One of this month’s debates in Congress may sound familiar.
One casualty of the sweeping budget bill that passed the House on Thursday was an annual survey conducted by the Census Bureau, a rich source of data that social researchers say is critical to modern demography. The elimination of the American Community Survey from the bill surprised researchers, who say they depend on it for data on everything from race to migration and poverty. It is also critical to state and local governments, which use it to decide how to spend federal funds…
Congressman Daniel Webster, a Republican from Florida who voted to eliminate the survey, argued that it “tramples on personal privacy,” and that spending taxpayer dollars on it was “wasteful,” according to a statement provided by Kelly Kwas, a spokeswoman. The statement cited questions about how long it takes to get home from work, and whether the respondent needed help to go shopping.
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.
The ACS costs about $2.4 billion a decade, which is trivial compared with the growth it helps drive. National statistics are in some sense public goods, which is why the government has other data-gathering shops like the Bureaus of Economic Analysis and Labor Statistics. The House action is like blaming the bathroom scale for your recent weight gain.
The American Community Survey is what replaced the long-form census in the United States. (Two years ago, Ken Boessenkool and Jack Mintz invoked the ACS as an alternative to our long-form census.) If you’d like to recall the demise of Canada’s long-form census, you can review the back-and-forth here.