The budget, the American Community Survey, and informed decision making
Last week a friend called to my attention that the House of Representatives had voted to eliminate the American Community Survey, an annual survey of 3 million randomly chosen households that serves as a supplement to provide more accurate and detailed data than the decennial Census. My friend was worried about how this vote would affect her work in urban planning research, as the survey is vital both to her job and to determining how to allocate more than $400 billion in federal and state funds each year.
I began thinking of the recent back-and-forth exchanges between the bishops and Paul Ryan over his proposed budget. It is in this context—with Ryan saying that the cuts in his budget are justified, and the bishops arguing that they will negatively impact the poor—that the House voted to cut funding to a tool that is crucial to making informed decisions about how and where government money should be spent. William Frey, a demographer at The Brookings Institution, says in the Atlantic today, "Here we would be, the most developed country in the world, the richest country in the world with absolutely no information to make decisions."
Politicians on both sides of the aisle should be able to agree that, in light of our huge budget deficit, we need to make informed decisions about spending, even if we ultimately disagree on exactly what government money should be spent on. And it seems like arguments for keeping the ACS should appeal to a variety of priorities represented by our political parties.
In light of fiscal responsibility, Nate Berg at the Atlantic points out that our resources are likely to be grossly wasted without the survey’s insights. “In order to get [the data] the Census Bureau would be forced to hire more people to do personal follow-ups with households selected for the survey process," Berg writes. "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.”
For those concerned with not balancing our budget at the expense of our most vulnerable citizens, the ACS is a valuable tool used to discern where these citizens live and what types of assistance they need. Without the survey, our country will be less equipped to provide them with needed assistance including affordable housing, education and job training, and access to health care.
We use data to help us make decisions on everything from transportation planning to investment in schools to affordable housing development to providing basic social services. Though the vote is not likely to pass through the Senate, the House's vote still serves as a good reminder of how complex these budget issues are—and how much easier it is to tackle complex problems armed with as much information as possible.