House GOP: Who Needs Data, Anyway?

State and local governments have joined the fight against a House plan to stop collecting demographic data.
by | May 17, 2012 AT 7:50 PM

The House of Representatives voted earlier this month to prevent the federal government from collecting demographic information from Americans, arguing that doing so is unconstitutional and an invasion of privacy.

The measure is not expected to gain traction in the Senate, but critics say it's short-sighted that federal lawmakers are trying to cut off data that, in some form or another, is used by virtually every government agency at every level of government, as well as countless businesses.

Now, a broad coalition of hundreds of organizations, from researchers to social services organizations to state and local governments, is urging lawmakers to stop the plan.

"The importance of high-quality, objective, and universal (survey) data for public and private sector decision-makers cannot be overstated," the coalition, called the Census Project, wrote in a letter to Senate leaders.

The House, with overwhelming Republican support, passed an amendment on May 9 to its Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill that cuts off funding for the American Community Survey. The ACS is an annual survey affiliated with the Census that asks more detailed questions about subjects such as the recipients' income, education level and living situation.

The federal government uses that data to determine how it spends more than $400 billion each year, according to a study by the Brookings Institution.

By knowing which communities are shrinking and growing, or which communities are rich or poor, all levels of government are able to make better decisions about planning and spending.

But House Republicans, led by amendment sponsor Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.), say the survey is unconstitutional and "tramples on personal privacy" by asking invasive questions like the length of the respondent’s commute. Republicans also say that because it’s also used by commercial businesses, the data shouldn't’ be collected by the government.

Yet much of that data is used to target aid. For example, income data is collected to ensure that government programs that aid the poor are targeted to places where poor people live. Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said during the debate that it's “incredibly invasive” to ask residents questions about how well they speak English. But that data is used to determine whether a jurisdiction most provide assistance to non-English speakers when they vote. That information isn't available from other sources. 

The defunding of ACS was part of a program led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) called YouCut, which allows people who visit his website and vote on what parts of government shoud lose funding.

The ACS was phased in after the 2000 Census, which was the last to include the “long-form” questionnaire for a portion of households. Eventually, the long-form was scrapped, and those detailed questions were included in the annual ACS, which provided more useful data because it was collected annually instead of each decade

According to Brookings, the federal government has collected detailed socioeconomic data about its residents for 160 years; the only real change with the ACS is that it is no longer a decennial process.

Critics of the Republicans’ maneuver say it’s short-sighted and the country won’t get any benefit by knowing less about its demographics. Indeed, the survey is the most comprehensive source of data about Americans, and it is used to produce a snapshot of what a particular community or the country-at-large looks like and how it's changing. As the New York Times notes, Webster himself links to ACS data about his district on his congressional website.

Hundreds of groups opposing the cut sent a letter to Senate leaders last week urging them not to move forward with the House’s cut. Jason Jordan, the director of policy and government affairs at the American Planning Association, said the real fear isn't that the Senate would go along with the House's plan. But there's a fear that in a lame duck Congress, lawmakers could start horsetrading on various proposals. The Senate might not agree to defund the ACS. But it could compromise with House Republicans and agree to no longer make it mandatory for Americans to answer the questionnaire.

Jordan says that would be problematic. Since getting answers would become more difficult, the government would have to spend more money on the survey or accept less reliable results from a smaller sample.

"From our perspective, there may be no more important tool for more efficient government than having this sort of resource available to decision-makers," Jordan says. At a time of fiscal austerity, cutting the program doesn't make sense in the long-term, he argues. "Nobody in the private-sector would try to make their company more efficiency by gathering less data.