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May 12, 2012 3:54 AM   Subscribe

On Wednesday, The House voted to eliminate the detailed surveys of America that have been conducted by the Census Bureau since the nation’s earliest days. The American Community Survey has data about flush toilets, but also about the languages Americans speak at home and the employment characteristics of families and facts about poverty. The survey was intended to serve the stated purpose of giving communities current information needed to plan investments and services.
posted by twoleftfeet (94 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

 
Sponsored by Rep. Daniel Webster republican FLORIDA.

I swear we're not all no-nothing mouth breathers down here. Ugh.
posted by photoslob at 4:53 AM on May 12, 2012 [7 favorites]


no=know
posted by photoslob at 4:53 AM on May 12, 2012


no=know

and now, Know=no
:C
posted by Potomac Avenue at 4:54 AM on May 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


“This survey is inappropriate for taxpayer dollars,” Webster added. “It’s the definition of a breach of personal privacy. It’s the picture of what's wrong in Washington, D.C. It's unconstitutional.”

The claim that this survey is privacy invasive is, frankly, insane. The data is almost certainly anonymised and aggregated before its published. The individual surveys, once collected, probably can't even be linked back to the people that completed them. There are also severe penalties for breaching the confidentiality of the surveys.

This is just destroying a valuable resource that helps government and business plan community development. Terrible policy made by stupid, ignorant people.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:00 AM on May 12, 2012 [64 favorites]


So hey uh is America worth trying to fix yet

Because really
posted by DoctorFedora at 5:02 AM on May 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


Related, and possibly much worse: House Votes to Prohibit Political Science Funding. Written by the guy who is likely to be elected this year as junior senator for Arizona.
posted by zombieflanders at 5:06 AM on May 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


Because nothing the Department of Homeland Security does is a breach of privacy....
posted by Go Banana at 5:09 AM on May 12, 2012 [10 favorites]


I had no idea such surveys were done until a thread a few days ago (which started off or devolved into poverty) and one MeFi discussed the fact that X% of houses in Minnesota did not have running water and plumbing based on this census data.

It struck me what a bloody useful tool that would be in your Gettin' Stuff Done Agenda for your nation-building and infrastructure and services spend.

And now... this.

It seems short-sighted

It’s generally considered a vital tool for business.

Why do the Republicans hate business?
posted by Mezentian at 5:10 AM on May 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


The last part got cut off
The survey was intended to serve the stated purpose of giving communities current information needed to plan investments and services. Community investments and services have been determined a drain on federal, state, and municipal budgets, a relic of the past. By elimination the Survey, as well as the well-informed planning it facilitated, we can slash bloated government expenditures and open up those markets to free private enterprise.
posted by LiteOpera at 5:15 AM on May 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


Why do the Republicans hate business?

From the outside (of the US, I mean), it looks like the Republicans hate knowledge. They don't seem to like public schools or teachers. Or science. Republican friendly media seems to have no relationship with truth or facts. And now this.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:16 AM on May 12, 2012 [80 favorites]


The House passed this. Any chance of it passing the Senate?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:18 AM on May 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


Not really.
posted by zombieflanders at 5:20 AM on May 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


So this post is simply "Look at this dumb thing that will never happen?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:22 AM on May 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


Haw, you Americans, always imitating Canada.
posted by anthill at 5:23 AM on May 12, 2012 [9 favorites]


From another article on the subject:

"You need to know how many people of voting age are in a household," Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said on the House floor. "You need to know race so you can comport with constitutional provisions. You may very well need to know the gender of the people in the home so you can comport with constitutional provisions. But you don't need to know anything beyond that."

So why not eliminate the Bureau of Labor Statistics?
posted by compartment at 5:23 AM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here's why this matters for those who aren't data nerds: in FY08 more than $416 billion of federal aid was distributed by formulas based on the American Community Survey (ACS). You can use that link to see how much ACS based aid went to your state or even county in many cases. Disclaimer: I had an office next to the coauthors of that study when they were working on it, but didn't work on it myself.

Furthermore, untold billions of private investment are distributed based on the ACS. For example, smart retailers use the ACS to determine where to build new stores, and what merchandise to fill them with. Bloomberg BusinessWeek has a great article about this. I love the quotes at the end from all three major conservative think tanks decrying this move.

The bill also included another amendment, sponsored by Rep. Corrine Brown (D-FL), that shifted $20M from the Periodic Censuses account to a Justice Department local law enforcement program. That's on top of the $4 million cut through the Lynch amendment.

It seems impossible that the Senate would go along with this madness, but there may be some method behind it on the part of the tea partiers. It is possible (and the Census Bureau fears) that the vote will be used as a bargaining chip in conference. House Republicans will agree to fund the ACS if conferees make responses voluntary. If that happens, the Census Bureau won't have the additional $60M needed to ensure reliable small area data, so stakeholders will lose census tract data and possibly more.

This is an unusual case where the interests of business and of those depended on the federally funded social safety net are 100% in alignment.
posted by postel's law at 5:26 AM on May 12, 2012 [34 favorites]


OK, the word "unconstitutional" and the buzzphrase "restore constitutional government" seem to be thrown around a lot by these new Republican/Tea Party types.

