By Ellen Cutter, Director of Research.
When the House voted to defund the Census American Community Survey
(ACS) on May 9th it became the most astonishing, short-sighted political
maneuver anyone has seen for a long time. Most everyone seems to feel this way from the full Cato to Brookings spectrum of think tanks to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Initially, Republican House leadership wanted to repeal the survey’s
mandatory requirement claiming that it is unconstitutional and violates
the privacy of Americans. The Census responded by noting that removing
this requirement would do nothing more than to make the survey more
expensive to conduct and less reliable, since response rates would
likely drop and there would be no way to verify the accuracy of the
As a brief aside, a friend and colleague recently participated in the
ACS survey as one of the 3.5 million people surveyed annually to provide
up-to-date, granular level demographic, socio-economic, and economic
data for neighborhoods, communities, metros, and states nationwide.
After neglecting to send the survey in before leaving for vacation, he
received a follow up reminder phone call. Then, after sending in the
survey in, a Census Bureau official called to verify one portion of his
survey. He erroneously answered that he paid $0 in electricity bills
for the year. He was impressed with the measures the Bureau went
through to ensure participation and accurate reporting by those
And what do we have to show for the ACS efforts? Well, as it turns out:
A LOT, which is why defunding it would send shock waves through both
the private and public sectors. First, let us not forget that the ACS,
fully rolled out in 2005, was a response to demands from communities,
legislators, and businesses for Decennial-like data from the Census
Bureau available more frequently than once every ten years. Turns out,
data from 2001 is not entirely helpful for making community and business
decisions in 2009 (someone might want to remind House Republicans of
this fact). Annual ACS data is used to help determine how $400 billion
in federal funding is appropriated. Communities, economic development
organizations, and firms like Market Street use the data to help local
leaders understand their community’s story: what’s broken and what’s
working, leading to strategies and programs to address concerns and
leverage new opportunities. Private businesses like Ford and Target use
the data to understand consumer and household dynamics, which impact
product development, placement, and marketing strategies. And, the
federal government uses the data to make BIG decisions about new
policies (health care reform, anyone?).
If you’re on board, contact the Census Project
to join the list of organizations that oppose funding cuts and votes to
make participation in the ACS voluntary, and please send a letter to your Senator letting him/her know how you feel.