In Census Budget Bills, Words Matter

In the early part of this decade, former Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) inserted language into a Senate appropriations bill report requiring that the 2020 Census’ overall, 10-year budget be no more than the costs of the previous 2010 Census. The bill report language became law. For better or worse, this led the U.S. Census Bureau to rely heavily on untested IT/internet options for the 2020 Census to cut costs.

By the middle of this decade, House Republicans were routinely inserting bill language into their versions of the annual census appropriations bill decrying the respondent “burden” to those who participated in the American Community Survey (ACS). Thankfully, the Senate never acceded to the House GOP’s bill language. Therefore, these attacks against the ACS never became law!

Now the Senate Appropriations Committee is proactively challenging the annual House bill report on the ACS. Thanks to information supplied by Census Project stakeholders, the Senate version of this year’s bill contains language stating the particular value of the ACS’s information to rural communities (which are Republican-dominated). The Senate language effectively negates the House action for FY 2018.

It’s for these reasons that the Census Project carefully reviews committee report language each year. Words matter!

 

 

This post has been updated to correctly refer to Sen. Mikulski. 

An ‘Opt-Out’ Democracy

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

In March 2000, with the nation’s crown jewel of civic activities in full swing, a certain candidate for president who would later call 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home, famously told a reporter that he wasn’t sure he would fill out the census “long form” if he received one. Then-Texas Governor George W. Bush suggested that the lengthier questionnaire sent to a sample of households might represent unwanted government intrusion into Americans’ personal lives.

Maybe there’s something in the water in Texas. Fast-forward 15 years, and another Lone Star politician believes even more firmly that the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) — the modern version of the long form — is an “invasion of privacy.” The head of the Appropriations panel that funds the bureau, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), thinks we should let Americans opt-out of this civic duty.

But I shouldn’t pick on Texas. Sen. James Lankford made his distaste for the ACS clear at a recent Senate oversight hearing on the 2020 Census. As the Oklahoma Republican described it, survey takers were all but stalking his constituents, door knocking incessantly and parked at the curb for hours, waiting for someone to come home and ask put-upon Sooners what time they leave for work (those would be the journey to work questions, folks). Scary stuff for a mother home alone with her kids, the senator said grimly. (We will pause here to consider whether answering the survey on-line or by mail when it first arrives with the message, Your response is required by law, might alleviate these spooky encounters. And then we will move on.)

Making response to the survey voluntary might not be a strong enough antidote for government nosiness and over-zealous survey takers in Sen. Lankford’s book. In 2012, while still in the House, he co-authored an amendment to nix the ACS altogether. A majority of his colleagues went along for the ride, largely along party lines. The Senate didn’t sign off on this rather drastic reaction to a vital survey that many U.S. households will never see. But the freshman senator now has a plum seat on the very panel that funds the Census Bureau. This story may not have a happy ending.

But maybe I can pick on Texas, because Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) just reintroduced his ACS opt-out bill (H.R. 2255). The congressman explained in an op-ed (The Humble Observer, Houston, May 15, 2015) that people are tired of government snooping into how many toilets and working sinks are in their homes. Perhaps people living in one of the nation’s largest metro areas are unaware that two percent of American homes, and more than three percent of Appalachian region homes, still lack full indoor plumbing. For 50 years, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) has used census “long form” and, now, ACS data to identify impoverished areas and upgrade housing quality across a 200,000 square mile area that is 42 percent rural. Making ACS response voluntary could eliminate reliable data for many rural areas. (We will pause once more to gently remind the Houston lawmaker that the ARC’s plumbing improvement and other anti-poverty efforts are ubiquitous in eastern Kentucky, whose representative in Congress, Rep. Harold Rogers, is grand pooh-bah of the all-powerful Appropriations Committee.)

Speaking of Kentucky, Sen. Rand Paul (R), through his libertarian-colored glasses, has carried the “voluntary ACS” legislative banner for several years. He’s been a little busy running for president this year, though, and hasn’t reintroduced a bill to save Americans from the crushing (45 minute) burden of filling out a survey that helps legislators make smart decisions. (No, we will not stop here for a joke about how data for smart decision-making might be a wasted resource when it comes to Congress. Rather, we will contemplate what Sen. Paul might say if he were asked about answering ten census questions during a 2020, instead of 2016, presidential run.)

Perhaps other lawmakers would do well to consider the information vacuum north of the border before jumping into the data-less abyss. Canada, sophisticated in so many ways, decided to scrap its mandatory census long form in favor of a voluntary National Household Survey in 2011, succumbing to conservative hand-wringing over the longer questionnaire’s perceived manifestation of government overreach.