While I concede there is obviously room for argument w/r/t the Insurance Mandate of the Health Care Reform act, that seems a fairly small hook on which to hang ALL the "constitutional" rhetoric that is being generated. And this legislator said three patently untrue things about the data collection. It's strange to call aspects of the Census unconstitutional when the census is explicitly called for in the Constitution. (Article 1, section 2, with some very broad language). And hearing a Republican object to anything as "unconstitutional" on privacy grounds is deeply weird given that it is a typical Republican/strict constructionist argument that the right to privacy is not explicitly provided by any language in the Constitution.

Other posters have called Webster stupid and "know-nothing" has become an almost standard term for Tea-Party types. This is a mistake. Those behind the "tea party" (and before them, neoconservative) movements are not stupid. Many of the braying masses showing up at protests and parroting talking points about "constitutional" government and "take back America" and all that ARE deeply stupid of course, but Webster, Bachmann, the Koch Brothers, and the others at the top of the pile are part of a massive clever evil conspiracy. The object of this cabal is nothing short of the destruction of all levels of Government. This anti-Census is just one more small part of that agenda to totally neuter the Government's ability to get anything positive accomplished.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 5:28 AM on May 12, 2012 [30 favorites]


depended = dependant

I haven't had my coffee yet.
posted by postel's law at 5:28 AM on May 12, 2012


So hey uh is America worth trying to fix yet

I am, honestly, beginning to wonder. There are days where I think it's probably best to simply let the loonies have at it, let them destroy the nation, then watch them turn on each other as they fight the "who's the true conservative" battle to the bottom of the barrel. Perhaps, I think, we will emerge enlightened by our time in hell.

But, then, I realize that, if go down that route, there will probably be a moment where some nutjob-in-chief decides to loose the nukes on the sane part of the planet (i.e. everyone else), and I decide better of it all.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:29 AM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


They know the constitution calls for a census. I think the conservative "constitutional" argument revolves more around the census having expanded beyond the scope allowed. Think of their argument as the data equivalent of only being required to give name, rank, and serial number, no matter how often you're asked about your regiment, the layout of the base, or the state of peach production in Walla Walla.
posted by postel's law at 5:32 AM on May 12, 2012


Those behind the "tea party" (and before them, neoconservative) movements are not stupid.

Actually, I would dispute this. While they may not be as stupid as the braying sheep who follow them, they are stupid in the sense of every teenager who thinks reading Atlas Shrugged was a religious experience. They are stupid because they fail to understand that the social web they seek to destroy is holding them up too. They are like the preacher's wife modeled on Phyllis Shlafly in The Handmaid's Tale who was unthrilled to actually get the treatment she had advocated for so loudly before the revolution.
posted by localroger at 5:42 AM on May 12, 2012 [19 favorites]


Is there nothing those assholes don't want to fuck up? Good grief, this petty chipping away at the small things that form the basis of, you know, our civilization is about the dumbest approach possible. I'm embarrassed to be sharing oxygen with them.
posted by Forktine at 5:43 AM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


So this post is simply "Look at this dumb thing that will never happen?

No, Brandon Blatcher, this post is simply: Look at this dumb and incredibly damaging thing that is being proposed in all seriousness by an elected member of Congress who was supposedly hired by the people of his district to serve the best interests of the people of his district but instead is actively working against the interests of Americans everywhere by depriving both the government and private industry of vital data they need to improve critical infrastructure and services up to and including such basic needs as adequate sewer services, in a stunning demonstration of self-serving willful ignorance. Consider whether this member of Congress and his like-minded political brethren are in any way fit to serve their nation in the context of this and the other similarly stupid initiatives they support for self-serving reasons, and think about what might happen if we the people allow the balance of political power to shift even further in the direction of stupid.

Personally I think it matters when members of Congress propose stupid policies, even if it's unlikely that those policies could pass in the current climate. It matters because elections matter. It matters because Americans actually do have the power to fire bad actors in Congress, but also, unfortunately, have the power to blindly reelect sociopaths and idiots if we stop paying attention.
posted by BlueJae at 5:56 AM on May 12, 2012 [38 favorites]


The lede is the last sentence: "Webster said his cut would save $2.4 billion."

These surveys cost $2.4 billion a year? Bullshit. Or I'm missing something...?
posted by zardoz at 5:59 AM on May 12, 2012


I use the ACS data in my research. One of the useful aspects of it is that it is published in a few different timespans (yearly, 3-years, 5-years) at various spatial resolutions. It also includes useful travel pattern data (which is why I use it), which is not included in the 10-year census. And the 10 year census is every 10 years! It's essential to have this information measured at shorter time intervals.

Getting rid of this would be insane. The US has one of the best Census systems out there (and I've used data from several other OECD countries), with massive amounts of publicly available data. The only logical reason that I can think of is to push government policies that obscure the underlying reasons. This is the complete opposite to transparency in government and it will be a shame if it passes the senate.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 6:02 AM on May 12, 2012 [11 favorites]


It’s generally considered a vital tool for business.

Why do the Republicans hate business?


Easy. This is a case where the US government (a large, wealthy client) had the audacity to source it's own data, at cost, thereby denying hardworking businesses from selling the government less reliable data at significant markup. And then the government was just giving the survey results away instead of charging for access!

Clearly this had to stop.

