Washington — Congress’ move to abolish the American Community Survey, a U.S. Census program that reveals how Americans live, work and shop, has provoked an outcry from academics, researchers, local officials and even the business community who rely on the data.
The amendment to abolish the survey — a measure expected to gain no traction in the Senate — was approved by a 232-190 vote in the U.S. House, with 228 Republicans voting yes, and 10 Republicans voting no. Four Democrats (none from Connecticut) voted to abolish the ACS, and 180 voted no.
“I find this very shortsighted,” said Lynne Hodgson, a sociology professor at Quinnipiac University. “(The American Community Survey) is helpful to everybody.”
Hodgson also called the attempt to end the ACS “an attack on empirical evidence used in social programming.”
But conservatives in Congress say the ACS, which will cost about $2.4 billion over the next 10 years, is too expensive and too intrusive.
During the debate in the House last week on a spending bill that funds the Commerce Department, which oversees the U.S. Census Bureau, conservative Republicans voted first to prevent the bureau from imposing fines on people who don’t fill out the ACS “long form” that collects detailed data on about 3 million households each year.
Then Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla., won support for an amendment that would abolish the ACS, saying it is unconstitutional to pry into Americans’ lives that way.
A tea party member, Webster said the survey asks Americans about their emotional condition, what time they left for work and a host of other “intrusive” questions.
“It would seem this hardly fits the scope of what is required by the Constitution,” Webster said.
The U.S. Constitution requires a count of all Americans every 10 years. The Census Bureau established the ACS in 2005 to replace the longer forms some households received in the decennial census and to collect more detailed information more often.
Hodgson said the ACS does not violate the right to privacy.
“We live in a democracy and a democracy needs to have the facts in order to distribute government money,” she said.
About $400 billion in federal and state programs are distributed using the results of the ACS each year.
Steve Batt of the Connecticut State Data Center at the University of Connecticut said, “It’s understandable why people would think the survey is annoying.
“But they should realize that in order for their town to make a successful grant application to help fund senior housing, or for their school district to be eligible for increased funds to support school lunches, or the state to compete successfully for federal grants, the data is essential for objective, quantifiable evidence that isn’t subject to political influence,” he said.
The Census Bureau said the work of the ACS is vital and the cuts House Republicans imposed would make it difficult to conduct the next national census in 2020.
“This bill devastates the nation’s statistical information about the status of the economy and larger society,” the agency said in a statement. “Modern societies need current, social and economic statistics — the U.S. is losing them.”
Orlando Rodriguez, a demographer and senior fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children, said if anything, the ACS should receive more money to do its work.
“We use it every day,” he said. “We couldn’t know much about the recession without the ACS.”
Rodriguez said the survey’s data helped determine that young people have had higher rates of unemployment and older people have suffered more than others from long-term unemployment.
He said Voices for Children has used information from the survey recently for a study on housing.
“We need to know who rents, who owns … we couldn’t determine discrimination in housing without it.”
Rodriguez said conservatives in Congress who want to abolish the survey may be doing so for political purposes.
“If you don’t want to believe there are wide income disparities in this country and you can’t argue that, you get rid of the data,” he said.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-K.Y., another tea party favorite, introduced a bill in the Senate this month that would abolish the ACS.
But the program is not in its grave yet, and may never be because the Senate is likely to reject an end to the ACS.
The fate of the program is expected to be determined when Congress debates a final budget that would fund the Commerce Department and most of the federal agencies later this year, perhaps in a lame duck session after November’s elections.
Meanwhile a diverse group of Census supporters that includes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, major universities, the nation’s advertisers and marketers, and state and local officials are lobbying the Senate to hold fast in its support of the ACS.
Hodgson of Quinnipiac plans to contact Connecticut’s senators, Joe Lieberman, an independent, and Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, urging them to save the ACS.
“We have a long and wonderful tradition with our Census,” she said.