Census Bureau under fire from the right

Washington -– As the U.S. Census Bureau collects information about housing from Connecticut residents in the next few months, the agency faces trouble in Washington.

The sequester, or across-the-board federal spending cuts, are digging deep into the agency’s budget and conservative Republicans want to gut or eliminate many of its programs.

That’s making a broad coalition of academics, business leader, advertisers and others dependent on census data very nervous. 

“There’s all sorts of considerable concern,” said Michael Howser, associate director of the Connecticut State Data Center.

The center, located at the University of Connecticut,  relies on the U.S. census to provide  Connecticut businesses, researchers and others with economic data, health insurance coverage rates and a host of other information.

But the need for census information is much more widespread.

Phil Sparks is the head of The Census Project, a wide-ranging coalition of groups that includes both the NAACP and the National Association of Manufacturers.

The one thing these diverse groups have in common, Sparks said, is that they rely on census data.

Sparks said sequestration was going to cut about 5 percent of the census bureau’s budget. But a bill approved by Congress in March meant to help agencies by allowing them to move money around hurt the census bureau, Sparks said.

He said the Commerce Department, which has authority over the  bureau, shifted money around in a way that will cut 12 percent from the census bureau’s budget of about $900 million,

“They are really going to have to scramble,” Sparks said.

The Commerce Department is expected to release details of how sequester cuts will harm the census bureau in the next week or so.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said he may ask Penny Pritzker, the nominee to head the Commerce Department, about Census Bureau funding at her confirmation hearing next week.

Another threat to the agency is posed by several Republicans with links to the Tea Party who have introduced legislation that, according to Sparks, would decimate the Census Bureau.

The U.S. Census Bureau was established by the U.S. Constitution, which requires a count of the nation’s population every 10 years. The first official census was conducted in 1790 under Thomas Jefferson, then a  Secretary of State. That census, taken by U.S. marshals on horseback, counted 3.9 million inhabitants.

But using sampling, the census bureau produces many  reports between the decennial counts that provide more detail on how Americans work and live.

One is the American Community Service which surveys about 3.5 million households a year.

Rep. Ted Poe of Texas and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky introduced bills this week that would make American Community Survey (ACS) optional.

Citing a similar change to a census program in Canada, Sparks said the quality of information gathered by the ACS would plummet along with the response rate.

The University of Connecticut’s Howser said the ACS is “the critical piece” for their research.

But Poe, and many adherents of the Tea Party,  believe the Constitution requires the decennial census and nothing else. They see census surveys as unwarranted intrusions by government into the lives of the people.

“The federal government has no right to force Americans to tell the government personal information that they are uncomfortable providing just because the federal government says so,” Poe said in a statement.

A similar bill in the last Congress was approved in the House. But the Democratic-controlled Senate ignored it.

The federal government uses census data to distribute more than $400 billion every year to education, housing, transportation community development programs and many others.

Some census surveys are intended to shed light on the nation’s economy.

The Economic Census of the United States, for instance, conducted every five years, collects information from 4 million American businesses to create a number of reports.

The most recent Economic Census survey was last year and results are expected to begin to be released soon and continue until 2016. But Sparks said budget cuts could hurt the dissemination of some of this economic data.

Connecticut residents are currently participating in another census survey. More than 4,500 residents in the Hartford metropolitan area — which includes Hartford, Litchfield, Middlesex, New London, Tolland, and Windham counties – have received letters saying a census representative will contact them –-  by phone or by knocking on their doors — to ask questions about their housing.

“As population increases, so does the demand for housing,” a Census Bureau press release said. “There is a great need for information about the types of homes in which people are now living and the characteristics of these homes, as well as the costs of running and maintaining them.  Some of the questions asked include the number of rooms, heating and cooling equipment, and the cost of the housing.” 

Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., wants to eliminate the housing survey, the ACS, the Economic Census and everything the Census Bureau does besides the decennial count.

He introduced a bill, which has 13 Republican co-sponsors, that says the Secretary of Commerce  “may not conduct any survey, sampling, or other questionnaire, and may only conduct a decennial census of population.”

Sparks calls the bill “pernicious.”

“We’d have no way of determining unemployment rates, GDP, and lots of other things,” he said. “Policymakers would be flying blind.”

Like the legislation introduced by Poe and Paul, Duncan’s bill would have a hard time winning approval in the Senate.

But census supporters like Sparks remain concerned. He points to the success of Poe’s legislation in the House last year.