One could say it's too valuable a tool to allow it to persist in the public sphere. American Business wants to sell this data separately to every researcher, every policy commission, and every lobbyist who can afford it. For an additional fee they can provide custom sourced data specifically tailored to match the client's desired conclusions specific information needs. Look at the new jobs and opportunities created by removing this shortsighted, insufficient government program!


...anyway, that's probably why Republicans hate it.
posted by ceribus peribus at 6:13 AM on May 12, 2012 [51 favorites]


I think ceribus peribus nailed it. This is about Republicans, in thrall to an ideology that insists on exposing all parts of society to market pressures, wanting to do the following: (a) stop the government from performing a service that is of value to researchers, businesses, and municipalities; (b) sit back and wait for the private sector to swoop in and do a worse "efficient" job of performing that service; (c) allow private sector entities to extract rents on said service, which was free before.

Remember: for any X, if someone isn't making money off of X, X is very, very bad.
posted by a small part of the world at 6:28 AM on May 12, 2012 [22 favorites]


So why not eliminate the Bureau of Labor Statistics?

For heaven's sake, don't give them ideas!
posted by dendrochronologizer at 6:39 AM on May 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


I am going to speculate that this is part of "starving the beast" long term planning. Of course, I may be paranoid, but then again I have no real rational explanation for such decision making that disrupts communities and forward planning for larger entitites. So baggers aren't dumb per se but it is still damage done.

Starving the beast, in human terms, includes making sure long term results fosters a return to some level primal tribalism and border state of nature. If that means using Marxist ideas of taking and destroying superstructures, so be it. Good bye social nets and education. I do get fidgety about people who seem to, without compunction, want to beat me (anyone with aspiration) down because I raise my eyes and look around by using the monopoly on force and undercutting the underpinnings of a civil society. In essence, you can not negotiate with people who want to see that system destroyed.
posted by jadepearl at 6:41 AM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


So baggers aren't dumb per se but it is still damage done.

I see no evidence that teabaggers are not, in fact, dumb.
posted by odinsdream at 6:47 AM on May 12, 2012 [6 favorites]


So this post is simply "Look at this dumb thing that will never happen?"

More like "Look at this dumb thing that probably won't happen now, but could happen very easily in the next four years depending on how the elections go for Congress and President."
posted by zombieflanders at 6:52 AM on May 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


So this won't get past the Senate, right?
posted by sotonohito at 6:59 AM on May 12, 2012


Finally someone is giving us our country back, end the Fed1
posted by Damienmce at 7:00 AM on May 12, 2012


Fed!
posted by Damienmce at 7:00 AM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Community investments and services have been determined a drain on federal, state, and municipal budgets, a relic of the past. By elimination the Survey, as well as the well-informed planning it facilitated, we can slash bloated government expenditures and open up those markets to free private enterprise.

That's how your libraries wind up with $22,000 Cisco routers.
posted by notyou at 7:12 AM on May 12, 2012 [8 favorites]


This is about Republicans, in thrall to an ideology

No it's about Republican politicians who see an easy way to cater to their base with minimal risk. The House does this all the friggin time. It's such an easy win for them to fire up their base without having to deal with the blowback/consequences of an actually passed law.

Here's a short list of "outrage" Republican Bills that are languishing:
- Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act
- No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act
- Regulations From the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act of 2011
- Drug Trafficking Safe Harbor Elimination Act of 2011
- Protect Life Act
- National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act of 2011
- HAMP Termination Act of 2011
- NSP Termination Act
- Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act of 2011
- Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011

That was out of the first 60 House Bills I found at the Library of Congress Bill Search function. The Hill blog claims there are 420 House Bills that have not been taken up by the Senate. I don't know how many of those 420 are this same type of stunt politics, but I assume it would be a significant portion.

TLDR; What Brandon said
posted by forforf at 7:15 AM on May 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


I mean: What Brandon said
posted by forforf at 7:16 AM on May 12, 2012


Private sector consultants and people in the marketing business also rely heavily on census surveys to estimate "size of market" and potential demand for goods and services in the free market too. As said before, this is not just a data nerd issue, but a case where the Republican majority in the House is actively trying to make America stupider.
posted by jonp72 at 7:18 AM on May 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


Obviously our congress has too much time on their hands, perhaps we should cut their hours in session and their pay.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 7:20 AM on May 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


How much better is money distributed because of this data? Could the reduction in misappropriation be estimated?
posted by michaelh at 7:27 AM on May 12, 2012


There isn't any intellectually consistent cabal to "kill the beast" of government. That is merely a self-righteous, ignorant, and utterly deceptive smokescreen.

I have NEVER met a conservative that was against big government that served THEIR worldview. These people are empathy-deficient, plain and simple.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:30 AM on May 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


From the outside (of the US, I mean), it looks like the Republicans hate knowledge.

It looks like that in here, too.
posted by Aquaman at 7:49 AM on May 12, 2012 [6 favorites]


The thought behind this isn't any more complex than the thought behind dismantling StatsCan in the north: without facts, fiat rules. It's just that simple, a fell axe stroke to demolishe opposition by reason to rule by authority.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:49 AM on May 12, 2012 [8 favorites]


How much better is money distributed because of this data?

But that's the beauty of the private system! Not only can the definition of "better" be set by whomever is willing to pay the highest price, usually that customer will choose a definition that increases their own profits. Then they will be able to afford a more expensive definition of "better" the next time!

