Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Killing the American Community Survey

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 information collected.

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 surveyed.

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.