Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Response to attacks on Census Bureau surveys

Two bills currently in Congress would do great harm to the data-gathering capacity of the country:

H.R.1638 Latest Title: Census Reform Act of 2013
Latest Major Action: 5/3/2013 Referred to House subcommittee. Status: Referred to the Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight, and Nutrition.
This bill would terminate the ACS and other surveys conducted by the Census Bureau, except the decennial counting.

H.R.1078 Latest Title: To make participation in the American Community Survey voluntary, except with respect to certain basic questions, and for other purposes.
Latest Major Action: 3/12/2013 Referred to House committee. Status: Referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

The New York Times thinks the first bill won't pass but the second might. Here's a little more on what the first bill would do, e.g. end unemployment data, poverty data,

Jonathan Lupton, a planner from Little Rock on the Census Transportation Planning Package list, had a very good summary of why this data needs to be collected by a public entity.

The loss of Census sampling (today the ACS), the Census of Agriculture, the Economic Census, etc., would be disastrous in so many ways I find it hard to believe anyone – even deeply partisan politicians – would advocate their demise. The small gain to the Federal government’s bottom line would be undercut by huge (albeit hidden) losses to the private and public sectors. The loss would be especially acute for small businesses.

1. There can be no serious doubt that Federal sample products leverage their cost many times over in benefits to the economy. The benefits are so widespread, and so implicit, that the burden of proof must lie on anyone attempting to undo Federal data-gathering. And they will find no such proof.

2. The U.S. government has, in the past, set the world standard for data-gathering. The widespread availability of free, accurate data runs hand-in-hand with upholding the standard as the world’s foremost democratic society. To surrender the ACS and related products is not just a bad idea, it is a retreat from leadership.

3. Answering ACS forms, or any other Federal questionnaire, is a matter of personal responsibility. To survive, democracy depends not just on the protection of personal rights; it also demands a sense of responsibility by its citizens.

4. I have never heard of anyone going to prison, or even being fined, for failing to provide data to Census takers. Everyone knows that there are people and businesses which refuse to cooperate; the practice of non-compliance is already tolerated. But compliance is the law, and this sets a tone of legality which allows the ACS and other projects to gather the necessary data.

5. If the data business becomes mostly private in nature, the cost of obtaining data will largely limit its availability to large corporations that could afford to purchase it, creating another disadvantage to small businesses and business start-ups.

6. Here in Little Rock we host one of the country’s largest data-gathering agencies, the Acxiom Corporation. It’s an open secret that Acxiom, and other companies like it, hold vast amounts of data about just about everybody. While Census data is protected by confidentiality laws, disturbingly intimate corporate data can be sold to the highest bidder.

7. While the anti-census anti-government lobby argues unconvincingly about government as “Big Brother,” there is therefore another, less accountable version of “Big Brother,” existing in secret corporate data-gathering. Such data could become the only basis for information about our society. Without Federal laws, and Executive and Congressional oversight, who could prevent this private data from being falsified? Without the credibility of ACS and related programs as a “cross-check,” false information could be fed into the system, and could be manipulated by private power brokers.

8. Here in Little Rock we have a small spinoff company which has used Acxiom data to attempt census-like products. Around 2009, they privately gave me a total for the state’s largest county (Pulaski) that disagreed with my careful estimates. They ended up being high by about 7 percent, compared with the Census 2010 count that appeared a few months later. My own estimate, based on housing records, was within 1 or 2 percent. A corporate representative thought their figures were inarguably correct; I thought their methods for counting people were flawed. Guess who was right.

9. Data-gathering by the Census Bureau and related agencies isn’t perfect, but it has oversight through the democratic process. I’ll trust a process that’s been around since 1790 before I trust a private company that answers first to shareholders.

It is my earnest hope that the effort to kill the ACS is so blatantly foolish that it will never make it to a vote by the U.S. Congress or Senate. I ask those who keep their ear to Congress to please keep the data community well-informed about this disturbing development.

As Warren A. Brown, Ph.D., Senior Research Associate, Cornell Institute for Social and Economic Research; President, Association of Public Data Users; and Research Director, Cornell Census Research Data Center, puts it succinctly:

Unfortunately the Census Bureau and its American Community Survey are caught in the cross-hairs of partisan squabbling. Data collection, processing and dissemination is not a liberal or conservative cause, but rather information to be used in policy making—be it at the federal, state or local level. The ACS is “our ACS” because it yields information that is vital to state and local governments as well as private and non-profit organizations. A number of professional associations—some examples are Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics (COPAFS); Association of Public Data Users (APDU); Population Association of American (PAA); and American Statistical Association (ASA)—have sent letters of support on behalf the Census Bureau and the ACS to members of Congress. I encourage you all to let your member of Congress know how useful the Census Bureau’s data are for local decision making. Whatever your political philosophy regarding the appropriate role of the federal government, we can’t afford to be flying blind without benefit of statistical information.

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