Last Wednesday evening, the U.S. House of Representatives took the budget axe to the American Community Survey (ACS), the Census Bureau's up-to-date annual counterpart to the decennial population counts. The vote came as an amendment to the 2012/2013 appropriations bill for the Departments of Commerce and Justice, Science, and Related Agencies, and was passed on a 232-190, mostly-party-line vote (10 Republicans voted no, 4 Democrats voted yes).
The bill also eliminates the Economic Census, the nation's official five-year measure of American business and the economy.
I wish this were snark! But it's for real, and the potential consequences are immense.
The American Community Survey is an ongoing nationwide survey that provides annual data to communities on how they are changing over time. The ACS collects data on age, race, income, commute time to work, home value, veteran status, disability, and much more. The questions used to be part of the "long form" that went to approximately one in six households at the same time as the decennial counts. But data needs move swiftly in our rapidly-changing world, and ten years became too long to wait for fresh data. So in the 1990s the Census Bureau created the ACS, essentially sending the "long-form" to 3 million homes every year on a rolling basis nationwide.
This data helps determine where $400 billion in federal funding is spent annually. As the American Community Survey web site points out, ACS data helps policymakers at all levels of government make decisions about:
-- job training centers
-- location of new businesses
-- care for children, veterans, and seniors
-- roads, bridges, and transportation projects
-- emergency services
And it's not just governments that rely on this data. Manufacturers, retailers, non-profits, researchers, journalists. From Census Bureau Director Robert Groves:
The ACS is our country’s only source of small area estimates on social and demographic characteristics. Manufacturers and service sector firms use ACS to identify the income, education, and occupational skills of local labor markets they serve. Retail businesses use ACS to understand the characteristics of the neighborhoods in which they locate their stores. Homebuilders and realtors understand the housing characteristics and the markets in their communities. Local communities use ACS to choose locations for new schools, hospitals, and fire stations. There is no substitute from the private sector for ACS small area estimates.Groves concludes:
Modern societies need current, detailed social and economic statistics. The U.S. is losing them.In a CNN story on health care and poverty implications of killing the survey, Jonathan Gruber of MIT summed it up perfectly:
"If you're opposed to the survey, you're opposed to understanding what's going on in America," said MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, director of the Program on Health Care Research at the National Bureau of Economic Research.
As the story spreads, the headlines crescendo:
Killing the American Community Survey Blinds Business (Bloomberg Businessweek, 5/10)
Who's Afraid of Economic Data? (Forbes, 5/11)
Operating in the Dark (New York Times, 5/13)
The NYT editorial above begins with a scathing reveal of the hypocrisy of the author of the amendment, Daniel Webster (R-FL):
The Web site of Representative Daniel Webster, Republican of Florida, instructs visitors to click on a link for “Census data for the 8th district” to learn about the area’s economy, businesses, income, employment, homeownership and other important features. And yet, on Wednesday, Mr. Webster declared that the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey — the source for much of that data — is an unconstitutional breach of privacy.The breach-of-privacy argument is certainly the public face of the issue, one that has been raised at the fringes since the Census began. What once was fringe, however, has moved into the Tea-stained Republican mainstream, furthered by relentless right-wing media & candidate drum-beating, particularly while Census 2010 was in the news. Meanwhile, the Census Bureau takes data privacy very seriously: all Census Bureau employees take an oath of nondisclosure and are sworn for life. The penalty for unlawful disclosure is a fine of up to $250,000 or imprisonment of up to 5 years, or both. Compare that to the personal details that so many people risk freely on Facebook each and every day!
I'm still trying to figure out what the bigger picture is, here. Interestingly enough, there's not a specific American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) resolution targeting this. At first I thought it was because the ACS happens at the federal and not the state level, but ALEC does have at least one Census-related model resolution opposing statistical sampling for legislative redistricting. I'd be interested to hear if anyone knows of any major right-wing think-tank or foundation that's been actively campaigning against the ACS, particularly after having seen the following snippet from the Bloomberg Businessweek story, about some heavy-weight champions of Census data on the right:
Contacted last week, economists at conservative think tanks Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation all expressed support for the data-gathering agencies since all three rely heavily on the statistics they produce to study the economy. “Those agencies are essential,” says Phillip Swagel, an economist and nonresident scholar at AEI. “The data they provide really tell us what’s going on in the economy. This shouldn’t be a political issue.”Bloomberg also cited the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as actively supporting full-funding of the Census Bureau as well as the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
I can't help but think that the issue must be deeper than the publicly-hyped privacy objection. It puts me in mind of the relentless march of ever more restrictive Voter ID initiatives. That one's ALEC, of course, and the sanctimonious false cover story is the spectre of voter fraud -- which turns out, of course, to be practically non-existent. The true agenda in that case is voter suppression, as captured for posterity in Paul Weyrich's moment of honesty:
"I don't want everybody to vote," the influential conservative activist Paul Weyrich told a gathering of evangelical leaders in 1980. "As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down."So, what are we facing here? Well, Forbes has one stab at an answer, after quoting testimony in favor of the ACS from the American Enterprise Institute's Andrew Biggs:
The problem with Andrew’s argument is that it assumes congressional Republicans want accurate data to inform their policymaking. If you have committed yourself to claims that can be disproved with data, like “inflation is high,” then good economic data do not serve your interests.One might also take into account a quote in the New York Times from Terri Ann Lowenthal, consultant and former staff director of the House subcommittee on Census and Population.
“The situation is very serious,” she said, adding that there were legal requirements that rely on the survey’s data, like implementation of the Voting Rights Act, which draws on detailed neighborhood data on race and ethnicity. “I don’t think the leadership in the House has thought through the consequences of this.”Or maybe certain aspects of this have been thought through all too well?
In terms of immediate consequences, it appears that the amendment is unlikely to make it through the Senate, and the White House has promised a veto.
Meanwhile, though, I don't think we've heard the last of this. Any further insights appreciated!