The pinpoint accuracy of the head count conducted every decade by the U.S. Census Bureau is impressive enough, but the agency’s greatest insights may come from its annual surveys, which take the pulse of Americans on topics as varied as their income, commuting habits, and home-heating setup.
Data gleaned from the yearly surveys provide businesses with critical information on their markets for products and services. A retailer, for instance, might use the findings to decide where to locate a new store; a manufacturer might determine the best site for a new factory.
For government officials, the data is indispensible in directing the more than $400 billion in federal funding each year that helps states and communities meet transportation, education, health care, policing, and other needs.
Yet, despite being seen as vital by such disparate groups as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a numbet of civil rights organizations, this census tool has come under fire from congressional Republicans.
In fact, the appropriations bill approved by the House in May eliminated funding for what’s known as the American Community Survey (ACS), as well as its related economic census.
The central Florida congressman who sponsored the measure pitched it as a way to save at least $2.4 billion over the next decade. But budget savings aside, Rep. Daniel Webster appears to be more intent on eliminating the program because he views it as an unnecessary intrusion into citizens’ private lives.
Even though Webster wasn’t swept into office until the 2010 tea-party movement, he certainly should know that the census tool he’s trying to scrap was implemented in 2005 with considerable Republican backing.
That Congress and then-President George W. Bush rightly figured out that it made much more sense to gather timely information with the yearly surveys, rather than continue to rely on often outdated information gleaned from the old, discontinued long-form census questionnaire that had been sent out only every 10 years.
As for its cost, the ACS represents a fraction of federal spending — only 77 cents per person, with the related economic census pegged at 41 cents.
Is the survey too nosy? In fact, the information is compiled anonymously and the Census Bureau has an excellent record of confidentiality. And while completing the survey is required by law for the 250,000 households that receive it each month, most people comply and no one has been fined for tossing the census form.
A Senate subcommittee took up the issue in mid-July, and it’s really up to senators to reject this wrongheaded retreat from data-gathering. They should reject, as well, a supposed compromise that would make the surveys optional.
In an information age, it’s no wonder that the census survey is so critical to a vibrant economy and to assuring effective government spending.
Beyond their immediate use, the surveys also keep tabs on what it means to be an American over time. That family portrait is as much about what the nation owes to posterity as it is about contributing to present-day prosperity.