The Option of Ignorance: Gutting the ACS Puts Democracy at Risk

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

In a blog post last summer, I waxed incredulously about the ease with which the U.S. House of Representatives dismissed the need for reliable, objective and comprehensive data to guide public and private decision-making and resource allocation, first by voting to make response to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) optional and then to eliminate funding for the survey altogether.

No matter that a myriad of laws Congress itself passed require the data to distribute aid to states and localities for schools, roads and local transit, health care, rural development projects, services for people with disabilities and veterans, and other basic societal functions. Never mind that American businesses use ACS data to locate new plants and stores, determine workforce capabilities, and meet the needs of customers (such as families with children and senior citizens, language minorities, and people with disabilities) — in other words, day-to-day decisions that grow the economy. Forget state, regional and local authorities who rely on ACS data to plan emergency response services, law enforcement strategies, transportation and waste disposal systems, after-school and elder care programs, and other basic functions that make communities tick. Don’t even mention provisions of the Voting Rights Act that require ACS data to ensure access at the polls for limited English proficiency voters.

Two new bills would have us believe that the right of Americans to just say no to a few, simple questions from the Census Bureau outweighs the need of elected, community and business leaders to make informed and transparent decisions in a democracy. H.R. 1078 and S. 530 — similar to bills introduced in the 112th Congress, but sneakily more alarming — would make ACS response voluntary. Just to make sure everyone (especially the teensy percent of U.S. households that are in the monthly sample) knows: the proposals require a statement in the ACS instructions that response (to all but the basic name, address, number of people in household) is optional. As in, “Hey, Americans, this survey really isn’t all that important, so feel free not to respond!”

The bills’ sponsors, Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), want to be very sure the Census Bureau doesn’t ask about a person’s religion in the ACS, even though the law already prohibits the Census Bureau from compelling any person “to disclose information relative to his religious beliefs or to membership in a religious body.” (Title 13, USC §221) Hmmm… perhaps this completely unnecessary new provision might gin up further disdain for census surveys among those who believe government already overreaches? Just sayin’.

House members already approved, by breezy voice vote, an appropriations bill amendment making ACS response voluntary. So it’s not a stretch to worry about momentum building around the new Poe/Paul proposals or similar amendments to the next round of funding bills.

Let’s envision the nation’s largest, most comprehensive and important baseline survey as a choice for the next five years. Americans will be told they can decide whether to answer any or no questions (other than name, rank and serial number). By the time the 2020 Census rolls around, more Americans just might believe data aren’t important at all, and sit out the next decennial count.

Mahatma Gandhi had it right. When he called for a general strike against British civil authority, he was nevertheless wise enough to encourage participation in India’s census. This nation needs objective, reliable information, not only to function efficiently, but to ensure that Americans can hold their government accountable for its decisions. It’s a pact that makes a true democracy work, and to suggest that the people have rights but no responsibilities is starting to sound… well, un-American.