It’s shortsighted for Congress to eliminate census data

By John Engler
June 7, 2012

As America’s national leaders get ready to tackle the country’s serious challenges, they will need solid information on which to base their decisions.

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

11 comments

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McGraw-Hill is going to make a killing collecting and selling this data.

Large companies will pay for it, small ones won’t/can’t.

Washington’s ineptitude is just astounding sometimes.

Posted by CapitalismSays | Report as abusive

Are you sure that the assumptions you make from this data are correct? Aggregated data makes life simple. Plug in a question and the answer spits out. Or does it? Your example of small business makes me think of the time that customers drove the business, not statistics.

Posted by SeaWa | Report as abusive

Yes it is but that’s the GOP for you, penny wise but pound foolish.

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive

SeaWa, are you confusing the raw data provided by tools like the ACS with the results of data analysis?

It seems to me that the more data and information available to decision makers – from the Feds down to the local business owner trying to figure out his or her next step – the better the decision will be.

Without adequate data, we may as well be flipping coins or throwing darts!

Posted by MEPII | Report as abusive

Several comments

1) Users of the data should pay for it.
2) What does the government do with the data?
3) Given that the government is inept, why does it need to be gathered?
4) No one should be forced to provide any information
5) Saving $240 million a year is a good thing.

Posted by ALLSOLUTIONS | Report as abusive

Ignorance is a key component to the GOP agenda. Killing data collection of any sort is part of that plan. Foolish is not the word. Deliberate, calculating, and facist are more appropriate terms to use in describing this behaviour.

Posted by krimsonpage | Report as abusive

A twelve-year-old savant software developer from Nowhere USA will make a web App/Service to fill the need.

Welcome to America 2.0

Posted by bryanX | Report as abusive

Some thoughts:
1) The only valid way to collect the data is by using a truly random sample. If the survey is voluntary, the sample will not be truly random.
2) Business can pay for access to the aggregate data they need. Believe me the cost is a very, very good investment. How many times have you seen a new small business open, then close several months later. They needed better data to help them determine the right site and time to open.
3) As the author notes, this isn’t about GOP or DEM. It’s about business decision making. (Don’t you folks read? Do you comprehend the meaning of the words you read? Do you think Democratic business owners don’t have the same data needs in their business decisions that Republican business owners do?)
4) Some politicians are trying to grand-stand for political gain during an election year. Then, next year they will be persuaded to re-fund the exact same programs they just defunded.

Posted by SeaDaddy46 | Report as abusive

I thought Republican knew how to read. Guess this guy never learnt or bothered to do his duty. The Constitution only authorizes ONE census every ten years and economic data has NOTHING to do with it. Congress has been bullying The People to just DoIT when they -the Congress- should be paying for these economic surveys out of their petty cash and mega retirement fun funds.

If this information is so important why doesn’t Mr Engler just ask his buddy multimillionair Governors to tell their Congress Critters and Senators to authorize an “earned income credit” for each and every citizen and/or “entity” at $25 per hour for every hour or part there of that the OMB says it takes to collect the data and then fill out the forms. That way most folks would just let their accountant or taxpreparers take care of it in the normal course of business.

Of course a few bugercrats and govemployees might need to look for another line of work. If NASA can turn over the manned space program to private business and save 85 to 95% of the cost. Why can’t the Congress figure this thing out?

Posted by GLsword | Report as abusive

There has been a concerted effort by Congress and the Executive Branch for years to distort statistics on the economy to always make it appear more rosy than it is.

Some years ago, Congress decided to “save money” by defining the official unemployment rate by what was exclusively reported by the states that includes dropping the reporting of those people who no longer receive unemployment benefits, labeling them, “no longer in the employment pool” and “no longer looking for work”, a blatant lie. This would supposedly save money in doing those useless surveys by the United States Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Funny, how after years of reporting the phony official unemployment rate, the BLS still does the surveys and analyses to determine the under-employment rate (including part-timers), the real unemployment rate (those who did work and can work, but are not working), the labor participation rate – all of which justify Paul Krugman’s, Nobel Laureate in Economics, claiming that we’re in the Third Depression. Read his book, “How to Get Out of This Depression”.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

There has been a concerted effort by Congress and the Executive Branch for years to distort statistics on the economy to always make it appear more rosy than it is.

Some years ago, Congress decided to “save money” by defining the official unemployment rate by what was exclusively reported by the states that includes dropping the reporting of those people who no longer receive unemployment benefits, labeling them, “no longer in the employment pool” and “no longer looking for work”, a blatant lie. This would supposedly save money in doing those useless surveys by the United States Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Funny, how after years of reporting the phony official unemployment rate, the BLS still does the surveys and analyses to determine the under-employment rate (including part-timers), the real unemployment rate (those who did work and can work, but are not working), the labor participation rate – all of which justify Paul Krugman’s, Nobel Laureate in Economics, claiming that we’re in the Third Depression. Read his book, “How to Get Out of This Depression”.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive