportation programs to widen highways and improve public transit. Lawmakers could dole out highway and transit funds to the community whose commuters tweet the most curses per hour. But that would raise the national social media noise level considerably.

So Congress has taken a more reasoned approach. Localities must demonstrate their need for taxpayer dollars with data showing, for example, population growth (current and projected), commuting patterns, and road usage and capacity. Where do they get this information? A primary source is the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), the modern version of the census long form. The ACS asks a rolling sample of American households about “journey to work” and access to vehicles, among other questions that help policymakers assess community conditions and needs. Hey, I feel for my Houston brethren, but I want some assurances that they really need those road improvements before sending my hard-earned tax dollars their way. We’ve got traffic problems of our own on the East Coast, heaven knows.

Chairman Culberson doesn’t much care for the ACS. The survey is an invasion of privacy, he told the Secretary of Commerce at a hearing last month to review the department’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget request. In fact, the congressman doesn’t think the government has a right to ask Americans for any information beyond the number of people in their household. (He did helpfully suggest that the IRS already knows some things about us and that the Census Bureau could use those data instead. The bureau is exploring that possibility.)

The congressman’s distaste for the ACS is unfortunate. Maybe even a bit incongruous? He proudly points out that the U.S. 290 improvements will “attract new businesses to Houston.” The Greater Houston Partnership (the local Chamber of Commerce equivalent) is working hard to make that happen. In testimony opposing legislation to make response to the ACS voluntary in 2012, Vice President of Research Patrick Jankowski described how the GHP used ACS data on demographic diversity, commute times, occupation (engineers, scientists, etc.), and other socio-economic characteristics to help 34 companies relocate, expand, or stay in Houston, with investment commitments of nearly $750 million and creation of thousands of jobs. This is a wonderful thing, people. If I were the GHP, however, I’d be having nightmares about how to make the business case for Houston without comprehensive, neighborhood-level data — available only from the ACS — to show what the metro area has to offer. Equally important, the ACS lets Houston tout its advantages over other cities, because the survey produces comparable data for every community in the country. Without this universal information, Houston leaders might have to resort to a billboard alongside US 290, saying “Pick me, pick me!”

ACS critics suggest that the survey somehow violates an anti-tyrannical principle of our nation’s birth. But the Founding Fathers themselves envisioned the decennial census as a vehicle for gathering data that would inform prudent and fair governance. Then-Representative James Madison successfully argued that the first Census Act should authorize the collection of information beyond a “bare enumeration of inhabitants; it would enable them [legislators] to adapt the public measures to the particular circumstances of the community,” to enable “the legislature… to make a proper provision for the agricultural, commercial, and manufacturing interests” of the country.

Look, I value my privacy as much as the next guy. But I’m with Mr. Madison on this one: I value my right to know what’s going on in this complicated world just as much.

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Author’s note: I note with sadness, but also with great admiration and fondness for a wonderful mentor, the passing of Dr. Janet Norwood, Commissioner of Labor Statistics from 1979-91. Her obituary in The Washington Post (March 31, 2015) ended with a quote from Dr. Norwood, “You can’t have a democratic society without having a good data base.” Thank you for the timely reminder, Janet.

3 thoughts on “Houston, We Have a (Traffic) Problem

  1. I don’t think you really have a “right” to know what’s going on in the world, as you suggest at the end of your post. You may want to know, but I’m not really aware of any country that guarantees the rights of people to know specific personal information about their neighbors (which is what the ACS amounts to). However a right to privacy is pretty broadly recognized in democratic societies. So I think you’ve drawn a false equivalency between what you’d like to know and the individual right to privacy.

    That aside, the obvious solution to people’s privacy concerns about the ACS is to make it anonymous. I can easily understand the value of having aggregate demographic data about many areas of people’s lives, for city planning, federal programs, and so on. But why does that information need to be tied to specific individuals and maintained in databases where it can be easily correlated to their name? Simply eliminate the request for people’s names, birth dates, and phone numbers (which serve no purpose for city planning, etc.), find a way not to have the information clearly correlated to a specific street address, and most people’s privacy concerns, I think, would be solved.

    1. Violet, the information collected from ACS is already aggregated and every method to avoid disclosure of individual record data is done by the Census Bureau. The ACS data is reported in aggregated form for geographic areas and disclosure rules prohibit reporting of data at small geographies when small populations are present in order to protect people’s privacy. Some research does use individual record data but all of the identifying information is removed and the data available are only a sample of the original records and represent large geographic areas (of about 100,000 people each). This last part is probably a little bit of “insider baseball” information for those who do not do research or city planning – but essentially as a researcher I have no way of identifying (or really any desire to identify) any specific individual person or household.

    2. Violet, thanks for your thoughtful comments about the Census Project Blog. I do not mean to suggest that our Constitution (or laws) guarantee Americans a “right to know.” But I do think access to publicly-available information about the nation’s conditions and progress is a hallmark characteristic of democratic societies and distinguishes us from autocracies or other similar forms of government where the populace does not have tools with which to judge the prudence of government actions and hold their elected officials and civil servants accountable for those actions, and in which elected officials can allocate resources based on personal power and whims, instead of on what’s best for the country and communities.

      With regard to the privacy of personal information, I think Mike offered some useful information. The bottom line is that Census Bureau data IS anonymous, by law, and that law has never been violated. The bureau may only publish aggregate statistical information that would not, in any way, reveal the identify of any person or household. The bureau must ask for names to ensure that people are not counted or surveyed twice (which can easily happen for a number of reasons). It also must put people and their personal/household characteristics in an exact geographic location (address) to uphold the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal representation – that is, “one person, one vote” – and laws implementing that right and the 15th Amendment’s right to vote (e.g. the Voting Rights Act). Both decennial census and ACS data are needed to implement and enforce these rights. (Date of birth, by the way, is used simply to verify age. You might be surprised, but people fill in the wrong age, especially for children, and the birth date helps confirm those responses. Phone numbers are only requested for follow-up, if needed. But note that neither the census nor ACS ask for social security numbers.)

      Having said all of that, your personal information is protected by the strongest federal privacy law on the books. Census/ACS data are even shielded from the Patriot Act. The only person who has access to your personal responses is you (through tight administrative procedures), and many people request their census information for genealogical research, or possibly to prove where they lived at a certain point in time for legal purposes. (Current law keeps census/ACS responses confidential for 72 years, which was based at the time on life expectancy. I think Congress should extend that to 100 years, as other countries have done.)

      The Census Bureau is researching ways to reduce the burden of ACS response by rewording questions that seem too personal and ways to replace some questions (mostly on the housing side) with data already collected for other purposes (called “administrative records”), such as the age of housing structure.

      I hope this additional information is helpful. Thanks again for reading the blog.

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