By: Kevin Cirilli
Enough with the questions already!
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) introduced legislation that would make it optional for residents across the country to complete the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey.
The survey is about 14 pages’ worth of dozens of questions — ranging from religious beliefs to the number of toilets per household. The results yield a massive amount of data ranging from health care to economic issues. While the Constitution calls for the government to administer a census every 10 years, Paul and others say that ACS and other federally funded surveys aren’t protected by it.
Now public policy wonks like The American Academy of Political and Social Science are pushing to highlight the importance of the ACS and federally funded surveys. They say data from the Census Bureau are the building block for social scientists and researchers nationwide (not to mention that it also helps lawmakers appropriate money). The AAPSS is co-hosting a briefing Friday on the Hill to drum up support for federally funded surveys.
“My opinion on the argument that the ACS should be made optional or canceled is that it’s silly,” AAPSS Executive Director Tom Kecskemethy said. “If you come from the world in which we live, it’s silly because it is a crippling blow to the statistical infrastructure of the United States.”
But Poe and Paul say that it isn’t the government’s job to conduct such invasive research outside of what is required of the Constitution.
Poe told POLITICO that he crafted his legislation after constituents complained to him that the information sought is none of the government’s business.
“This should be voluntary. It shouldn’t be required, it’s not the government’s job to count toilets — it is their job to count people,” Poe said. “Just because it does some good doesn’t mean the Census Bureau should do it. Taxpayers shouldn’t have to fund that. If people want to use the community survey — great. But they shouldn’t be forced to.”
He added: “I think it’s an example of the government forcibly trying to find out more information from people. It violates their privacy. It’s no business of the government to have this information.”
For his part, Paul said in a public statement following the legislation’s introduction last month that it allows for people to decide what information they’re sharing with the government.
“This bill seeks to protect citizens and addresses concerns about the level of personal information collected by the American Community Survey. By making this survey voluntary, people would have the opportunity to decide what, if any, information they share with the government,” Paul said in the statement.
Social scientists say survey participation rates have declined in recent years as fewer people use land-line phones and complain about being overpolled, among other reasons. They say that if ACS is made voluntary, participation rates — and therefore the survey’s accuracy — will decline.
AAPPS President Doug Massey called ACS the “heart of the nation’s statistical system.”
“[Because] it is given every year, the ACS can provide timely information on trends between censuses, not only for the nation but for states, counties and smaller geographic areas, making it all the more valuable,” Massey told POLITICO. “Moreover, private organizations rely on it to benchmark and plan their own surveys. It is really the heart of the nation’s statistical system.”
Massey added: “The ACS is the primary source for information on the demographic, social and economic composition of the U.S. Most of what people think of as ‘census data’ does not come from a complete count of the population but from a sample survey administered by the Census Bureau.”
Take, for example, the National Association of Home Builders, which uses the survey data to make market forecasts.
“We regularly use the ACS to provide basic information on housing markets to our member builders,” NAHB vice president for survey and housing policy research Paul Emrath told POLITICO. “Recent examples include providing a simple snapshot of local housing markets, analyzing the impact of house price changes in local markets and showing how property tax rates evolved at the local level in the housing downturn.”
Friday’s briefing at the Capitol Visitor Center features Massey and a Princeton University professor as well as Kenneth Prewitt, Columbia School of International and Public Affairs, and a former U.S. Census Bureau director. The event is also sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the National Academies’ Committee on National Statistics, Sage Publications and the Russell Sage Foundation.