The results of this policy shift were predictable (and predicted; Canada’s chief statistician resigned in protest when Parliament passed the law). Response rates to the voluntary survey plummeted from 94 percent to 69 percent. The cost went up by $22 million in an effort to keep the survey representative by increasing the sample. But non-response remained unacceptably high among harder-to-count population groups, and Statistics Canada could not produce reliable socio-economic data for a quarter of all localities, mostly small communities and rural areas.

Canadian policymakers and businesses that rely on census data to assess the nation’s economic and social needs have had a few years to absorb fully the voluntary survey wreckage, and they don’t like what they see. Or, to be more precise, what they can’t see. The president of the Canadian Association of Business Economics wrote in a Toronto Globe and Mail op-ed (Nov. 5, 2014) that the highest non-response rates are in rural and low-income areas “where the need for robust data is arguably most pressing to support sound decision making.” Policymakers can’t compare conditions between towns, counties, and regions in many cases, while neighborhood comparisons simply are of “questionable feasibility,” Paul Jacobson observed. Toronto’s public health agency, tasked in part with improving health care for the city’s low-income residents, has stopped using the unreliable long form data altogether.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Restaurants Canada, Toronto Region Board of Trade, and other influential business groups are now pressing to restore the mandatory long form. Many of their U.S. counterparts are urging Congress not to make the same mistake Canada did.

Here’s what doesn’t sit right with me about the voluntary-ACS campaign: You can’t make participation in a portion of the decennial census optional, without somehow making democracy optional. We Americans have a lot of rights; whatever happened to our sense of collective responsibility for preserving our democratic ideals? You know, “Ask what you can do for your country.” Helping elected leaders spend public funds wisely through an objective data-lens, available for all to view, doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

So, ask not what your country can do for you… unless, of course, you are still sitting in traffic on US 290 in Houston. Then, by all means, claim your share of federal highway improvement funds — doled out, in part, based on ACS data — before you tell your government, as Rep. Poe patriotically put it, to leave you alone.

Welcome 114th Congress: No Time for a Nap

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

Happy 2015, census fans!

I have great news. According to the Census Act (Title 13, United States Code), we could be getting ready to launch a census. That’s right: lawmakers, way back in the radical 1970s, thought it would be a neat idea to survey the population not just once every 10 years, but every five years. So Congress authorized a mid-decade census to serve every useful purpose the decennial census does—like, um, measuring the characteristics of our population and housing, to see how well we’re doing and to address societal needs—except congressional reapportionment.

I know what you’re thinking. Did I miss something? Have I been asleep at the switch every spring during a calendar year that ends in “5” and neglected to fill out my mid-decade census form? Rest easy, civic-minded readers. Congress had a good idea (at the time), but lawmakers never wanted to pay for it. Wait. That sounds familiar! But, back to our story.

Of course, the universally popular American Community Survey has since eclipsed the idea of a mid-decade census. (Are you chuckling just a little?) The modern version of the census long form produces updated information about our communities every year, made all the more useful by advances in technology that allow us to access the data quickly and (relatively) easily. As our world seems to spin ever faster, the Census Bureau churns out objective facts and figures to help us make sense of it all.

You might be feeling comforted right about now, knowing that census data, as a public good, are available to everyone who wants to understand the world around them and have the tools both to improve their communities and to hold their civic leaders accountable. Well, please don’t lean back and take a nap just yet.

The new chairman of the Census Bureau’s U.S. House oversight committee doesn’t much care for the ACS. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) co-sponsored legislation to make ACS response voluntary (H.R. 1078, 113th Congress) and voted to ax the survey altogether in 2012. I think it’s fair to say that Chairman Chaffetz isn’t a big fan of data at all; he lent his name to a bill to get rid of all censuses and surveys, save the decennial population count (H.R. 1638, 113th Congress).

In fact, as we reach the midpoint of the decennial cycle, and the Census Bureau launches the second phase of 2020 Census planning with operations and system development, the census seems to be fading from view altogether. The reorganized House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform no longer has a subcommittee with “census” in the title. The description on the committee’s website of the revamped Subcommittee on Government Operations doesn’t mention the census at all (so you’ll have to take my word for it that this panel is the right one!). It isn’t much of a stretch to conclude that timely and thorough oversight of the nation’s largest peacetime mobilization of people and resources will be sitting on a back burner for a while.

I know that everyone’s issue is important. It’s a jungle out there in the policy world; everyone has to fight to be heard. But, I’m thinking that a mention in the very first lines of the Constitution might give the census a profile boost of some sort. You know, the very first responsibility—to oversee the population enumeration—the Constitution bestows upon the legislature (Article I, section 2). The raison d’etre that 435 members of the 114th Congress are sitting in their seats today. You’d think the activity that defines our democratic system of representation would garner a little more attention than its perennial role as piggybank for other programs during appropriations season. Maybe lawmakers haven’t had time to brush up on the nation’s founding document in a while.

