How we learned to stop worrying and love the American Community Survey

I don’t like filling out surveys as much as the next guy.  But I wouldn’t think the world would come to an end if I was told I had to do so.

Yet, some of rhetoric coming from Right-wing blogs and the Republican Party would have us believe that the U.S. Census Bureau and the American Community Survey (ACS) are the devil and his pitchfork — alluding to some Orwellian future if the ACS was allowed to continue.  Some of this rhetoric has made it into the official Republican platform:

…the Census Bureau acts exactly as a scam artist would, asking very personal questions and using fear of penalties to manipulate the repondent to answer…

…the Census Bureau has used tactics such as harassing letters, phone calls, agent visits and even questioning neighbors to get information about respondents.

…the Republican National Committee recognizes that the Census Bureau is spending millions of tax dollars to violate the rights and invade the peronsal privacy of United States Citizens…

Resolution Concerning the American Community Survey, approved by the RNC August 6, 2010

They turned harsh words into action as The House of Representatives recently voted to eliminate the ACS, a “mandatory,” mail-based, national survey of 3 million people conducted annually by the Census Bureau.  Political antics quickly followed suit.  The Left was quick to admonish congressional Republicans and cast this as yet another example of Right-wing extremism.  The Right feels vindicated that it has given yet another blow to a government that has overreached its authority.

Let’s take a breather for a moment and consider some facts:

1.  The ACS does ask questions on topics of a personal nature such as income, fertility, ancestry, personal possessions, and public program participation.  Despite liberal rhetoric to the contrary, most of these questions were not asked since the days of Thomas Jefferson.  Rather, the ACS and its “Long Form” predecessors have gradually grown in scope and in the number of questions asked as government agencies, non-profit institutions, and businesses have demanded more data to be collected in order to operate effectively.

2.  Yes, individuals are technically required by law to answer questions on the ACS.  Title 13, Sections 141, 193, and 221 of the U.S. Code give the Census Bureau authority to conduct the ACS.  Title 18 gives power to impose penalties for refusing to answer questions or lying on the questions.

3.  No, the Census Bureau does not enforce penalties for not answering the ACS.  The Census Bureau does not see itself as an enforcement agency.  People who do not answer the mail-in ACS form are merely reminded of its mandatory nature in follow-up letters, phone calls, and a possible personal visit.

4.  The ACS is a mandatory survey primarily because of cost.  Early field tests of the ACS have shown that switching to a voluntary format would increase the cost of conducting the survey by as much as 38 percent.  This is primarily because of a necessary increase in the number of follow-up phone calls and personal visits needed to ensure an adequate sample size and the same level of accuracy that the current ACS provides.

A coalition of businesses interests, academic researchers, Democrats on Capitol Hill, and many conservatives have recently rallied around the ACS, and the House proposal to eliminate the survey will meet considerable resistance as it is considered in the Senate.

Yet, I still have my concerns about the mandatory nature of the ACS, and I am disturbed by the Left’s disregard of the legitimate privacy concerns on the Right.  I am fully aware that the ACS is a key data source and is necessary if modern government is to legislate effectively.  I am also aware of the survey’s value to the business community and the non-profit sector.  But is it right to coerce someone to answer personal questions under a vague and unenforceable threat of penalties?  I hope most people would agree that we can do better than that.

I would prefer the ACS to be voluntary, but only if congress is willing to pay the extra cost to maintain its current accuracy and reliability.  However, I’m sure House Republicans would be most unwilling to pay this extra cost.

As a result, if we are serious about effective governing, we all have to learn to love the ACS in its current form.  The ACS does raise serious privacy concerns, but getting rid of it will surely make government the ineffective and antiquated operation that congressional Republicans love to bemoan.

Dustin Cable is a Policy Associate at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service where he conducts research on topics that lie at the intersection of demographics, politics, and public policy.