American Community Survey Back in the Frying Pan

American Community Survey logoTuesday as the chairman of a subcommittee of the powerful House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations suggested that Congress should make the American Community Survey — which fills in demographic data on Americans in the years between the decennial censuses — voluntary and not mandatory.

“I’m a big believer in privacy,” said John Culberson, the Texas Republican who heads the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies subcommittee, “and our most important right as Americans is to be left alone. Which is why I am concerned about the American Community Survey. It’s very long and intrusive and it’s treated as though it’s mandatory” –which by federal law it is.

“I understand that’s statutory,” the eight-term congressman continued. “That’s something we in Congress ought to change because fundamentally, the Census ought to be just who are you, how many people live there, what’s your ancestry, very simple, straightforward questions.”

Culberson’s call – “I have a lot of constituents who are concerned about the American Community Survey,” he said –came during a hearing with Penny Pritzker, the Secretary of Commerce, on the Commerce Department’s budget request for fiscal 2016. While many questions during the hour-long session dealt with manufacturing or fishing, questions from the chairman centered on the Census and the American Community Survey. The attention paid to what the New York Times once called “the most important government function you’ve never heard of” is no surprise –the ACS has been in the cross-hairs of some conservative legislators for years. In 2012, there was even an attempt to kill it outright.

The ACS is administered by the U.S. Census Bureau. During the 20th century the Census included both short-form and long-form questionnaires; after the year 2000 Census the long form was transmuted into the ACS, which collects information throughout the decade. (The 10-year Census is one of the few specific federal actions mandated by the U.S. Constitution.)

As explained by the Census Bureau:

The ACS includes not only the basic short-form questions, but also detailed questions about population and housing characteristics. It is a nationwide, continuous survey designed to provide communities with reliable and timely demographic, housing, social, and economic data every year. Since its start, the ACS has been providing a continuous stream of updated information for states and local areas, and will revolutionize the way we use statistics to understand our communities.

And answering the survey questions, like the Census itself, is required of U.S. residents. In a web page titled “Is the American Community Survey mandatory?,” the Census Bureau details that “the relevant laws are Title 18 U.S.C Section 3571 and Section 3559, which amends Title 13 U.S.C. Section 221.”

The bureau itself asks – and answers –what would happen if the ACS was not mandatory:

The Census Bureau has looked at this question, and our research shows that a voluntary survey would reduce the self-response rates significantly. To make up the shortfall, we would have to increase the number of households surveyed and conduct much more in-person follow-up, at an additional cost of more than $90 million annually. If we were not able to increase the number of households surveyed, we would collect much less data and accuracy would decrease due to increased sampling variation. This would disproportionately affect the accuracy of the results that we produce for many small areas and small population groups throughout the nation.

Pritzker told the subcommittee that the Census Bureau, a part of the Department of Commerce, respects the privacy and the time of its citizen respondents, who are providing important information used by businesses, non-governmental organizations, and nearly all local, state and federal agencies. “It’s the only source of data for many small and rural communities,” she continued. “If the ACS were no longer available or no longer used, there’s about 60 million Americans that we would not be collecting data on except during the Census period.”

She added that the ACS received “a complete, top-to-bottom examination” last year that touched on questions such as what are the sources of information, how frequently are individuals queried, can the inquiries be less frequent but still reliable, and can questions be deleted to make it shorter? Pritzker said the results are being analyzed now, and should be available by the end of the current fiscal year. (But even seemingly minor changes can perturb social scientists, who are major users of ACS data.)

Culberson also told the secretary point blank that the Census Bureau would not be getting the full $1.5 billion funding requested by the administration this year, nor will likely receive the $13 billion total estimated between now and the 2020 Census.

“We simply do not have $13 billion to spend on the Census,” he said; such parsimony when it comes to the Census, like the attacks on the ACS, is also routine.

Then he added, “A straightforward way to save money is to use other branches of the government to provide some of that data.”

He added helpfully, “So many other of the questions that are asked in that long census form could be obtained from the Internal Revenue Service.”

“One of the major efforts that we have with the 2020 Census is the use of what we call administrative records,” Pritzker said, adding that to take advantage of those other sources the bureau needed to test the efficacy of the new approach, and have that nailed down two or three years before actually engaging in the census. “That’s why our request is so significant this year – it’s very much about testing.”

Without the testing, she said, many money-saving efforts to automate will have to be sidelined in favor of the extensive house-to-house surveying familiar in the past – “which seems ridiculous in a digital world.”

Culberson then asked – repeatedly – if the bureau was using IRS data. Pritzker answered –repeatedly –that the agency anticipated using whatever government data that was legally available. Culberson then circled back to his earlier suggestion, which hadn’t been yet validated with an affirmative answer: “I’m also concerned about whether privacy advocates are aware that you might be using IRS records with the problems the IRS has had recently about targeting people.”

“Privacy,” responded Pritzker, “is something we at the Census and at the Department of Commerce take very, very seriously.”

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