A Salute to Our Veterans (Courtesy of the ACS)

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Let me start with a timely salute to our nation’s veterans. All 21 million of them, including 2.4 million African American and 1.2 million Hispanic former service members. Shout-outs to Killeen, Texas, and Clarksville, Tennessee, where veterans comprise a quarter or more of local residents. Hats off to the more than nine in ten veterans with a high school diploma — a greater proportion than the general population. And is it any wonder that these patriotic fellow citizens are twice as likely as non-veterans to hold a job in public administration?

Oh, sorry, I digress from the focus of this blog. But really, people, it’s important that we know this stuff — and more — about those who defend our freedoms. About three-quarters of our living military veterans served worldwide while the country was at war. More than a quarter of both Gulf War and post-9/11 era vets live with a service-connected disability. Nearly 30 percent of veterans reside in rural areas, but rural vets represent 41 percent of those enrolled in the VA health care system. Veterans in rural communities are more likely to have at least one disability compared to non-veteran rural dwellers.

Raise your hand if you know where I’m going with this. That’s right: a lot of what we know about our veterans comes from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). Businesses, nonprofits, and federal, state and local leaders use ACS data to understand and address the needs of veterans — from job training and employment assistance, to health care, to housing, and more. Who among us wouldn’t want that for our former soldiers?

So why, oh why, in the words of Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), sponsor of a bill to cancel the ACS (and just about every other Census Bureau program), are Americans “fed up with these mandatory census surveys and [they’re] asking us to stop the harassment”?

Ummm, no, they’re not. Okay, maybe a few are grumbling. According to the Census Bureau’s new cheerleader for harassed Americans (officially called the Respondent Advocate), roughly 60 percent of households answer the ACS without any prodding at all. With a little encouragement and explanation, by phone or in person, the response rate jumps to 97+ percent (weighted). Of the 3.54 million households in the 2012 ACS sample, less than 8,000 refused to participate (and no one, I can assure you, was hauled off to jail). Let’s see: that’s a refusal rate of (drumroll) two-tenths of a percent. The 535 members of Congress were so deluged with anti-ACS complaints that they sent the bureau (another drumroll, please) 187 letters on behalf of distraught constituents over the past 18 months.

Sure, the ACS questions could use a systematic review and some fine-tuning; thorough training will help ensure positive interaction between survey takers and responding householders. I suspect the Census Bureau has been a little behind the eight ball in acknowledging thoughtful concerns about parts of the survey; it’s finally on the right track, I think. More on these efforts in my next blog.

But let’s stop pretending: ACS critics aren’t falling on their data swords for countless (no pun intended, census fans!) Americans abiding stoically in the shadow of government overreach. Ideology — namely, a belief that government can require little of the governed, coupled with an aversion to the sort of federal assistance dispensed on the basis of ACS data — is driving the campaign to weaken (with voluntary response) or eliminate the survey.

And that’s okay. (Yes, you read that correctly.) If you don’t believe that government has a fundamental interest in producing objective, comprehensive data to inform and guide decision-making, go ahead and make your case. Explain and defend the consequences or propose a practical alternative. Just please drop the cover of phantom citizens cowering behind mailboxes, dreading a nosy questionnaire and the prospect of devoting an hour of time to help the world’s greatest democracy function smartly. Most Americans, it seems, are wiser than you think. And they all love our veterans.

Enlightening Congress: A Novel Idea!

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…
(George Gershwin)

Census stakeholders, the lazy days of the August congressional district work period are almost upon us. House and Senate appropriators have dutifully blessed their respective versions of the appropriations bill (H.R. 2787/S. 1329) covering Census Bureau activities for the fiscal year beginning October 1. The two chambers are miles apart — $138 million, to be exact — on how much to invest in the nation’s most publicly familiar statistical agency, but I think we can safely say it will be a while before they settle on a final number (that’s what the ubiquitous continuing funding resolution is for — buying time!).