A monopoly on "unbiased" "facts" will eventually emerge for whomever can extract the highest rents from it.
posted by ceribus peribus at 7:55 AM on May 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


This makes me sad for future historians. The census data is immeasurably useful for all kinds of research.
posted by catlet at 7:55 AM on May 12, 2012


It’s generally considered a vital tool for business.

Why do the Republicans hate business?


Immigrants might start them.
posted by Artw at 7:55 AM on May 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


Right-wing conservatism is a genetic defect. Those fuckers just don't think right.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:59 AM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Big business loves ACS. I'm sure someone will have a sit down with a chamber of commerce rep and told how the world works.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 8:04 AM on May 12, 2012


We actually were part of the ACS this year. Looks like a lot of useful information especially regarding transportation.
posted by azpenguin at 8:11 AM on May 12, 2012


Never mind about future historians, the census data is immensely to current planners at all spatial scales. Those who do not believe in governance should not be making the laws.
posted by Numenius at 8:12 AM on May 12, 2012 [11 favorites]


But that's the beauty of the private system! Not only can the definition of "better" be set by whomever is willing to pay the highest price, usually that customer will choose a definition that increases their own profits. Then they will be able to afford a more expensive definition of "better" the next time!

A monopoly on "unbiased" "facts" will eventually emerge for whomever can extract the highest rents from it.


What are you talking about?
posted by michaelh at 8:20 AM on May 12, 2012


I'm just pointing out that 'better distribution' is in the eye of the beholder, especially when it comes to the distribution of money. It's a great reason to want to control the data that people use to make the decisions.
posted by ceribus peribus at 8:26 AM on May 12, 2012


I came here to say what ceribus peribus and small part of the world said. This ends up effectively as the privatization of market data, where the largest corporations who can afford to do their own market research on this scale will end up with an unfair advantage, and everyone else will be SOL.
posted by gusandrews at 8:28 AM on May 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


I'm just pointing out that 'better distribution' is in the eye of the beholder, especially when it comes to the distribution of money. It's a great reason to want to control the data that people use to make the decisions.

It's faster to just say, "I don't know."

If the government is using the data to distribute over 400 billion dollars (postel above), then let's use them as the beholder. How much money did they put somewhere different because the data existed, and what were the benefits of that different distribution?
posted by michaelh at 8:38 AM on May 12, 2012


That's it. I'm going to go drown Grover Norquist in a bathtub. Back soon.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:07 AM on May 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


Note to the Feds: I'm not actually planning on drowning Grover Norquist. You can move that "Flowers By Irene" delivery van now.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:11 AM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Any article/post that begins with some hint of "...the House passed/voted to...[some horrible thing here]" shall now be considered link bait. I'll try my best to not fall for it in the future, and will back it up by looking into the Senate status of it as well.

This shit's gotta stop folks because it frankly does nothing but get a few votes over to the Dems side of things (or produces some ex-pats), and doesn't really produce meaningful conversation as to why we're here in the first place. For instance: say you want a detailed survey of XYZ in some US area. Where's the money gas coming from in order to fuel the vehicles that get the surveyors over to the target? Deepwater Horizon? Hydro-fractured shale from the Dakotas? Some other dangerously deepwater site? (and how expensive is that going to be (to follow up...)) Look beyond the money friends. /rant
posted by JoeXIII007 at 9:26 AM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


what. what. what else is government at heart, but a census taking system? Everything else: taxes, military, human services, roads, all rely on fundamental questions that census provides. That includes the big question. The question Libertarians, the wet blankets of governance, enjoy, census provides the answer to the question: "Is this a good idea?" Is it a good idea to pave a fresh road here? According to census that is a Mennonite commune. Is it a good idea to provide grants for higher education here? According to the recent census, everyone there can already pay for it. Is this a place to put a military base? According to the census, it isn't.

I guarantee the census is used more negatively than positively, more a razor than a platform.

But what would this do? Taking away the census? It would not kill the government. Not at all. It would, indeed, cut out the eyes of the leviathan, but it would leave it alive. Alive, no longer resembling a leviathan but a cloverfield, a blind behemoth. Seeing no obstacles in its path, it will race, crushing all that lay in its path. It would make decisions without any consistent basis in data, any consistent sense of the world, an absolute blindness to the differences between casual anecdata and rigorous data. Whim, and corruption would go unfettered by the outside world, allowing the government to be free of that one thing that has always been tying it down: reality.

You know that shit like TSA? And the inflated military budget? And that thing libertarians always go on about, oh, yeah, the federal reserve? Hasn't the whole point been to bring them down to earth, presumably so they'll shatter on the craggy rocks below? To cut the census is quite the opposite, it is to cut the government loose and into the clouds.

If anything, what needs to be done is more census, not less. The government needs to see clearer, its eyes brought down into the mud of its own making. An audit of reality is something everyone can agree on, except perhaps, the ones in the town of Denial, D.C.
posted by TwelveTwo at 9:27 AM on May 12, 2012 [12 favorites]


^Starving the beast, in human terms, includes making sure long term results fosters a return to some level primal tribalism and border state of nature. If that means using Marxist ideas of taking and destroying superstructures, so be it.

Like the pre-1989 notion of Political Correctness, I find it interesting how notions that started out as 'Leftist' end up in the GOP playbook. This Census supression thing is either an effort to retard Government effectiveness or privatize the whole damn thing.

