Thursday, June 7, 2012

Cutting the Census: When Information Becomes Discretionary to Decision Making

Last month the House of Representatives voted 232-190  to eliminate the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). Since its full implementation in 2005, the ACS has become the most comprehensive set of national statistics on demographic, social, economic, and housing characteristics. The House vote demonstrates how irrational the drive to cut government has become. Cutting the ACS would hardly make a dent in our trillion dollar debt, yet would undermine our country’s information infrastructure and thereby inhibit both good decisions and economic growth.

The Census Bureau designed the annual ACS to replace the decennial census’ long form survey, making the much simpler short form survey what everyone across the country fills out every ten years. Moving more comprehensive questions to an annual, randomized survey like the ACS allows for more timely socioeconomic data, while making the decennial headcount more cost efficient. The opportunity costs of cutting this reliable data collection program are as wide ranging as those who rely on its data.

The survey provides policymakers, businesses, nongovernmental organizations, journalists, students and the public with accurate, timely information at every level of geography. Government agencies at all levels use information from the ACS to evaluate need for public programs as well as to gauge their performance. Journalists use the ACS to report on important social, demographic, or economic trends. Businesses rely on the data to assess potential markets, where to develop new locations, how to invest their capital, or where to find appropriate workers. School boards use the survey’s social and demographic trends to help plan for a changing student population. Lawmakers need it to learn about the districts they represent. Indeed, ACS statistics are public goods that not only facilitate well-informed decisions, but also allow the general public to inform themselves about their community and make decisions on local programs and services.

In fact, all communities directly benefit from the government’s use of the data. According to a study by the Brookings Institute, in 2008, ACS-related data sets helped guide the distribution of $416 billion through 184 federal domestic assistance programs. A bulk of that federal assistance goes to state governments through grant programs to aid low-income households and support highway infrastructure. In Colorado, ACS-guided assistance accounted for 1.6 percent of state GDP in 2008. The ACS even surveys Colorado's least populated areas, from Ouray to Kiowa County, ensuring that all communities are included in the data collected.

Luckily, it is unlikely the bill will make it through the US Senate. Attempting to dismantle one of the most comprehensive and accurate statistics tools available to us threatens the very efficiency our nation strives to achieve. To cut the ACS as a way to balance the budget is shortsighted and misguided. If we can’t measure our society, we are unable to change, understand, or manage it.

See how COFPI has used ACS data in our annual report, State of Working Colorado

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