It’s shortsighted for Congress to eliminate census data
Unfortunately, with its recent vote to defund the American Community Survey, the U.S. House of Representatives has undercut the most dependable source of information they should be relying upon.
The House voted to cut all funding for the Census Bureau’s annual collection of data on the economic, demographic and housing characteristics of U.S. households. Backers of the plan called the annual survey of 3 million random households “unconstitutional” and “an invasion of privacy” and balked at the relatively modest price tag of $2.4 billion a decade. This action, along with a current move in the Senate to enact “compromise” legislation that would make the American Community Survey (ACS) voluntary, works against laudable efforts by Congress to eliminate ineffective programs and curtail government waste.
The ACS is a vital tool for growing businesses and our economy. Without the critical demographic data provided by the ACS, businesses would play a guessing game when it comes to decisions such as where to open new stores, what to stock and what services to provide. State and local governments would not know how to allocate funding for everything from police patrols to healthcare to senior housing. The result would be more government waste, not less.
I speak from experience.
As governor of Michigan during the age of welfare reform, data from the decennial census long form – the precursor to the ACS – provided a useful roadmap for identifying populations with the greatest need and developing strategies that would help families move off welfare and into the workforce. Without data, we could not have determined which programs were effective and which were not.
Today I lead the Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs representing companies that together have more than $6 trillion in annual revenues and some 14 million employees. Our members rely every day on the type of demographic data provided by ACS. For instance, questions asked on the survey forms about family structure, household and consumer spending, length of commute to work and mode of transportation generate data that drives decisions about new product development, location of factories and marketing campaigns.
What we really need is more data – not less. With data we can prove that one program targeted at low-income families has had little impact, while another has helped its participants gain stable employment as it has reduced their reliance on government benefit programs. The data produced by the ACS informs how the federal government distributes more than $400 billion annually to states and communities. If Congress eliminates the survey, the impact would be felt by nearly every segment of society; the flow of those funds determines everything from where to build roads and schools to where to direct services to children, the elderly and veterans.
Given its impact, the ACS is a relative bargain. Think of it this way: Without that data, our government would be basing the distribution of more $400 billion in spending on little more than who wields the loudest megaphone or can generate the most emails.
Although described by some as a “compromise,” Senate efforts to make participation in the ACS voluntary also pose a serious threat to the collection of reliable data. In fact, such a move would inevitably increase costs since it would require government to hire even more people to make follow-up calls and visits to households to ensure adequate participation. The potential result would be less accurate data and more government waste.
Unfortunately, the reluctance to support sound data doesn’t stop with the ACS. The House also voted to defund the Economic Census, which provides comprehensive information on more than 25 million businesses and 1,100 industries, as well as data needed to generate quarterly GDP estimates. The Economic Census is the benchmark for measures of productivity and many of the nation’s principal economic indicators. What’s more, canceling it now would waste $226 million already spent on preparing the 2012 Economic Census.
Instead of trying to eliminate data, policymakers should focus on doing a better job using the data we have to encourage job growth, reduce spending and set our country on a sound economic path. This is not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue. At a time of scarce government resources, many of the most pressing problems of our time cannot be addressed without hard data to guide the way.
PHOTO: U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke stands beside a screen showing the country’s resident population during the 2010 Census presentation at the National Press Club in Washington, December 21, 2010. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas