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.