Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.
Elimination of the annual census would have huge implications for how the federal government allocates money to states and municipalities.
So the Republican-led House of Representatives this week voted 232-190 to eliminate the American Community Survey, the annual survey of about 3 million randomly chosen U.S. households that's like the Census only much more detailed. It collects demographic details such as what sort of fuel a household uses for heating, the cost of rent or mortgage payments, and what time residents leave home to go to work.
In a post on the U.S. Census Bureau's website, Director Robert Groves says the bill "devastates the nation's statistical information about the status of the economy and the larger society. Modern societies need current, detailed social and economic statistics. The U.S. is losing them."
While the elimination of the ACS would take a slight nibble out of the roughly $3.8 trillion in government expenditures proposed in the 2013 federal budget, its negative impacts could be much greater – affecting the government's ability to fund a wide variety of services and programs, from education to housing to transportation.
The issue is that the information collected in the ACS is used heavily by the federal government to figure out where it will spend a huge chunk of its money. In a 2010 report for the Brookings Institution, Andrew Reamer found that in the 2008 fiscal year, 184 federal domestic assistance programs used ACS-related datasets to help determine the distribution of more than $416 billion in federal funding. The bulk of that funding, more than 80 percent, went directly to fund Medicaid, highway infrastructure programs and affordable housing assistance. Reamer, now a research professor George Washington University’s Institute of Public Policy, also found that the federal government uses the ACS to distribute about $100 billion annually to states and communities for economic development, employment, education and training, commerce and other purposes. He says that should the ACS be eliminated, it would be very difficult to figure out how to distribute this money where it's needed.
"It would cause massive disruptions in the federal government, because you've got all these programs that are statutorily required to distribute these funds based on certain criteria, and those criteria assume that data is there," Reamer says.
So why would the House vote to kill the ACS? Critics on the far-right compare the U.S. Census Bureau's inquisitiveness to the watchful eye of Big Brother. Tea Party-supportive Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Florida, wrote the amendment calling for the end of the ACS, arguing that its elimination would save about $2.5 billion over the next 10 years.
William Frey, a demographer at Brookings, says the elimination of the information collected by the ACS would be like steering blind.
"Here we would be, the most developed country in the world, the richest country in the world with absolutely no information to make decisions," Frey says. "The fact now that it can be gotten every year makes federal dollars, state dollars, local dollars be spent much more efficiently than just sort of willy nilly all over the place."
Without the ACS, Frey says, federal expenditures would be willy nilly to the extreme.
If there were no collection of such detailed information on the characteristics of neighborhoods and communities, Frey says it would be much more difficult to allocate the money needed to site and open schools, hospitals, police and fire stations, and many other services and amenities.
"We're still going to have to make decisions about those different institutions, but we would make them with very little information, which means that a lot of money would be wasted," says Frey.
And it's not just government money that would be wasted. Reamer says many businesses are increasingly reliant on the market data available within the ACS, and that without it they would have much less success picking locations where their businesses would have market demand. It would affect businesses throughout the country, "from mom-and-pops to Walmart."
Now, in reality, the Senate is unlikely to vote similarly to cut off the ACS, but House approval of the elimination plan could help to further a Republican-led goal of changing the ACS into a voluntary survey. And while that outcome is somewhat more likely, it's no less costly, according to Reamer. The data is still needed, and in order to get it the Census Bureau would be forced to hire more people to do personal follow-ups with households selected for the survey process. If that were to happen, it could end up costing more to get less detailed information, which would make the distribution of federal money even less efficient.