Down the Drain

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

Dear American Community Survey (ACS) data users:

Have you recovered yet from the loss of the 3-year estimates, which offered reliable data for places with populations of 20,000 or more, often capturing trends that one-year estimates for larger places (65,000 population and above) can’t document as well? (Just to refresh your memories, we can chalk up the elimination of that dataset to budget cuts in the current fiscal year.)

I hope so. Now, get yourself another stiff drink, because the path Congress is following for next year’s budget (Fiscal Year 2016) could set the survey back even further.

Let’s start with the House of Representatives. Last month, Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) rallied his colleagues to turn the nation’s premier survey into an optional exercise, lest the government ask too much of its citizens in furtherance of democracy. By “rallied,” I mean his amendment to make ACS response voluntary passed the chamber at 10:37 p.m. with only the appropriations subcommittee chairman and ranking member on hand to listen or muster an “aye” or “no” (otherwise known as a voice vote).

The congressman’s proposal was no surprise. Over the past month, he’d taken to news outlets in his Houston district to rail against “government overreach at its worst.” The ACS question on flush toilets in the home really rankled him, so he will be tickled to know that the question is going down the drain next year.

This is the third time the House approved a “voluntary response” amendment to the Census Bureau’s annual funding bill. Let’s hope it’s not the charm. Because based on Canada’s recent experience with a voluntary census “long form” (the equivalent of our ACS), the result would be plummeting response rates, significantly higher costs, and loss of reliable data for small and less populous areas, as well as small population groups. Canada couldn’t produce data for a quarter of its places after the 2011 National Household Survey.

But maybe senators will save the day! In fact, the Senate Appropriations Committee seems to rather like the ACS. In its report on the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) funding bill (H.R. 2578), the panel was full of praise for the nation’s premier survey. That show of support apparently was enough to deter Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) from pressing ahead with his amendment to let Americans opt-out of the ACS (he “offered and withdrew” it), saying only that he hoped House and Senate negotiators would resolve the issue down the road. In other words, he hasn’t given up the fight.

A shout-out to CJS Subcommittee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) is in order, for seeing the light on the importance of the ACS. But don’t raise a toast to the Senate just yet. Because appropriators weren’t in the mood to put their money where their mouths are.

Yes, data for “small towns and rural areas” are important! Yes, the ACS is “often the primary or only source of data for States, localities, and Federal agencies” on many policy topics! But, we regret to inform you that we just don’t have the money to sustain the ACS sample size, which is necessary to produce high-quality estimates for neighborhoods, small counties, American Indian reservations, race and ethnicity subgroups, veterans, people with disabilities.

Okay, the committee didn’t actually say that. But cutting the Periodic Censuses and Programs account budget request by 30 percent is bound to weaken the survey significantly, at least for the foreseeable future, while the bureau scrambles to research ways to bring down data collection costs. Those 5-year estimates, which average enough data to produce reliable estimates for small areas? They just might turn into 6-year estimates, making the measurements less timely and stable. The committee’s senior Democrat, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), summed up the proposed funding level in one word: irresponsible.

House appropriators, on the other hand, were perfectly happy to let us know how much they dislike that “burdensome” survey. In fact, majority members were downright “disappointed” that the Census Bureau dropped only one question (medical or business office on property) from the survey so far, as part of an in-depth content review; they directed the agency to find other nonessential questions to ax post haste.

Then, they drove the point home with a 20 percent cut to the ACS budget, capping spending for next year at $200 million. And that was before the full House slashed another $117 million from the account covering the ACS and 2020 Census planning. “Completely shortsighted” was how the committee minority described the Census Bureau’s funding level, saying the data are needed to “better understand and predict changes in the American economy and the health of American communities, which in turn helps inform good public policy.” Imagine that.

People, I don’t know if you are shaking your heads, throwing your hands up in the air, or heading back to the liquor cabinet right about now. But maybe you should whip out your laptops and fire off a message to your elected representatives, letting them know that plunging the nation into data darkness will not enhance their reputations as enlightened lawmakers.

7 thoughts on “Down the Drain

  1. So rural areas full of slack-jawed yokels will no longer be enumerated? Great news! It’s these very places that vote for the worst of the Tea Party Republicans. These rocket surgeons refuse to be enumerated, thereby guaranteeing that they won’t receive any federal tax money or political representation, which in turn means no more Tea Party types being elected. It’s a self correcting problem.

    1. Mark, as an historical note, it was the Senate that always expressed concern about the ACS’ ability to produce accurate data for rural areas, even as the Census Bureau was developing the survey. Even now, the Senate Appropriations Committee report notes the importance of ACS data for rural areas. So I have to believe that some ACS supporters in Congress haven’t grasped (or, at least, focused on) the relationship between sample size and data for sparsely populated areas. I will note, as an aside, that two of the ACS’ harshest critics represent the Houston area. The Houston chamber of commerce equivalent has tried to make a strong case to preserve a mandatory, robust ACS, to no avail with these Members so far. What can we say?

      1. I’m getting tired of fighting people waving the confederate flag in one hand and an AK-47 in the other. Let’s stop trying to force them into what they clearly don’t want: They don’t want a Census? OK. They don’t want health care? OK. They don’t want education? OK. They don’t want to be taxed to provide things like basic infrastructure? OK. In a few years most will be dead, or living on unpaved roads, without any electric service, phones, internet, or FLUSH TOILETS, Their children will be totally illiterate, and too dumb to even find a voting booth. They can happily go back to the 19th century, and the rest of us can move on. Why insist on dragging these people along when they don’t want to live in the modern age?

  2. One basic problem is that too many people, including Congress, have no idea about how the ACS data are used or how it directly effects them. The Census Bureau needs to do a better job of marketing the survey and the resulting data in a effort to promote its relevance. That means trying to make even “slack-jawed yokels” understand it. This is clearly not an easy task and certainly not one for the bureaucrats to tackle on their own. Hire a world-class ad agency to promote the ACS and do it for a decade or more. Sure, that’s gonna take some bux but it is sorely needed. People that get these surveys now have grown numb to them and the government in general. Making them “mandatory” and threatening people with fines or jail time do not have much of an impact when there is no follow-through. So, there needs to be more of focus on the “carrot” rather than the “stick”. Congress should kick in the dough to make that happen…I won’t hold my breath.

    1. Sorry, you are wrong. The Congress Critters know exactly how the Census works, that’s why they don’t want it. They don’t want any facts and statistics getting in the way of their agendas. You start collecting statistics which prove that the middle class has been wiped out, and that could be bad for the 1%, We can’t have anything standing in the way of the 1%.

    2. I think you’re right that the public, generally, does not equate a survey like the ACS with concrete uses of the data. The questions are asked in a vacuum, and policy-making occurs in another vacuum, and the twain usually do not meet. Even the press could be more helpful in explaining the connection between the nation’s crown jewel survey and the analyses and decisions (public, private, and nonprofit sectors) based on those survey questions. After all, news publications/broadcasts are replete with stories that rely on census and ACS data. Thanks for reading the blog!

  3. These cuts are all part of the GOP’s know-nothing approach to government. They know exactly what they’re doing: crippling the nation’s ability to identify problems (like racial and economic segregation) and respond to them. The GOP has long been intent on proving that government doesn’t work — and they will starve it to death to prove their point.

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