Rep. Jeff Duncan has a plan to help us cope with information overload. His H. R. 1638
would simply eliminate all the data collection that the U.S. Census Bureau does except for the decennial population count. In particular, it would do away with the American Community Survey
that has been undertaken in some form since a guy named Thomas Jefferson was president. (And along with it the Economic Census, the Census of Governments, the Census of Agriculture, the mid-decade Census and other information-gathering not explicitly stated in the Constitution.) The House of Representatives voted last year 232-190 to dump the ACS, but the proposal failed to gain traction in the Senate. That probably will be its fate this year as well.
Together with the Census itself, the American Community Survey used to be done every 10 years, with one of out six Americans required to fill out the "long form." But, as a cost-saving measure, President George W. Bush switched it to a annual survey of one in 38 households. Advantages: cheaper and more up-to-date. The problem, according to Republicans like Duncan (as well Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Poe of Texas who want it to be optional), is that ACS is too invasive.
Not only does it ask 14 pages of questions about how many people in a household are working, details of their commuting habits and their ethnic ancestry, what fuels they use to heat their dwellings, and whether they have computers and internet access at home, but also, OMG, how many toilets they have. The latter seems particularly to perturb the survey's foes.
The ACS data, massive amounts of it, provide insight on a whole range of economic issues. Without it, publishing economic indicators simply isn't possible. Says Ken Prewitt, the former director of the U.S. Census who is now a professor of public affairs at Columbia University, there would be no unemployment rate and no report on the gross domestic product. There also wouldn't be information about how to distribute federal grants, 70 percent of which are now guided by ACS, according to the Brookings Institution.
"Do they understand that these data that the Census Bureau collects are fundamental to everything else that's done?" asked Maurine Haver, founder of business research firm Haver Analytics and a past president of the National Association for Business Economics. "They think the country doesn't need to know how many people are unemployed, either?"
More about the risk of cutting off these Census surveys below the fold.
Do they understand? Always a puzzle where these right-wing loons are concerned. Are they just ignoramuses who let ideology trump facts? Or do they understand fully and are determined to make it harder for everyone else to understand? One hallmark of the Reagan administration was to reduce information available to the public from the federal government, everything from matters of occupational health and safety to a study of handguns used in crimes. The Reaganistas also sought to ax questions from the 1990 Census about housing, employment, income and migration patterns. Besides paperwork reduction, what could have been the purpose behind those particular choices?
Terri Ann Lowenthal, of the Census Project Blog, points out that resources Congressman Duncan has made available on website depend on information his bill would trash:
I think I get where Rep. Duncan is coming from. His biography says he wants to create a new congressional Committee on the Elimination of Nonessential Federal Programs, “with the express purpose of reducing federal outlays.” No data? No way to identify society’s challenges and to allocate federal resources prudently. Mission accomplished.
Cool! Then we might not need congressmen, because just about all of them rely on Census Bureau data to justify their existence.
What's at risk in cutting off these Census surveys is a foundational tenet of our democracy: the need for an informed citizenry. Nothing aids malignant governance more than keeping people in the dark.