I bid for another alternative: The Fed ought to charge those assholes for services they are used to getting for free,
posted by vhsiv at 9:32 AM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think it's important not to conflate the ACS with the actual census. The ACS is run by the Census Bureau because that is the arm of the government which is designed to gather crunch numbers about the populace. But the ACS is given at a variety of intervals, is NOT part of the decennial Census population count, and is a completely different kind of data which is collected.
posted by hippybear at 9:44 AM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


designed to gather AND crunch numbers...
posted by hippybear at 9:45 AM on May 12, 2012


As Anthill mentioned above, in Canada, Stephen Harper eliminated the similarly purposed long-form census two years ago. It was almost a scandal. The federal government's chief statistician (a Harper appointee) resigned, not over the replacement of the mandatory form with a voluntary one, but when the government asked him to lie about it. His predecessor (also a Tory appointee) went even further, saying that if the change had been made under his tenure, he would have resigned regardless.

Harper isn't an idiot. He has been nothing if not shrewd, calculating, farsighted and methodical. He wants a Canada that does nothing to help those who have the least. Eliminating a source of facts that would either require the government to act, or incite people to demand government action? This is an unalloyed good. Harper, like the GOP to the south, don't want facts to get in their way. They want to tell people fairy tales about bootstraps while keeping their own boots firmly on the necks of anyone trying to get up.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 10:01 AM on May 12, 2012 [11 favorites]


The Fed ought to charge those assholes for services they are used to getting for free

Um, no, I do not want my state, county, city, public health department, water and sewer district, etc. to have to pay. (Those "assholes.") Please, do not tax me fifteen times for the same dataset just so the federal government can lose more pallets of cash in unnecessary foreign excursions. The feds are the only branch of government that still has any money.
posted by salvia at 10:05 AM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Don't worry, we can just get all the survey data from the NSA. They already have more data with greater detail.
posted by klarck at 10:09 AM on May 12, 2012


The Fed ought to charge those assholes for services they are used to getting for free

The 'assholes' are private industries who make money off of publicly-funded research. Gov-to-Gov requests should remain free, but power companies, Big Pharma and the like should pay.
posted by vhsiv at 10:15 AM on May 12, 2012


A few points to add/clarify:
1). I'm a transportation planner. In addition to the $416 billion in federal aid that uses the ACS to identify areas of need, there's an additional $300 billion or so in transportation spending annually. The vast majority of transportation infrastructure spending is guided by transportation models that try to predict the demand for and use of transportation infrastructure. They're not perfect, (although we're working hard to improve them), but they are the best source of guidance to constructing a network that will be there pretty much forever, in some form or another.

I literally spent half of yesterday working with ACS data; discussing how to use ACS data to represent the population of an area we are modelling, checking to see if our model for another area was consistent with ACS data about where people live and work, so that it represents some key commutes (which I assure you have future investments in infrastructure planned) accurately. The ACS is literally the foundation of transportation planning. Everybody from here to the fringe well past Mitt Romney agrees that some level of government should build some sort of transportation infrastructure; the ACS just makes sure we build the most important ones and don't waste our limited money.

2). On the privacy concerns: I'm not American. And I don't think the US government is generally very effective. But if there was one group, private or public, anywhere in the world I would trust to keep my information private, it is the US Census Bureau. Full stop. Those guys are fucking samurai about privacy. They spend just amazing amounts of time working out how much data they can give out while still keeping people's information private. They have built entire synthetic datasets because they feel that the real data is too sensitive, but they still want to give the public the best access to the data that their tax dollars are collecting. It's a pain in the ass dealing with data that has sometimes been limited, or is unavailable for the detail I'd like, but I totally get the privacy thing. This is the biggest red herring ever; worrying about the privacy from the Census is like being concerned that Seal Team Six is not lethal enough.

3). On the idea that business will replace it: So let's say I run a market research firm, and I want to go and ask some questions that may replace some aspect of the census. I start calling people up and surveying them about whatever question. And I ask some demographic questions, too. Because it's a lot easier to get older people on the phone, for instance. And lower income households are sometimes harder to get a hold of. And college students, boy, those guys don't even have phones anymore. So my sample is a biased one; too many older people, not enough low income households, way low on students. If I'm doing a political poll, for example, I'm almost certainly overestimating the Republicans. If I'm doing market research, I'm going to totally underestimate the market share for beer, and so on. That's okay; we can adjust the sample. Unless there's no ACS to provide numbers like the number of college students, or households by income or vehicles owned or whatever. Even if a thousand businesses spring up and ask every single question in the ACS ten times over, without a statistically reliable sample of the population from a survey like the ACS, the data is way less useful.

But the ACS is given at a variety of intervals, is NOT part of the decennial Census population count, and is a completely different kind of data which is collected.

The decennial Census is limited to basically the questions needed to apportion Congressional districts. So it's the one that is needed to fairly elect a government. The ACS is the census that's needed for that government to then do anything effectively.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 10:21 AM on May 12, 2012 [36 favorites]


I think Homeboy pretty much proved that this will fail.
posted by Brocktoon at 10:24 AM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


michaelh, I think I made my main point most clearly the first time, so I'll try not to beat it further. Also I fear that I'm past my quota of wit for the day; I make less sense when I try too hard. Let me try a more earnest response.