Speaking of appropriations, the House Commerce, Justice and Science Subcommittee is in new hands. Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) now leads the panel that funds everything from weather satellites to fisheries to export and manufacturing initiatives to community policing, counterterrorism and cyber-security programs to neuroscience and STEM education research. The Census Bureau is somewhere in that mix. So is NASA. Rep. Culberson is from Houston, home of the Johnson Space Center. Does anyone else hear that piggybank cracking open again? As if this picture isn’t looking scary enough to census fans, the new chairman also co-sponsored the voluntary ACS bill in the last Congress.

Across Capitol Hill, new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was an original co-sponsor of a voluntary ACS response bill sponsored by fellow Blue Grass State Sen. Rand Paul in the last Congress (S. 530, 113th Congress). The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, with legislative responsibility for the Census Bureau, has a new chairman: Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI). It appears that the full committee will exercise primary responsibility for oversight of the Census Bureau and federal statistical system.

But maybe ACS critics will reconsider their philosophical angst about requiring a few minutes of individual civic duty for the greater societal good when they see what happened to Saskatchewan. After Canada opted for a voluntary census long form in 2011 (the head of Statistics Canada resigned in protest), almost half of the territory sort of disappeared from the map. Seems that response rates dropped so steeply, the survey couldn’t produce reliable data for rural and less-populous areas.

U.S. lawmakers representing smaller counties might want to consider a stateside scenario. Self-response nosedives when the bureau can’t say, “Your response is required by law,” according to analysis of Census Bureau field-testing of the idea in 2003. It’s too expensive to make up for lower response rates with a larger sample or more phone calls and door-knocks. (ACS critics, please don’t humor me with assurances of funding the extra $100 million a year needed to overcome the response problem. Really? Have you been reading my blog?) The sample for rural and remote communities becomes too small and insufficiently representative to yield valid estimates. The Census Bureau can’t publish critical socio-economic data for jurisdictions with populations under 20,000, which require five years of accumulated sample (the so-called “5-year ACS estimates”). Poof! Half the counties in Utah and Kentucky could be wiped off the data map. I kind of like those census maps with all the little county squares in different colors. A lot of black would ruin the effect.

Maybe there’s another glimmer of hope. The new chairman of the House census oversight subcommittee, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), didn’t co-sponsor the optional ACS response legislation in the 113th Congress. Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-VA) was the ranking Democratic member of the Government Operations Subcommittee in 2013-14; he could pull the same duty this time around. Rep. Connolly earned my admiration when he pointedly told his colleagues, during consideration of the Census Bureau’s appropriations bill last spring, that an amendment he was offering, to increase funding for specialized veterans treatment courts, did not raid the statistical agency’s budget for money. At least someone gets it.

But I’m not closing my eyes for a snooze right now. I’m keeping a wary eye on the 114th Congress, which looks challenging, to say the least.

Reason Prevails (At Least for Now)

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

Sometimes, I just don’t get stuff.

Take, for example, the decision to schedule a vote on H.R. 1078. I muddled through last week with my lingering census headache, trying in vain to divine why a House committee — two years after it examined the pros and cons of making American Community Survey (ACS) response voluntary and heard only a chorus of cons (except from the sponsor of a bill to do just that) — decided to move the bill out of committee anyway.

I considered the arguments against the ACS.

The survey is unconstitutional. Which, I agree, would be a really bad thing. Except the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1870 that Congress has the constitutional authority to require both a population count and the collection of additional statistics in the census. (The Legal Tender Cases, Tex. 1870; 12 Wall., U.S., 457, 536, 20 L.Ed. 287) Many federal cases have since described the census as more than a simple headcount, from the very first enumeration in 1790. I think I’ll go with the Supremes on this one.

Speaking of the first census: that’s when James Madison (then a mere member of Congress) made sure that the first Census Act allowed the collection of “useful” social and economic information to support decision-making and resource allocation. A Founding Father seems like a credible source for original intent, don’t you think?

The survey poses an unreasonable burden on the public. Which also would give me pause. Except that only 2.5 percent of U.S. homes receive the ACS each year (and some of those are vacant). The ACS only gathers information needed to divvy up federal grants prudently, implement federal programs and enforce federal laws. I’m going out on a limb here, but if Congress enacts those laws and programs, isn’t it a tad illogical to turn around and say we can’t collect the data? (See, this is why I’m plagued with headaches.)

Speaking of public burden: I can’t quite grasp how making survey response optional addresses the problem. You see, both Census Bureau testing and Canada’s experience with its first voluntary census long form demonstrated that more households would need to get the ACS in order to overcome a precipitous drop in response rates and maintain a representative sample to produce valid estimates. Seems like more of the public would be burdened. Just sayin’.

