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Contracting Government By Cutting Census Bureau Programs
by
Posted On May 21, 2012


On May 9, 2012, the U.S. House of Representative adopted the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2013. In addition to cutting $20 million from this year’s Economic Census, H.R. 5326 contained an amendment proposed by Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) that would eliminate funding—an estimated $2.5 billion over the next 10 years—for the American Community Survey (ACS). As one of the Tea Party officials who entered the House in 2010 on a platform to “streamline government and stop wasteful spending,” Webster pointed to the intrusive nature of the census questions as his primary rationale for eliminating the program. ACS “hardly fits the scope of what is required by the Constitution,” prying into Americans’ lives. Webster’s spokeswoman, Kelly Kwas, said that the representative felt the survey “tramples on personal privacy” and was “wasteful” of taxpayer funds. (You can watch Rep. Webster on the floor of the House at http://webster.house.gov/News/DocumentSingle.aspx?DocumentID=294931.)

Recognizing the need for across-the-board budget cuts, the Census Bureau already cut several strategic publications from its FY2012 budget estimate, including Statistical Abstracts, which has been “rescued” by ProQuest and Bernan Press. In a statement released on May 10, the Census Bureau reported that eliminating the ACS would “mark the first time in the country’s history that we would not collect and share vital economic and demographic measures of the country. These cuts would also keep us from conducting the 2012 economic census. Eliminating the American Community Survey would make it extremely difficult if not impossible to contain the costs of the 2020 census.”

Social researchers say that this data “is critical to modern demography” (National Journal, May 14, 2012); Lynne Hodgson, a sociology professor at Quinnipiac University, declared the cuts “very shortsighted.” Bureau Director Groves presents a stunning case for reinstating the programs in an 80-second video on his blog.

How Important Are These Surveys?

Midway between decennial censuses, the Census Bureau conducts an Economic Census, mailing 4.6 million forms to 3.1 million businesses. Completed forms provide rich and reliable detail concerning business activity, employment, inventories, and revenues. (The measure of business activity in 2007 can be found at www.census.gov/econ/census07/.)

Known originally as the long form, ACS was conceived as an integral part of the decennial census program with bipartisan funding in the mid-1990s and full implementation in 2005. Each year, ACS surveys are mailed to 2.9 million households. By combining the demographic data with industry activity, government programs and businesses can plan how best to spend their funds. Insights on family structure, household and consumer spending habits derived from ACS forms, such as length of commute and mode of transport to/from work, drive new product developments and targeted marketing. The more accurate the data, the better the decisions made, particularly with regard to providing social services at the local level. Republicans, in particular, have disputed the validity of sampling, which may have been a factor in the mostly party line vote on the Census Bureau budget. (View the vote on Webster’s Amendment No. 46 at www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/112-2012/h234; view the vote for H.R. 5326 at http://projects.washingtonpost.com/congress/112/house/2/votes/249/.) Federal and state programs distribute approximately $420 billion each year using ACS data.

The Senate

The Census Bureau budget faces similar hurdles in the Senate. Sen. Paul Ryan’s budget eliminating ACS was defeated in the Senate, but on May 10, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced a bill (S. 3079) that would make ACS voluntary, eliminating a rarely imposed $5,000 fine for recipients who do not complete the form. So the path is not clear. Unlikely to de-fund the ACS completely, the Senate will take up on S. 2323 in June. Then, the House and Senate versions will have to be reconciled, probably in a lame duck session after the November elections.

Hundreds of national, state, and local organizations have signed and sent a letter to the leadership of the Senate protesting the House action and calling for reinstatement of ACS funding, declaring ACS as the only source of neighborhood-level data reflecting the physical, mental and emotional challenges of the population. The May 15 editorial in the Washington Post calls on the Senate to “protect the Census Bureau against the House’s attacks,” stating the following: “The inconvenience of being required to fill out some census forms is not a distressing infringement on personal liberty, and government spending to collect that information is easily defensible.”


Barbie E. Keiser is an information resources management consultant located in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.

Email Barbie E. Keiser
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