How the survey data was used and what the effects were are excellent questions. I don't know the answer to either. However, I think neither answer, whatever they turn out to be, can be used as good reasons to justify eliminating the surveys. I'll try to explore the different scenarios:

If the first answer is that the data wasn't being used, the temptation is to assert that the government is spending too much time and money on a source of data that it then neglects to use. I'd argue that it's still worthwhile to provide an independent source of data with transparent methodology. Not that the government itself doesn't have agendas of it's own, but at least in theory it's more accountable to the people than private businesses are. The survey results were very valuable to several third parties, parties which would not be able to afford to conduct these surveys on their own. These results also form a historical record of data that we might not find uses for until several years in the future. Maybe it turns out that the government doesn't want to collect data on indoor plumbing because it has no initiatives which are affected by plumbing data? Well, maybe the data will show that a new initiative is needed. If the survey results were being compiled, locked in a vault, and someone noticed that the vault hadn't been opened in years but noone had complained? Okay, then maybe consider it a waste. But try to raise awareness and access to the data first before concluding that noone is interested.

Or perhaps the data was being examined but not "used" as the justification for anything, because the results didn't support the way the government had otherwise decided to distribute 400 billion. In that case I'd argue it's best to continue to keep the surveys impartial, lest they be replaced with another source of data more easily corrupted by private interests and used as false justification.

So then, what if the results were used a great deal? What if the government relied heavily on this data to make its decision? There's probably a way to quantify how much money was sent where, but what do you compare that to? Blindly allocating the money? I get that you want to measure the effectiveness of the data as a means of determining where to send the money, but measuring that is a very, very difficult problem. You would need another study, one that tries to isolate the money distribution's effect from all of the other variables and unexpected influences from other factors. That's actually a pretty good idea -- follow up to see if more houses have running water as a result of the new water pipe subsidy -- but if it wasn't effective, then the wiser action would be to investigate a better way of interpreting the data, or using data about different aspects, instead of deciding not to conduct the survey any more.

Perhaps there is already evidence that a government program used data from survey results to distribute funds that resulted in great benefits? Excellent; hardly a reason to discontinue sourcing the data.

The strongest argument for discontinuing the surveys would, in my estimation, be in cases where the data is being habitually, systematically distorted when it's applied to making decisions, resulting in non optimal outcomes. Gerrymandering the results so that one district gets unearned relief funding, or manipulating the surveys to exclude cases that lower the measured success of the programs sponsored by the councilman running for reelection, that sort of thing.

Even in this worst case I would argue that it's better not to confuse the data with problems applying the data, and that removing or privatizing the surveys would cause more problems than they solve. There are so many subjective ways to evaluate a program - how effective was the funding for a program that reduces drug crime in a way that just happens to also put more minorities in prison? How would you measure the outcome of a healthcare program which by some fluke didn't cover homosexuals? If the surveys don't capture these aspects of the outcome, then the negative aspects will be easier to ignore. Eliminating the surveys guarantees that they are hidden. Privatizing the surveys will lead to overreporting of benefits and underreporting of problems. Or perhaps consistently overreporting problems for undesirable programs.


So, I guess my TL;DR is that these results are a public good, and as such should be continued. I'm rambling again; please accept that I was honestly not trying to troll your question.

On preview: sorry for the length; I've crossposted with others who have expressed their survey support much more concisely.
posted by ceribus peribus at 10:25 AM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Gov-to-Gov requests should remain free, but power companies, Big Pharma and the like should pay.

If all the governments are going to have it, then do you nullify the Freedom of Information Act and all the state and local equivalents to keep this taxpayer-funded data licensed?

Also, what about the poverty advocate non-profit organizations? Is the data free to 501c3s? What about 501c4s and "superPACs"? What about tiny little mom and pop startup businesses? What about a one-person consultancy who serves as a consultant to solar-promoting non-profit organizations and small solar installation businesses? Or, what if we set up a sliding scale system? We could have all the individuals and businesses who benefit (pretty much everyone when you think about it) pay a certain amount based on their revenues / incomes, with certain exemptions and credits for activities society wants to promote? We could even collect it via the Internal Revenue System.
posted by salvia at 10:37 AM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


This Daniel Webster business is confusing. I thought he died in 1852.
posted by brina at 10:48 AM on May 12, 2012


Another right wing reason to defund ACS and the Census generally is that a lot of the data collection for the Census is done by non profit community groups. The government gives grants to these groups to do the work. Left leaning non profits that do things like organize immigrant workers, protest police brutality and agitate for more after-school program funding often get considerable amounts of funding from the Census. Cities and counties are already cutting the funds they give to non profits for a variety of programs. I've talked with a good friend who has years of experience in that space and I'm told that the situation is already dire; people are saying things like "in five to ten years most of these groups will be gone."

The funny thing is that a lot of government functions (such as school psychological counseling for troubled kids etc) have already been outsourced to non-profits, and now, that they are losing funding, these functions are going to disappear completely.
posted by wuwei at 10:59 AM on May 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


I guess it's actually called the Internal Revenue Service, and also, I'm going to stop being snarky, stop thinking about how much I love ACS data, and go outside now.
posted by salvia at 11:02 AM on May 12, 2012


forforf: TLDR; What Brandon said

TLDR: The Republicans could very easily win the Senate in November and the GOP caucus isn't much known for being a check on the House these days. So, yeah, this (and many other things on their plate) is not so fully outside the realm of possibility as to be ludicrous.

