The implications of discontinuing the American Community Survey

This didn’t exactly make the front page this week but a vote in the House of Representatives about the American Community Survey could have a big impact on how we understand the United States. Nate Berg explains:

So the Republican-led House of Representatives this week voted 232-190 to eliminate the American Community Survey, the annual survey of about 3 million randomly chosen U.S. households that’s like the Census only much more detailed. It collects demographic details such as what sort of fuel a household uses for heating, the cost of rent or mortgage payments, and what time residents leave home to go to work.

In a post on the U.S. Census Bureau’s website, Director Robert Groves says the bill “devastates the nation’s statistical information about the status of the economy and the larger society. Modern societies need current, detailed social and economic statistics. The U.S. is losing them.”

While the elimination of the ACS would take a slight nibble out of the roughly $3.8 trillion in government expenditures proposed in the 2013 federal budget, its negative impacts could be much greater – affecting the government’s ability to fund a wide variety of services and programs, from education to housing to transportation.

The issue is that the information collected in the ACS is used heavily by the federal government to figure out where it will spend a huge chunk of its money. In a 2010 report for the Brookings Institution, Andrew Reamer found that in the 2008 fiscal year, 184 federal domestic assistance programs used ACS-related datasets to help determine the distribution of more than $416 billion in federal funding. The bulk of that funding, more than 80 percent, went directly to fund Medicaid, highway infrastructure programs and affordable housing assistance. Reamer, now a research professor George Washington University’s Institute of Public Policy, also found that the federal government uses the ACS to distribute about $100 billion annually to states and communities for economic development, employment, education and training, commerce and other purposes. He says that should the ACS be eliminated, it would be very difficult to figure out how to distribute this money where it’s needed…

And it’s not just government money that would be wasted. Reamer says many businesses are increasingly reliant on the market data available within the ACS, and that without it they would have much less success picking locations where their businesses would have market demand. It would affect businesses throughout the country, “from mom-and-pops to Walmart.”

Some history might also be helpful here. The United States has carried out a dicennial census since 1790 but the American Community Survey began in the mid 1990s. There has been talk in recent years of replacing the expensive and complicated dicennial census with a beefed up American Community Survey. There would be several advantages: it wouldn’t cost as much plus the government (and the country) would have more consistent information rather than having to wait every ten years. In other words, our country is rapidly changing and we need consistent information that can tell us what is happening.

In my mind, as a researcher who consistently uses Census data, dropping the ACS would be a big loss. The government funding is important but even more important to me would be losing the more up-to-date information the ACS provides. Without this survey, we would likely have to rely on private data which is often restrictive and/or expensive. For example, I’ve used ACS data to track some housing issues but without this, I’m not sure where I could get similar data.

This is part of a larger issue of conservatives wanting to limit the reach of the Census Bureau. The argument often is that the Census is too intrusive, therefore invading the privacy of citizens (see this 2011 story about an insistent ACS worker), and the Constitution only provides for a dicennial census. I wonder if these arguments are red herrings: there is a long history of battling over Census counts and timing depending on which political party might benefit. For example, see Republican claims that inappropriate sampling techniques were used to correct undercounts for big cities, claims that the Census “imputes” races to people (so mark your race as American!), or efforts by New York City to ask for a recount in order to boost their 2010 population figures, which are tied to funding. In other words, the Census can turn into a political football even though its data is very important and it uses social science research techniques.

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