Saturday, June 13, 2015

On saving the American Community Survey from the fate of Canada's long-form census

I have used the tag "census" here at Demography Matters a fair bit. Most of the posts relate to the abolition of the abolition of Canada's long-form census after the 2011 federal election was won with a majority by the Conservatives, following a needless din raised by them while they were a minority. Without providing convincing reasons, the Canadian government forced Statistics Canada to abandon a statistical tool that generated vital information. This, as I noted in 2014 and again observed earlier this year, caused measurable harm to Canadians by denying us the information about ourselves that we need to plan.

On Wednesday, I went to The Atlantic and discovered that the American Community Survey is facing similar challenges. Russell Berman's "Republicans Try to Rein in the Census Bureau" tells a story all too familiar to me.

Republicans have long argued that such questions are too intrusive for a mandatory survey, and for the second year in a row, House-passed spending legislation would effectively make it voluntary by prohibiting the government from enforcing criminal penalties—which can reach $5,000—against people who refuse to participate in the ACS. To its opponents, the survey is yet another front in the privacy wars, and their arguments echo the complaints about government spying in the name of national security.

“This survey is another example of unnecessary and completely unwarranted government intrusion,” wrote Representative Ted Poe in a recent op-ed. “The federal government has no right to force Americans to divulge such private information, especially information that they are uncomfortable giving away.” Poe, a conservative former judge who represents the Houston suburbs,​ wrote the amendment that House Republicans included in the annual spending bill that covers the Census Bureau. While Democrats in the Senate successfully blocked it in previous years, the provision may stand a stronger chance now that Republicans run the upper chamber. President Obama has threatened to veto the legislation, in part because of the ACS amendment and deep cuts to funding for the 2020 Census.

Senator James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican in his first term, said he’s concerned not only about the questions on the ACS but also with the methods the Census Bureau uses to make sure they get answered. Recipients are first mailed a survey that notes, in all capital letters on the envelope, that responses are mandatory. If they don’t send it back, government officials follow up with phone calls and house visits. Lankford told me that constituents have complained to him that after they told a census official they would not participate in the survey, the official sat in his car outside the house, waited for him to leave for work, and then returned to ask his wife to answer the questions. Poe has accused the government of similar “harassment” in Texas. “It’s just really odd,” Lankford said. “It comes across as just a really intrusive way to conduct a survey.” In response to the concerns, the Census Bureau is testing out a gentler approach without the bolded warnings, but according to Science, officials have said that when they have used less aggressive methods in the past, response rates dropped significantly.

A quick look at the Census Bureau’s website reveals an extensive effort to overcome skepticism, and resistance, to many of the questions on the American Community Survey. In addition to pamphlets outlining the history of the questionnaire, the website includes documents that explain why the survey asks each question, how long the question has been asked as part of the Census, and how federal, state, and local governments (as well as the private sector) use the information they gather. So why do they ask about toilets? “We ask questions about kitchen and plumbing facilities because federal and local governments need this information to allocate funding for housing subsidies and other programs that help American families afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing,” the Bureau says. Plumbing and kitchen questions first appeared on the Census “long form” in 1940. Without the toilet question, the government might not know that even in 2015, there are nearly 2 million Americans in rural communities without indoor plumbing, said Phil Sparks, co-director of The Census Project, a nonprofit advocacy consortium. “It’s irreplaceable,” Sparks said. “There is no option B for that data.”

More, much more, is at the website of The Atlantic.

Do not let them do it. Seriously. The United States needs that information badly in order to function. How can any government formulate policies intended to deal with the issues of the communities and individuals it governs and represents without knowing the first thing about them? This, I fear, is the strongly anti-democratic motive underlying too much of this anti-ACS sentiment. Modify it if you need to, but do not undermine it. Americans, your country will be the worse for it.

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