But please don’t fall asleep in your lounge chair for the rest of the summer, people; we have work to do. You see, appropriations bills aren’t just about the money. Shall we take a moment to reminisce? Little more than a year ago, House members were considering the Fiscal Year 2013 Commerce funding bill, which (by the way) knocked 40 percent off the Census Bureau’s budget request for 2020 census planning. But I digress. The real excitement started when Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) offered a neat idea: Let’s make response to the American Community Survey (ACS) optional! Sure, every witness (save the congressman himself) at a hearing on Poe’s bill to accomplish this goal strongly objected to it. ACS response rates would plummet; costs would rise substantially; data quality would diminish to the point where the Census Bureau might not be able to produce any data for the nation’s smallest areas (which might include 41 percent of counties). But why let dismal facts get in the way; the amendment breezed through by simple voice vote.

Not satisfied with a weakened ACS, Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL) took to the floor to ask why we need the survey at all. It’s an invasion of privacy! The government has no business snooping into our personal lives, financial status and housing conditions! The Constitution only permits a headcount! Poof! Funding for the ACS went up in smoke on a mostly party-line vote.

Perhaps I can articulate the anti-data collection arguments more vividly. “Is nothing to escape [the Federal government’s] inquisition or its tax gatherers? Are even our hens and chickens to be listed, and an authenticated expose forwarded to Washington?” Or how about, “It seems to me that they imply an invasion of domestic privacy which it is essential tyranny to enforce and slavishness to submit to. [And] I invite Republicans to join me in the contumacy to the Federal power… “. How’s that for eloquence! The writer, by the way, was John H. Pleasants, editor of the Virginia Whig newspaper, needling Democratic Census Superintendent William Weaver, a Van Buren administration appointee, in 1840.

Fanning the flames of census controversy between the Whigs and the Democrats, Rep. Alexander Stephens (Whig-GA) challenged the collection of data beyond a strict population count in the 1850 census on constitutional grounds. As the Congressional Globe (precursor to the Congressional Record) documented on May 1, 1850, Mr. Stephens “thought it perfectly clear, that as that clause of the Constitution authorized nothing but an enumeration of the people, the action of Congress should be confined to that subject alone.” (In those days, Congress passed a new census bill each decade, establishing the enumeration’s parameters.)

Rep. James Thompson (D-PA), proponent of the bill authorizing the 1850 count, pushed back. “What is the constitutional question that has been presented here? It is said that we have no power to take these statistics. … Sir, we possess the power to procure this information upon another ground … It is the right to enlighten the legislative mind… Why do we ask these questions with regard to age? Because we want to know the physical condition of the country.” Imagine… trying to enlighten the legislative mind. Or, as columnist George Will (yes, he of staunch conservative pedigree) wrote in a recent column (The Washington Post, 7/12/13), abolishing the ACS (and making response voluntary) “would require government to be unnecessarily ignorant.”

Fast-forward 163 years. When Congress returns from its summer recess, we should be ready for Round Two (or five or ten; historical examples abound) of the never-ending assault on the collection of data that informs decision-making and resource allocation in almost every sector, public and private, of our society. Hopefully, for every Rep. Stephens (GA, 1850) still roaming the Capitol halls, there is a Thomas Jefferson (a champion of limited federal government powers!), who advocated gathering census data beyond a mere headcount to produce “facts highly important to society.”

Will census history forever repeat itself? If so, beware the Ides of March, for that is when Congress finally wrapped up the 2013 funding bills this past winter (six months late, naturally). For the sake of an informed nation and transparent government, let us pray that lawmakers see the folly — and danger —of plunging the world’s greatest democracy into an information black hole. And just in case prayer fails us, let’s hoist ourselves out of our late summer stupor and ask our elected officials why “we shall do better if we act in the dark, than if we have light; that we shall do better to remain in ignorance, than if we obtain information.” (Thank you, Rep. Thompson of Pennsylvania. And, no, we will not be counting chickens in the ACS!)

Lessons from North of the Border: Why a Voluntary ACS Could Wipe Some States Off the Map

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

What if we took a survey and no one answered? Or, to be more realistic, only two-thirds of us did?