As Robert Groves, the Census Director, says: "Modern societies need current detailed social and economic statistics. The U.S. is losing them."

The GOP, as currently instantiated, is becoming more and more atavistic and anti-anything that moves us forward and keeps us competitive as a society every day. Which, I'm more and more convinced, is part of the coordinated plan. There is a point to the attack, there is a strategy, and it's not just a matter of "Look at this dumb thing that will never happen." It's a matter of "Look at this unprecedented thing that very well could happen with the turnover of a dozen or 15 seats in the Senate in six months."

hippybear: I think it's important not to conflate the ACS with the actual census. The ACS is run by the Census Bureau because that is the arm of the government which is designed to gather crunch numbers about the populace. But the ACS is given at a variety of intervals, is NOT part of the decennial Census population count, and is a completely different kind of data which is collected.

The decennial census and the ACS do serve different purposes, and it's true that the ACS data is not directly comparable with decennial census data. But the ACS is absolutely part of the decennial census program, and it was actually part of the decennial count through 2000 (as what used to be called the "long form," which isn't sent out anymore). Giving answers to both the decennial census and the ACS are compelled by law under the same clause of the Constitution and the same federal statutes. That's part of the attack from the House troglodytes (one big thing that they are really objecting to, it seems to me, is that the data collected by the ACS is used in part to fill the trough with federal funds for states, counties, and cities) -- that whether you have a flush toilet or not is a question that you are compelled to answer by force of law.

Here's a bit of a wonky (but brief) summation of the differences between the ACS and the decennial data. Basically, the ACS is more timely (because it's updated every year), but less accurate (because it's sent to fewer households). And it's true that it's not a count of households in the same way that the decennial census is, it's more of a moving picture of the characteristics of a sample of the households.
posted by blucevalo at 11:11 AM on May 12, 2012


Giving answers to both the decennial census and the ACS are compelled by law under the same clause of the Constitution and the same federal statutes.

Are you sure about this? I look at this "Why you should participate?" page from the Census Bureau about the ACS, and it doesn't anywhere say "participation is required by law".
posted by hippybear at 11:38 AM on May 12, 2012


As data is utterly useless, private companies like Facebook, Google, market research companies and ACMEs are doing whatever in their obscure powers NOT to have any. No, they don't want to know anything about you, nothing at all.

But, if you refuse giving them your data they'll just refuse doing any business with you (they can), so willy nilly you'll give them the data anyway for free, or they'll extract it somehow without having to tell you they're profiling you.

But god forbid you gave anonymized data to the Evul Gubmint! You know you can only trust your data with Wall Street, they're out there...for you(r head).
posted by elpapacito at 11:38 AM on May 12, 2012


I worked on the census nearly two summers ago and can attest that the demand for adherence to privacy is total. No wiggle room whatsoever. The message was so firm that I felt totally confident standing at the door of someone clearly afraid of a government person at their door and assuring them whatever they told me would not be given to the poiicia. A lot of us, including some rather cynical types, walked away proud of the work we did and that the government could be trusted.
posted by etaoin at 12:21 PM on May 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


I have NEVER met a conservative that was against big government that served THEIR worldview. These people are empathy-deficient, plain and simple.

Look, everyone keeps talking about 'Fiscal Conservatism' but they keep misunderstanding what it means. It has nothing to do with setting fiscal policy conservatively -- IE, low risk or with an eye towards reducing overall expenditures. It's about advancing conservatism, the ideology, via fiscal policy.
posted by verb at 12:39 PM on May 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


As others have pointed out above, it's all about limiting the amount of information available on which to base sound socio-economic and cultural policies. I sincerely hope that this does not come to pass in the US, but quite frankly I, like many, did not see it coming when it happened here in Canada. Ten years prior I would have scoffed and said there was no way such a thing could be allowed to occur.

At the time that the Conservative government scrapped the mandatory longform census, "Peter Morrison, assistant chief statistician responsible for the census, said that he [knew] of no other country that has made a similar move." Well, if the US Senate passes this, America can be the second member in our club of deliberate, destructive short-sightedness.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:41 PM on May 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


It does occur to me that another foundation for this could be the masking of the decline of the typical US lifestyle from those who would track such things.

If you're not gathering this kind of data on a yearly basis, then nobody will be able to clearly see that incomes are falling, quality of life is declining, and the general state of the welfare of the populace is disintegrating.

Since that looks like the direction we're headed in, and since it's people like Webster who keep voting for policies which are helping push us in that direction, it makes sense that he'd want to hide the effects of his shitty choices as best as possible.
posted by hippybear at 12:56 PM on May 12, 2012 [6 favorites]


Are you sure about this? I look at this "Why you should participate?" page from the Census Bureau about the ACS, and it doesn't anywhere say "participation is required by law".

From the same source:

Do I have to answer these questions?

Yes. You are legally obligated to answer all the questions, as accurately as you can.

