Research Corner is a regular column from Woodstock Institute's vice president of applied research Spencer Cowan investigating data trends, posing new questions, and discussing how data inform public policy.
Information is the most important single ingredient for sound decision-making – more specifically, accurate, reliable, relevant, and timely information. This holds true whether the decision is being made in the private or public sector. Retailers need data about the surrounding communities that will provide the customer base when choosing new locations for their stores. Manufacturers need data about the availability of skilled workers, tax rates, and infrastructure when siting new plants. School boards choosing sites for new schools need data about where students live. Data enable the decision-makers to make better decisions—and the House of Representatives is trying to eliminate funding for one of the most important data sources in the country.
As a researcher, I analyze data for a living, and that is one of the many reasons why I am so concerned about the recent vote in the United States House of Representatives to defund the American Community Survey (ACS). The ACS is the United States Census Bureau survey that provides demographic data annually on topics ranging from family composition to income and health insurance, from commuting to educational attainment. Even better, the data are free and available to anybody with Internet access. This means that anyone with the know-how can use ACS to see if community needs are being met and hold the government accountable if they are not.
My concern is not just because ACS is important for my work. I am a taxpayer who wants government decisions about how to spend my tax dollars to be based on data. Before a state creates a program to address poverty, for example, I want it to have data showing where poverty is concentrated so the program can focus resources where they are needed. Before a school board builds a new school, I want it to have data showing that the school-age population in the area is growing rapidly enough to justify the expenditure. Focusing services and expenditures where there is demand for them is intelligent investing, a principle that applies to business and government alike. We need data from the ACS to make smart investment decisions.
Proponents of defunding argue that the ACS is unconstitutional and the questions are too intrusive. Those questions were addressed in a memo dated April 4, 2002, from the General Counsel of the General Accounting Office to Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA), Vice Chairman of the Committee on Government Reform. The memo provides a clear analysis of the statutory authority for the ACS and cites court cases upholding the constitutionality of the census questions upon which the ACS is based.
Proponents of defunding suggest two alternatives to the mandatory ACS. The first is to make the survey voluntary. That would not only make the survey more expensive, but it would also reduce the accuracy of the data. The second suggestion is to have the private-sector collect the data because so many businesses use ACS data to inform their decisions. Turning responsibility for the ACS over to a private, for-profit business would reduce access to the data, limiting it to people and organizations willing and able to pay whatever price the business wanted to charge.
A comprehensive, accurate, and timely dataset like the ACS not only minimizes waste of tax dollars, but it also helps to ensure that everyone—particularly the most vulnerable residents—are being adequately served by the government. Let your Senators know that they shouldn’t vote to approve a budget without continued funding for the ACS.