That’s what happened north of the border recently. The Canadian Parliament decided to do away with the nation’s mandatory long-form survey and replace it with the voluntary National Household Survey (NHS). Statistics Canada (StatCan) reported the results of the first NHS, conducted in 2011, this week. Instead of the 94 percent response rate achieved with the 2006 mandatory long form, only 68 percent of households returned the voluntary survey. Instead of having reliable data for 97 percent of the country, only three-quarters of Canada’s localities will have a picture of their socio-economic conditions.

In abolishing the mandatory survey, conservatives decried the burden on Canadians of revealing “personal” information to the government. How ironic, then, that in order to make up for projected falling response rates, StatCan increased the number of households that received the survey, from one in five to one in three. That’s a 65 percent jump!

Now that we’ve recovered from the initial shock of a proposal (H.R. 1638) to axe just about everything the Census Bureau does, legislation to make American Community Survey (ACS) response optional might seem relatively tame, if not harmless. Think again, census stakeholders.

Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), citing “big government at its worst,” reintroduced a bill (H.R. 1078) to let people ‘just say no’ to all or part of the survey. (See my March 20, 2013, post.) A 2003 field test of a voluntary ACS, which Congress demanded, gave a glimpse of the stiff consequences of such a significant change in methodology. Response rates would plummet, especially for traditionally hard-to-measure population groups, and costs would skyrocket (by at least 30 percent), as the Census Bureau scrambles to ensure enough response to produce accurate data for towns, small counties, rural communities, neighborhoods and smaller population groups such as veterans, people with disabilities and ethnic subgroups. The Canadian experience, the first of its kind to our knowledge, bears this out.

Congress doesn’t seem in the mood to allocate more money for good data; the Census Bureau already is reeling from an 11 percent budget cut this year (13 percent if you count the $18 million dip into the Working Capital Fund). The bureau might have to follow StatCan’s lead and put a warning on all small-area data estimates: Use at your own risk due to high non-response error. Translation: The data are flawed because some population groups are less likely to respond than others and therefore skew the representation of the sample.

More likely, we might not see any data for small areas because the bureau won’t have the money to compensate for plummeting response rates by increasing the sample size (that’s sampling error, folks) like StatCan did. Forty-one percent of U.S. counties are home to less than 20,000 people; even with a mandatory ACS, the Census Bureau must aggregate data over five years to accumulate enough responses to yield statistically valid estimates for these areas.

New York? Most counties are larger, although we’d lose information about communities and neighborhoods within counties, making it difficult for local governments and businesses to target services and investment dollars. But bye-bye to most of Montana, the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas, Idaho and Iowa. You can wipe half of Texas, Nevada, Wyoming and Utah, much of Colorado, Missouri, Georgia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Arkansas and Minnesota, and not insignificant portions of other states off the map. No data for 95 percent of American Indian reservations and Alaska Native areas, most elementary school districts, and more than half of secondary school districts. How is anyone supposed to make rational decisions without all of this local information?

Meanwhile, joining the list of conservative voices that appreciates the value of objective, reliable data to support decision-making is The Weekly Standard. A May 20 article calls the ACS “one of the most robust and important tools we have for measuring and understanding American trends.” Ironically, The Weekly Standard admonished the Census Bureau for deciding, because ACS content is now a zero sum game, to drop the question on how many times a person has been married, to make room for questions on use of health care subsidies and premiums that will help policymakers assess the effectiveness of the Affordable Care Act (okay, Obamacare).

Raise your hand if you remember what happened the last time the Census Bureau tried to mess with a census question on marriage? Well, before the 2000 count — when the census long form still ruled the data world — the bureau thought it might streamline the short form that everyone received, by shifting a question on marital status to the sample (or long) form. You would have thought someone proposed abolishing Mother’s Day! Very conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC), incensed at the inference that marriage was no longer a “sacred institution” — and who had been complaining for years that the census form was too long — proposed an amendment (to the Transportation appropriations bill, 106th Congress) in support of keeping the question on the short form.

So, we have some conservatives railing against the public burden of so many nosy questions, and others urging the government to keep asking how many times you’ve been married. While Sen. Helms and conservative colleagues (e.g. John Ashcroft, Sam Brownback) were fighting to save the marriage question, the same Senate went on record urging Americans to answer only the long form questions they liked in the 2000 census. Yes, I feel a census headache coming on…!!