Trying to Read the ACS Content Tea Leaves (Good Luck With That)

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

There’s a certain je ne sais quoi to the way Congress deals with the census. One minute, lawmakers are trying to deep-six the Census Bureau’s signature American Community Survey (the modern day census “long form”). The next, they’re ignoring the Census Bureau altogether. Or they’re using it as a piggybank for their favorite programs. Those would be the programs that largely rely on census data to allocate the money legislators from both parties pilfered from the Census Bureau. It’s all very confusing.

But the Census Bureau has tried to rise above the hopelessly mixed signals from Congress (We don’t like what you do. We don’t care what you do. We don’t want to pay for what you do, even though everything else we do depends on it. What exactly is it that you do?), forging ahead with the most rigorous review to date of questions on the ACS.

The Census Bureau is completing the first phase of its multi-year ACS Content Review effort. On October 31, it published a notice in the Federal Register proposing to eliminate several questions that the agency concluded pose a greater burden on the public, relative to the benefits of the data to policymakers and program administrators. The bureau has cool scatter-plots and matrices and charts that show how ACS questions stack up on a cost-benefit analysis, but the bottom line is that Congress itself has asked for most of the data, directly or indirectly, to set policy, allocate resources, and implement programs. A handful of questions tip the scale too far on the cost side and are on the chopping block for the 2016 ACS.

Let’s stipulate that the survey can appear daunting to those who receive it each year. That would be less than 3 percent of American households, although if you believe ACS opponents, you’d think the government had all of us chained to our desks, depriving us of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness until we answer 72 questions about ourselves, our families and our homes. The range of topics can make it seem like the Census Bureau is being a bit nosy. Naysayers like to point to questions about what time people leave for work or whether people have difficulty dressing or bathing. I am confident these critics do not include legislators who issue triumphant press releases about traffic congestion mitigation projects and services for people with disabilities they secure for folks in the home district.

But, where was I? Oh yes, scrubbing ACS content for errant questions. Turns out that questions on your marital history, what you studied in college and whether there’s a business or medical office on your property don’t produce information that legislators and government agencies use widely.

It’s a good thing, by the way, that the Census Bureau still plans to ask whether you are married or not. For the 2000 Census, the bureau decided to move the “marital status” question from the short form, which everyone gets, to the long form sent to a sample of households. Ultra-conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) balked at this slap to a sacred family institution, and his colleagues adopted a resolution to keep the query on the 100-percent form. (Unfortunately for them, timing is everything in a census: the questionnaires had already been printed when the resolution passed.) House members had already jumped on the “more data is better” bandwagon, with more timely bills to add questions on family caregivers, home computer use and Internet access, and to preserve the ancestry question. But once the enumeration started, lawmakers raced to distance themselves from the forms flooding mailboxes; there were seven proposed House bills from March to May 2000 to limit the number of census questions Americans must answer (in most cases, just name and number of people in household). I do not think the law requires consistency in census gripes.

For the current round of questionnaire trimming, the Federal Register comment period closes on Dec. 30, 2014. The agency plans further research on alternative sources for data gathered in the ACS (such as administrative records) and the wording of questions, some of which is problematic. (Millennials, for example, can’t relate to “dial-up service” on the Internet access question. Go figure. Boomers probably have nightmares just seeing the term. Screeeeech ….)

I’m betting that demographers, researchers and policymakers interested in STEM education will fight to save some of the questions the Census Bureau wants to drop. The bureau must finalize all ACS content decisions (adding and dropping questions) before the April 1, 2017, legal deadline for submitting census topics to Congress; the actual questions go to the legislature one year later.

Congress will have the final word on content, which might be difficult to parse when the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. The House has voted twice to make ACS response voluntary (a stake in the heart of small-area data) and once to eliminate the survey altogether. Yet, lawmakers want the data to divvy up $400+ billion annually for highways and transit, education, emergency preparedness, rural development, food and housing assistance, job training, and much more. Good luck with that when the data disappear.