Commentary: Survey says this government spending cut is ill-considered

The Kansas City StarMay 25, 2012 

Here’s a fiscal mess in the making that has slipped by most Americans.

This one is pushed by the folks who claim that government is too big and intrusive.

The U.S. House of Representatives is attempting to eliminate funding for an annual socioeconomic survey of the U.S. population. Sounds like a little harmless nipping at the overblown federal budget, right?

Wrong. This information is used by every segment of government — federal, state and local — to determine community needs. It’s how traffic engineers know the highway needs to go here, not there. Or how developers determine that a nursing home could serve an area with a rapidly growing senior population.

Law enforcement, hospitals, child care agencies, schools, emergency services, job training — it would be difficult to find a segment of society not affected by the data.

More than $400 billion in federal dollars is distributed every year based on the data.

The U.S. Census Bureau gathers the annual American Community Survey, a set of questions asked of 3 million randomly chosen households.

The legislative attack came via the Republican-controlled House and a handful of Democrats who voted along with the proposal. Last week, nearly 600 organizations and government entities — including several representing Missouri and Kansas interests — signed a letter of complaint.

Clearly, this is an issue where current political mantras overtook rational thinking. The attitude driving this ill-considered move is that the government has no business asking questions about the ages of your household members, income, marital status, military service, mortgage, rent payments or other personal information.

But without the data, government funding would be based on guesswork. That is hardly a fiscally responsible approach.

Federal law protects the confidentiality of the information. Some of the questions have been in place since the first census in 1790.

Initially, the rumbling was that conservative House members wanted to make the survey voluntary, which is akin to killing it by slow death. Answering such government questioning isn’t exactly big on most people’s radar, so without the stick that it’s mandatory, people would likely ignore it. The problem then would become a lack of solid data. Guessing is risky when a government decides where to place more emergency services or the highway interchange.

But instead of just hamstringing it, opponents voted to eliminate the funding.

Bottom line: If you want government to work for you, you’ve got to work with it.

Vote. Follow politics. Answer census questions when asked. It’s not that difficult, nor is it intrusive.

It’s being a conscientious member of society.

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