Guest Column: Terri Ann Lowenthal on “Census Down the Drain”

Down the Drain

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

Dear American Community Survey (ACS) data users:

Have you recovered yet from the loss of the 3-year estimates, which offered reliable data for places with populations of 20,000 or more, often capturing trends that one-year estimates for larger places (65,000 population and above) can’t document as well? (Just to refresh your memories, we can chalk up the elimination of that dataset to budget cuts in the current fiscal year.)

I hope so. Now, get yourself another stiff drink, because the path Congress is following for next year’s budget (Fiscal Year 2016) could set the survey back even further.

Let’s start with the House of Representatives. Last month, Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) rallied his colleagues to turn the nation’s premier survey into an optional exercise, lest the government ask too much of its citizens in furtherance of democracy. By “rallied,” I mean his amendment to make ACS response voluntary passed the chamber at 10:37 p.m. with only the appropriations subcommittee chairman and ranking member on hand to listen or muster an “aye” or “no” (otherwise known as a voice vote).

The congressman’s proposal was no surprise. Over the past month, he’d taken to news outlets in his Houston district to rail against “government overreach at its worst.” The ACS question on flush toilets in the home really rankled him, so he will be tickled to know that the question is going down the drain next year.

This is the third time the House approved a “voluntary response” amendment to the Census Bureau’s annual funding bill. Let’s hope it’s not the charm. Because based on Canada’s recent experience with a voluntary census “long form” (the equivalent of our ACS), the result would be plummeting response rates, significantly higher costs, and loss of reliable data for small and less populous areas, as well as small population groups. Canada couldn’t produce data for a quarter of its places after the 2011 National Household Survey.

But maybe senators will save the day! In fact, the Senate Appropriations Committee seems to rather like the ACS. In its report on the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) funding bill (H.R. 2578), the panel was full of praise for the nation’s premier survey. That show of support apparently was enough to deter Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) from pressing ahead with his amendment to let Americans opt-out of the ACS (he “offered and withdrew” it), saying only that he hoped House and Senate negotiators would resolve the issue down the road. In other words, he hasn’t given up the fight.

A shout-out to CJS Subcommittee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) is in order, for seeing the light on the importance of the ACS. But don’t raise a toast to the Senate just yet. Because appropriators weren’t in the mood to put their money where their mouths are.

Yes, data for “small towns and rural areas” are important! Yes, the ACS is “often the primary or only source of data for States, localities, and Federal agencies” on many policy topics! But, we regret to inform you that we just don’t have the money to sustain the ACS sample size, which is necessary to produce high-quality estimates for neighborhoods, small counties, American Indian reservations, race and ethnicity subgroups, veterans, people with disabilities.

Okay, the committee didn’t actually say that. But cutting the Periodic Censuses and Programs account budget request by 30 percent is bound to weaken the survey significantly, at least for the foreseeable future, while the bureau scrambles to research ways to bring down data collection costs. Those 5-year estimates, which average enough data to produce reliable estimates for small areas? They just might turn into 6-year estimates, making the measurements less timely and stable. The committee’s senior Democrat, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), summed up the proposed funding level in one word: irresponsible.

House appropriators, on the other hand, were perfectly happy to let us know how much they dislike that “burdensome” survey. In fact, majority members were downright “disappointed” that the Census Bureau dropped only one question (medical or business office on property) from the survey so far, as part of an in-depth content review; they directed the agency to find other nonessential questions to ax post haste.

Then, they drove the point home with a 20 percent cut to the ACS budget, capping spending for next year at $200 million. And that was before the full House slashed another $117 million from the account covering the ACS and 2020 Census planning. “Completely shortsighted” was how the committee minority described the Census Bureau’s funding level, saying the data are needed to “better understand and predict changes in the American economy and the health of American communities, which in turn helps inform good public policy.” Imagine that.

People, I don’t know if you are shaking your heads, throwing your hands up in the air, or heading back to the liquor cabinet right about now. But maybe you should whip out your laptops and fire off a message to your elected representatives, letting them know that plunging the nation into data darkness will not enhance their reputations as enlightened lawmakers.

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