A dumb compromise to save the ACS and Economic Census

Last week I commented in this space about the Tea Party’s desire to make a symbolic cut in government by eliminating the American Community Survey and the Economic Census at the US Census. This would change economic statistics in the US, upending a system that has been in place since the end of World War II. And it really makes no sense for pro-business Republicans to be leading the charge, since business is one of the primary beneficiary of all this data about the US population and business.

Over the weekend, the economic correspondent for the New York Times wrote an opinion piece. She pointed out how many businesses had come out against this change, including the United States Chamber of Commerce, the National Retail Federation and the National Association of Home Builders.

The article did give a hint about what might actually be going on. To quote the article:

“Republicans may hope that when the Senate and House bills go to a conference committee, a final compromise will keep the survey, but make participation in it voluntary. Under current law, participation is mandatory.”

That observation is rather amazing, since there is no mystery to the answer. That question has been studied. Let me quote from the summary of a report on the consequences from imposing voluntary participation:

* “A dramatic decrease occurred in mail response when the survey was voluntary. The mail cooperation rate fell by over 20 percentage points and the final response rate after all three modes of data collection was about four percentage points lower…
* The estimated annual cost of implementing the ACS would increase by at least 38 percent if the survey was voluntary and the survey maintained the current reliability levels.
* The use of voluntary collection methods had a negative impact on traditionally low response areas that will compromise our ability to produce reliable data for these areas and for small population groups such as Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Lower reliability and higher cost seem like a dumb thing to aspire to produce. Like I said last week, this proposal is just stupid.

5 Replies to “A dumb compromise to save the ACS and Economic Census”

  1. “…will compromise our ability to produce reliable data for…small population groups such as Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and American Indians and Alaska Natives.”
    It’s true, lower reliability and higher cost are dumb. However, if your goal is actually to marginalize the impact of minority groups such as those mentioned, it makes an awful lot of sense.

  2. And it really makes no sense for pro-business Republicans to be leading the charge, since business is one of the primary beneficiary of all this data about the US population and business.

    It makes PERFECT sense, since “pro-business” “pro-liberty.”

  3. Again, you gloss over the main problem with the ACS, which is why it needs to be amended in the first place. Many people (and not just “Tea-Partiers”) are not OK with government requiring them to provide vast amounts of personal information that is tied to their name and address (these questions include income, transportation methods, utility bills, and if there are people with special needs living in your home – questions that many find very intrusive). In fact, our founding fathers made sure our government was not able to force individuals to turn over personal information when they adopted the 4th Amendment to our Constitution (for those who do not care to look it up, the 4th Amendment prevents unreasonable searches and seizure of persons, houses, papers, and effects without probable cause).

    The drawbacks to making the survey voluntary that you have outline are undeniable, all of these things will certainly happen. But I think what should be explained is that the main issue with ACS is much more fundamental than statistical significance and cost.

    Love the blog, keep em coming!

    1. I am sorry, but you are using general language that does not apply to the specifics of this situation. Please stop waving the fourth amendment. That is not what is going on here.

      “Sensitive data in” is not the same as “sensitive data out.” There has never been a leak at Census, and these questions have been going on for decades. Also, as anyone who has ever tried to use the data knows, it is impossible to get individual data out of the census.

      Moreover, every question on the ACS has been heavily vetted. Usually questions are there because somebody needs an accurate number of the US population in order to make a well informed policy decision about how to allocate funds or how to modify existing policy. It may look intrusive in a question, but in summary form the answers are usually useful for some purpose. Usually the “constituent” is known inside the Census, and it usually comes out whenever they consider adding or dropping questions.

      Related, the US Congress can cut questions, just as the US Congress has added them in the past. If eliminating intrusiveness is the aim, then a deliberate and measured action is all that is required. One that merely cuts the “offending” questions. That is not what Representative Webster has actually proposed to do. He proposes to do something with different aims. He has proposed to remove the entire ACS and the entire Economic Census, and produce enormous collateral damage for GDP estimates and policy analysis more generally.

      Perhaps we have reason to fear a leak, in this era of inter-connectedness, and I have sympathy with that fear, but it has never occurred yet. Should that fear determine behavior at the Census? That is a debatable question, and worthy of discussion.

  4. They still have the CPS, Current Population Survey, which seems to have questions that are on the ACS.

    I am in an ongoing effort by the U.S. Census Bureau with this survey which started in December 2013. I don’t remember everything but some of the questions posed to me were things such as my current and past psychological health, treatment past and present, did things easily upset me or cause me to feel uncomfortable. Whether or not I am under medication.

    They asked me where I was born, where my parents were born, did I live in my present location for the past year.

    They also asked me how much I spend for groceries per week, how healthy I eat, do I eat balanced meals, and what percentage of my groceries are paper products like paper towels and toilet paper. This all occurred after a knock on my door one morning. I never was given the opportunity to fill out a paper version.

    They asked if I have a job, and how many hours I work. If I don’t work, why not. Am I trying to find work. What was my income last week? Last month? They asked me if I want to work. Do I have any disabilities to prevent me from working. If I could work, could I start work immediately.

    They did, however, mail me some questions last week. I am supposed to fill in dollar amounts as answers. The field rep is supposed to call me and ask me the questions on this form. Listed below are the questions, which most were already posed to me during the first visit (supposedly the survey lasts 8 months long, questioning on a monthly basis):


    1. Wages or salary before deductions
    2. Income from nonfarm business, partnetship, or professional practice after expenses
    3. Income from own farm after expenses
    4. Social Security or Supplemental Security income
    5. Unemployment compensation
    6. Interest on savings, bonds, and so on
    7. Dividends on stocks, mutual funds, and so on
    8. Pensions
    9. Alimony or child support
    10. Public assistance or welfare
    11. Estates or trusts


    1. Premium expenditures for Health Insurance Policies – include total spending on all policies excpet Medicare Part B premiums; assign premium payments to policyholder
    2. Over-the-counter expenses on health related products, not reimbursed – e.g., aspirin, cold remedies, etc.
    3. Medical care and equipment expenses, not reimbursed – e.g., copayments for Dr. visits, prescriptions, medication, hearing/vision aids, etc.

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