The American Community Survey Is Under Attack

Why Killing the Long-Form Census Survey Is Bad for Government and Business

The short-sighted vote in the House of Representatives to eliminate the American Community Survey is an antibusiness vote against informed government, writes Kristina Costa.

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) was a prominent supporter of the GOP-led House of Representatives short-sighted vote to eliminate the American Community Survey. (AP/ Charlie Neibergall)
Rep. Steve King (R-IA) was a prominent supporter of the GOP-led House of Representatives short-sighted vote to eliminate the American Community Survey. (AP/ Charlie Neibergall)

Last week the GOP-led House of Representatives voted to end the American Community Survey, or ACS, the Census Bureau’s annual study of U.S. socioeconomic conditions. The largely party-line vote defied the advice of conservative think tank experts, the interests of the business community, and, most critically, common sense.

Data from the 21-page questionnaire are used to help the government best determine how to distribute federal assistance dollars, including Medicaid benefits, and federal grants to states and communities—more than $800 billion in grants and benefits in fiscal year 2008 alone.

Eliminating the ACS “would cause massive disruptions in the federal government” because many formula-funded programs use ACS data in their calculations, George Washington University professor Andrew Reamer told an Atlantic magazine blog last week.

What’s more, business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Business Economists strongly support the American Community Survey, as do individual businesses like Target.

“Census data is really the only source of information that can give us neighborhood-level data,” said Joan Naymark, Target’s director of market analytics and planning, in a video exploring how the company uses ACS data.

So what’s eating opponents of the ACS?

“It’s important that…we do not have an intrusive federal government that would impose a fine on people if they didn’t let the information come out about whether they had a flush toilet,” said Rep. Steve King (R-IA) on the House floor Wednesday before voting to kill the survey.  

The survey is mailed to about 2 percent of households annually, and participation is mandated by law, just like the decennial Census. Rep. King and his colleagues’ fixation on supposedly intimate questions ignores the enormous benefit that timely, detailed, scientifically valid data collection provides to the federal government and to businesses.

Every question asked on the American Community Survey must have a federal purpose and on its website the Census Bureau exhaustively details how the government uses the collected data. The predecessor to the survey was the decennial Census “long form,” which was used from 1850 to 2000. Questions on housing characteristics, like the plumbing questions so vexing to Rep. King, have been asked since 1940. 

Such questions and the survey in general constitute “an important federal tool in overcoming ‘information market failure,’ the market’s inability to provide public and private decision-makers with objective, detailed data,” Reamer wrote in a 2010 Brookings Institution report.

If he didn’t trust Reamer, who has also worked with the Center for American Progress, Rep. King might have at least considered the advice of the American Enterprise Institute’s Andrew G. Biggs, who in a March testimony urged Congress to keep the long survey mandatory.

“We already suffer too much from what might be referred to as ‘policymaking by anecdote,’ where lawmakers seek to pass legislation before sufficiently examining the severity—or sometimes even the existence—of a perceived problem,” said Biggs, a resident scholar at the conservative think tank. “Reducing the quantity and quality of data available to policymakers, analysts and researchers threatens to exacerbate this problem.”

As budgets grow increasingly constrained it is more important than ever to ensure every penny is directed to where it’s most needed. Gutting the statistical system that guides hundreds of billions of dollars in federal investment and provides enormous benefit to private industry will make such information-based policymaking all but impossible.

Kristina Costa is a Research Assistant at the Center for American Progress.

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Kristina Costa

Senior Fellow