Our Census Dummies in the House of Representatives
By Dave Swenson
Over the past decade, across a wide range of venues, personal liberties have been systematically undermined in the name of national security and the so-called War on Terrorism. It is all fine and good, according to those who have enacted these egregious intrusions; it’s the price we pay for living in a post-9/11 world. Still, there comes a point where the America-Firsters, exceptionalists and security fanatics put their feet down.
Earlier this month, on their way to rubberstamping what is known as the Ryan Budget, the Republican controlled U.S. House of Representatives voted 232 to 190 to get rid of the American Community Survey, or ACS. Among Republican supporters of the legislation, the ACS is believed to be “prying into private life and is unconstitutional,” noted the Wall Street Journal in an 11 May 2012 editorial.
The ACS is an ongoing survey of the U.S. population. It was formally implemented in 2005 (during a Republican administration, no less) to replace essentially the same, “long-form” survey that used to only be conducted every 10 years. It is different from the census count, the “short-form,” which merely tallies the population as of 1 April 2010 and which catalogues only a small set of basics: where we were residing at the time of the census, our ages, our sex, our household and family relationships, our race, and whether we are of Hispanic heritage or not. The census is a constitutionally mandated function of the federal government used, most importantly, to apportion representation at the national, state, and local levels.
The ACS, in contrast, is a legislatively authorized statistical sample of the population, and it is used to provide government decision makers and society with richer information about the population. It provides insights into the quality and conditions of our housing, our basic economic characteristics, the kinds of occupations we have, the kind of industries we work in, the amount of our pay, and our transportation needs to get to work. From the ACS we are able to compare and contrast a range of economic, housing, and social attributes across a wide set of well-being measures among regions, racial groups, ancestries, or ethnic origins. With data from the ACS we more effectively plan for the care and public service needs of workers, the elderly, the poor, the disabled, and families with children.
In short, while the census counts us, the ACS tells us who we are, how we are doing, what our needs are, and where those needs are.
The ACS, though, has been the object of derision and loathing by Tea Partiers and other liberty lunatics for quite awhile. Its detractors claim it is intrusive, that the information collected is liberty-threatening, that there are political or other insidious motives for the choice of the questions, that the government ought not be in the business of collecting these types of data – that it is, instead, more properly the province of the private sector, that compliance ought to be voluntary instead of the current mandatory requirement of filling it out, and that the ACS is an example of wasteful government spending.
All that said, though, the most ardent critics of the ACS have in somewhat spooky unison labeled the ACS an “interrogation.” It is not a survey, it an intrusive and mandatory deposition. It is Gestapo government writ large.
Oh what crap!
To get an idea of the quality of thinking behind this assault on the ACS one need only turn to the comments of the sponsor of the legislation to rid us of the ACS, Florida Republican Representative Daniel Webster. During floor debate he proclaimed: “This is not a scientific survey; it’s a random survey!”
The idiocy of that sentence is breathtaking. How do you explain the importance and value of government data collection in the face of someone in a national leadership capacity not knowing that a survey’s randomness is what makes it scientific? Indeed, how do you reason with someone who doesn’t understand what he is opposing?
It was even too much for the Wall Street Journal. Their editorial went on:
In fact, the ACS provides some of the most accurate, objective and granular data about the economy and the American people, in something approaching real time. Ideally, Congress would use the information to make good decisions. Or economists and social scientists draw on the resource to offer better suggestions. Businesses also depend on the ACS's county-by-county statistics to inform investment and hiring decisions.
As the great Peter Drucker had it, you can't manage or change what you don't measure.
Republicans do themselves no favors by targeting a useful government purpose.
Try telling that to House Republicans.
Dave Swenson is a long-time analyst of Iowa political, social, and economic issues. He is a staff research economist at Iowa State University and a community and regional economics analyst and educator. He also teaches planners (those nefarious agents of totalitarian control) how to do economic things in their profession at both Iowa State University and The University of Iowa.