The relevant laws are Title 18 U.S.C Section 3571 and Section 3559, which amends Title 13 U.S.C. Section 221.

posted by blucevalo at 12:57 PM on May 12, 2012


Ah, thanks. I hadn't looked at that page. Figured it would be on the "Why should I participate" page, which is a more pertinent question answered by the force of law than "Why was I selected".

Bad website design.
posted by hippybear at 1:15 PM on May 12, 2012


I'm just here to repeat how important this census stuff is to non profits. My signifigant other's mother is the program director at a non-profit and they were able to assist with the 10-year Census. The non-profit is not in danger of dissapearing anytime soon, but they do need all the help they can get. This was certainly very helpful to them.
posted by Twain Device at 1:17 PM on May 12, 2012


Again, people who believe that government can't work; actively try to make it so it CAN'T work.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 3:03 PM on May 12, 2012


Well, if they're abolishing the idea of America, instead replacing it with a network of gated communities defended by private security forces against the marauding hordes populating the surrounding badlands, such a move makes logical sense.
posted by acb at 3:07 PM on May 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Another right wing reason to defund ACS and the Census generally is that a lot of the data collection for the Census is done by non profit community groups. The government gives grants to these groups to do the work.

Not just that. I worked for almost ten years as a grant writer in an urban health and social services nonprofit. Our agency didn't get any funding directly from the census bureau, as in wuwei's example, but we damn well needed that data to demonstrate the needs in our communities (i.e., poverty, ghettoization, lack of education, single parenthood, etc., etc.) when we applied to the state and the feds for our program funding. Every grant application you get asks for a needs assessment, and they want hard data, the harder the better. And we need it more than every ten years--things are getting worse, and you don't want to argue 2000 statistics for a grant application in 2009. Nonprofits don't have the resources to capture that kind of data on their own.

So, my initial reaction when I heard about this bill was that Republicans really don't give a shit about urban community needs--those people are less than dirt to them, and, quite frankly, so are those who try to provide for them--so who really needs to prove that those needs exist? It's yet another step in the massive denial that the GOP is so known for. Possibly, too, they realize that they can't get rid of social programming wholescale at the federal level, so they just want to make it harder and harder for any organizations to get it. Particularly because most of those organizations are indeed left-wing and are interested in individual empowerment as well as providing a safety net.
posted by dlugoczaj at 3:38 PM on May 12, 2012 [6 favorites]


In defense of the American Community Survey.

Businesses use the ACS to analyze markets: Can people afford our product here? Should we add support for speakers of other languages? Does the aging population here need the same services as the younger population there? Similarly, public health officials use ACS information about population density when deciding where to place a new hospital. Dropping the ACS would increase risks with no corresponding direct benefits to businesses or local governments.
posted by blucevalo at 5:28 PM on May 12, 2012


Oooooh how tricksy!

No census, no facts. Bloviating eating politicians can claim that things are just fine in their Amerika, and there will be no actual facts to contradict them. People don't have indoor plumbing--you're making that shit up. Multiple families are living in one house because there's no jobs and not enough money--couldn't happen. People who are without transportation--let's believe the auto industry. Recording history and change in America. Who needs that?

The census is one true measure of what's going on. Eliminate it, and just make things up!
posted by BlueHorse at 5:28 PM on May 12, 2012


Are you sure about this? I look at this "Why you should participate?" page from the Census Bureau about the ACS, and it doesn't anywhere say "participation is required by law".

To bad the timing of this post was a little off. I just mailed back the survey and I'm 95% certain that it did indeed say that we're required by law to fill it out. I wish I would have gotten the survey later or this post (and the actions that prompted it) had happened earlier and I could have checked.
posted by VTX at 6:51 PM on May 12, 2012


“This survey is inappropriate for taxpayer dollars,” Webster added. “It’s the definition of a breach of personal privacy. It’s the picture of what's wrong in Washington, D.C. It's unconstitutional.”

Wait, so now the Republicans are recognizing a right to privacy that may be floating around somewhere in the Constitution? Maybe a penumbra of privacy?

Whew, looks like Roe v Wade is safe for now.
posted by mygoditsbob at 8:19 PM on May 12, 2012


Never assume consistency of reasoning.
posted by TwelveTwo at 10:32 PM on May 12, 2012


The elimination of the American Community Survey seems to have been a Republican Party policy direction since at least 2010, NYTimes article.
posted by Prince_of_Cups at 1:38 PM on May 13, 2012


There's even a census in the Bible, where God tells Moses to count all the Israelites except the Levites (Numbers 1), and then count the Levites (Numbers 3). Unfortunately it doesn't look like God was much concerned with anything beyond the most basic demographic data unless you were a firstborn male. Unsurprisingly, the whole thing appears to have been done for taxation purposes.
posted by postel's law at 7:30 AM on May 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have to play devils advocate a bit here. First as many have noticed there are a host of ways to get the data that the government may rightly need other than compelling individual citizens directly with the force of federal law. It is unreasonable to mail a letter to citizens asking that they tell the federal government the name and race of everyone in the house or face penalties. I mean no one would ever use that data for anything nefarious.
If you have not seen the ACS questionnaire it is available here.
I am not sure but I also wonder if these statements are shown to be incorrect would that open you to a charge of perjury?
posted by The Violet Cypher at 9:06 AM on May 15, 2012


That is the laziest attempt at devil's advocate I've ever seen.
posted by odinsdream at 8:33 PM on May 15, 2012


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