Census Update

The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey – A Guide-Star In Jeopardy

By Terri Ann Lowenthal, Funders Census Initiative Consultant

September 2015

This week, the U.S. Census Bureau released new data on demographic, social, and economic characteristics for the nation, states, and larger localities, with similar estimates for all areas — down to the neighborhood level — coming out in December. The source for this treasure trove of information is the American Community Survey (ACS), the modern version of the census “long form.” And it is under attack in Congress, where some lawmakers are trying to weaken the survey, or eliminate it altogether.

The ACS is the only source of timely, comparable, consistent, and high-quality data for every community in the country. The information is central to our democracy, providing — along with decennial census numbers — a foundation for fair political representation and voter access in Congress, state legislatures, city councils, and school boards, and guiding the prudent allocation of federal aid to communities most in need. ACS data are required for implementation of the Voting Rights Act and a myriad of civil rights laws, such as the Fair Housing Act and EEO statutes. They measure progress and highlight inequalities, giving foundations a powerful tool for grantmaking and evaluating the success of initiatives.

While the long form was administered once a decade to a sample of households receiving the universal short-form census, the ACS is an ongoing survey of 3.5 million addresses annually (295,000 homes/month). It provides a detailed video of our population and communities, illuminating ethnic origins and ancestry; income; education; occupation and labor force participation; transportation modes; housing conditions; disability and veteran’s status; language spoken at home; health insurance coverage; and more.

Congress allocates at least $415 billion annually in federal aid to states and localities based directly or indirectly on ACS data. Likewise, state and local governments rely on ACS data to allocate resources, identify communities with special needs, maintain transportation and utility infrastructure, and attract new business investment. Business and industry use the data to locate stores, plants, and services; understand customer needs; evaluate workforce potential; and plan long-term investments.

Most notably, funders and nonprofits use ACS data widely to inform their civic engagement, democracy building, and social and economic justice work. The data are an objective and irreplaceable guide-star to assess the needs of underserved communities and measure the social impact of efforts to address systemic inequality.

Given the pervasive reliance on ACS data to guide informed decision-making in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, you probably think federal lawmakers are champions of this seminal survey. Unfortunately, you would be wrong. The ACS is under assault in Congress, with legislative action threatening the breadth and depth of the data the survey collects.

Led by lawmakers with a ‘limited government’ worldview, the U.S. House of Representatives has voted three times since 2012 (including this past spring) to let Americans opt-out of answering the ACS. The chamber even voted in 2012 to eliminate the survey altogether! Like the decennial census of which it is a part, ACS response is mandatory, to ensure a representative sample and boost participation rates. Census Bureau tests and the recent Canadian experience with a voluntary census long form have shown that response rates (especially for hard-to-count population groups) would plummet, costs would skyrocket, and the reliability of the data would diminish, if response to the ACS was optional. Canada was unable to publish data for a quarter of all jurisdictions — mostly small and rural areas — after its first voluntary long form in 2011.

Congress also has taken an axe to the ACS budget for next year. If final negotiations with the Obama Administration for Fiscal Year 2016 do not restore a proposed 20 percent funding cut, the Census Bureau could be forced to reduce the ACS sample size, making it far more difficult to produce reliable data for small and less populous areas, including American Indian reservations, and smaller populations, such as persons with disabilities, veterans, and detailed ethnic origin groups.

Foundations can help ensure the preservation of a robust, comprehensive ACS by supporting national advocacy organization efforts to educate Congress and the public about the survey’s importance. Funders can stay abreast of policy developments affecting the ACS, and work collaboratively through philanthropic networks to shine a light on the threat to evidence-based decision-making, through FCCP’s Funders Census Initiative (FCI) 2020.