I think the Census Bureau is taking congressional concerns about response burden seriously. It’s doing a comprehensive review of ACS topics and requiring federal agencies to justify their need for the data under federal law or regulation. The wording of questions can be problematic, too. Would you believe that some, er, younger people don’t know what dial-up Internet connection is? (Geez, I can’t be that old.) And some survey recipients raise a skeptical eyebrow when asked what time they leave the house and return home from work. Yes, commuting flow data are essential for transportation planning at all levels of government, but maybe there’s a way to pose the questions that doesn’t conjure up images of burglars waiting for a chance to strike. I’m happy to report that the Census Bureau is addressing these issues and more before it submits 2020 Census and ACS content and question wording to Congress in 2017 and 2018, respectively, as required by law. (Ummm, yes, Congress has signed off on all of the questions currently in the field.)

We can’t be sure that personal data will remain confidential. You know, we can’t be sure of anything in this world (I know, except taxes and death). We can only consider the record and the odds. Here’s what we do know. The confidentiality safeguards in the Census Act (13 U.S.C. §9, §16, §214) are the strictest on the books. The Census Bureau can’t reveal your individual responses to any other agency or entity, for any purpose — not law enforcement, not legal proceedings (criminal or civil), not tax collection, not even national security — period. Punishment for breaching those protections is steep. The Census Bureau has never, to my knowledge, violated the terms of its authorizing statute.

After census stakeholders raised a collective chorus of objections (again!) to making the ACS a voluntary survey, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee cancelled the vote on H.R. 1078. Sometimes, reason prevails.

And sometimes the respite is brief. Another mark-up or an appropriations amendment could be just around the corner. At least we’ll be armed with the facts.

From the Ashes… The Poe Bill Rises Again

House Committee to Vote on Voluntary American Community Survey Bill Next Week

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

This week, the College Board announced that it would overhaul the dreaded SAT test, to reflect more realistically the knowledge that students acquire in high school and the skills they will need to succeed in college. In that spirit, let me pose a strategic-thinking question:

Let’s say you’re a member of Congress. A committee on which you serve holds a hearing on a bill making response to a unique, irreplaceable and vital government survey voluntary, because the sponsor believes the government has no business collecting data on the characteristics of the nation’s population or households. Every witness at this hearing, other than the bill’s sponsor himself, opposes the bill. Those speaking against the proposal include a conservative think tank, a major housing industry association, and a leading business sector organization from the sponsor’s own home town; other diverse stakeholders submit their objections in writing.

The top agency official responsible for the survey tells your panel that making response optional would have serious, adverse consequences for a data source used by state and local governments, business and industry, transportation planners, school boards, advocates for veterans and people with disabilities, higher education systems, emergency preparedness agencies, community nonprofits — yes, the list goes on and on. He points to a congressionally-mandated field test showing that survey response rates, especially by mail, would plummet, and costs would rise by nearly a third (+$66 million dollars) at a time when Congress is squeezing the agency’s budget. The agency would no longer be able to produce essential demographic, social and economic estimates for less-populous areas of the country, including 41 percent of U.S. counties, small cities, villages, towns, many school districts, neighborhoods and American Indian reservations. “Modern societies rely on accurate statistics, and the ACS is a cornerstone of our country’s statistical infrastructure,” the agency director concludes.

Taking all of this information into account, your next logical step as an elected representative is to:

A: Conclude that the bill is misguided and would not serve the interests of the nation, or even the branch of government of which you are a member.

B: Ask the agency that administers the survey to ensure that it only collects data required to implement federal laws, establish eligibility for formula grants, and allocate federal program funds — all of which Congress directed.

C: Hold a future oversight hearing to explore ways the agency can improve the questionnaire, minimize burden on the public by re-engineering field procedures, and address concerns about privacy in an information-dependent era.

D: All of the above.

E: Two years later, schedule a vote on the bill anyway because, hey, who cares if no one thinks the bill has any merit; we’re Congress, and no one thinks anything we do makes sense! Plus, mid-term elections are around the corner.

If you selected answers “A,” “B,” “C,” or “D,” do not fret. The College Board announced that, as part of its overhaul, it will not penalize wrong answers! But if you still think you deserve credit, you might write to members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which will vote next week (Wednesday, March 12) on H.R. 1078, a bill sponsored by Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) to make response to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (part of the decennial census) optional.

And if you’re still looking for irony, consider this: Then-Census Director Robert Groves, testifying before the committee on March 6, 2012, noted that The College Board uses ACS data in their efforts to increase the number of students who graduate from college, especially those from high-poverty communities.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to lie down with a cold pack on my forehead (again).

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Editor’s Note: For more information, please read:

 

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…!!