Government and business economists are rallying to fight proposed budget cuts that threaten a government survey that they argue is vital for understanding how changes in the economy affect Americans across race, age, gender and income.
At issue is the American Community Survey, carried out annually by the Census Bureau, part of the Commerce Department. The survey collects demographic and socioeconomic data for all communities across the country.
Several Republicans on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies said the survey is too long and intrusive. Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, the committee chairman, said the 2020 census and the survey aren’t worth the cost. The congressman said he wanted the 2020 census to cost less than the last one and indicated he would “change the law in order to make it (the American Community Survey) voluntary.”
“Estimates show that the cost of the (2020) census is going to be nearly $13 billion, and we just simply don’t have $13 billion to spend on the census,” he said at a hearing earlier this week.
Culberson and others Republicans think the Census Bureau should use data collected by other branches of the government, such as the Internal Revenue Service, to lower costs. They also said participation should be voluntary, not mandatory.
“Making it voluntary is a disaster,” countered Paul Jacobson, president of the Canadian Association for Business Economics.
He spoke at a special meeting about the survey at a conference of the National Association for Business Economics this week. He said that when Canada made its similar national survey voluntary in 2011, it suffered a significant drop in response rates. Canada wasted a lot of money in that survey and didn’t get enough data for many rural communities, said Jacobson.
The Commerce Department’s budget request just for fiscal 2016 alone, which begins Oct. 1, includes $256.8 million for the survey and $318 million for the census, according to a report by the Census Bureau.
The American Community Survey randomly selects 3.5 million households every year to inquire about work, income, health insurance, education and other areas of community life. Economists say the money to finance it would be well spent.
“The federal government collects massive data for both policy evaluation and program administration, which helps us determine which successful programs to scale up, or which less effective programs to modify or discontinue,” Betsey Stevenson, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said at a National Association for Business Economics conference.
What makes the survey especially important, she said, is that in many cases it “is the only data set that can provide information on the community level in a timely manner.”
The federal government relies on the data to allocate more than $400 billion in grants to state and local governments. State decision-makers also benefit by using it as a policy tool, Stevenson argued.
Stevenson pointed to the perception, for example, that New Yorkers rely on public transportation. But data show only 57 percent use public transportation and 21 percent actually drive in New York City.
The rest take cabs or car pool, she said, showing how the survey provides “actionable” data for local governments.
Unlike the once-a-decade census, the survey keeps closer track of the changing nature of American communities on specific topics. Economists contend that it helps businesses make better decisions about where to locate factories and find a skilled workforce.
“A lot of big cities change quite a bit over time,” said Mark Doms, commerce undersecretary for economic affairs. “And businesses also want to know which areas are growing, which areas are shrinking, and how the demographics are changing in their markets.”
But he also acknowledged that “we do have to do a better job of addressing people’s concerns about why we are asking certain questions.”
Others who don’t directly rely on the data also benefit.
“In my case, I know that contractors – my members – don’t really go to the” survey, said Ken Simonson, chief economist for Associated General Contractors of America.
But he said the data impacts them and others in their decisions about where to do construction.
Kevin G. Hall of the Washington Bureau contributed.