Flying Blind: Cutting Funding for Data & Research Programs

At the beginning of the week we thought the ACS was in danger of being made voluntary (and thus increasing its cost by about 60m).

But, instead, funding for the ACS was cut through several amendments – diverting money for community policing (Brown, D-FL and Lynch, D-MA) and making it voluntary (Poe, R-TX). But the biggest blow was de-funding the ACS altogether [previous post]. Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised about the de-funding. The Week 23 “You Cut” item was to “Reduce Census Bureau data collection that is beyond the Constitutional mandate.”

Here are some reactions to this posted with the most recent articles first. Don’t miss Robert Groves’ blog post/video. He takes his gloves off – not restrained.

The GOP’s Census Takers
Editorial | The Wall Street Journal
May 11, 2012

This editorial decries the decision by the Republican House members to defund the ACS. However, if you read the comments, the readers beg to differ.

With the contempt of the Washington establishment raining down on House Republicans for voting on principle, every now and then the GOP does something that feeds the otherwise false narrative of political extremism. Witness Thursday night’s drive-by on the Census Bureau.

In fact, the ACS provides some of the most accurate, objective and granular data about the economy and the American people, in something approaching real time. Ideally, Congress would use the information to make good decisions. Or economists and social scientists draw on the resource to offer better suggestions. Businesses also depend on the ACS’s county-by-county statistics to inform investment and hiring decisions. As the great Peter Drucker had it, you can’t manage or change what you don’t measure.

The ACS costs about $2.4 billion a decade, which is trivial compared with the growth it helps drive. National statistics are in some sense public goods, which is why the government has other data-gathering shops like the Bureaus of Economic Analysis and Labor Statistics. The House action is like blaming the bathroom scale for your recent weight gain.

Florida freshman Daniel Webster denounced the ACS as “the definition of the breach of personal privacy, the picture of what’s wrong in Washington D.C., unconstitutional.” This diminishes all the other things the government does that really are unlawful, especially since the Founders told Congress to enumerate the population “in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.” As for privacy, anyone not living in a Unabomber shack won’t be much inconvenienced by making this civic contribution.

Since the political class is attempting to define the GOP as insane and redefine “moderation” as anything President Obama favors, Republicans do themselves no favors by targeting a useful government purpose.

Robert Groves, Census Director, Hammers House For Cutting Major U.S. Survey
Michael McAuliff | Huffington Post
May 11, 2012

The head of the U.S. Census Bureau hammered the House of Representatives on Friday for passing a bill that he said “devastates” the nation’s ability to measure its economy and understand its people.

The House slashed the bureau’s budget in the appropriations bill for commerce, justice and science programs, which it passed Thursday, and specifically barred the agency from conducting the American Community Survey, some form of which has been done since 1790.

Census officials, who usually stay very nonpartisan, had been relatively restrained in pointing out the damage likely to stem from proposed cuts that were deeper than those already suggested, noting simply that the quality of the nation’s economic data would suffer.

But after the House passed its bill cutting more funds and eliminating the long-form community survey entirely, a Capitol Hill staffer told The Huffington Post, Census head Robert Groves decided to take the gloves off, with administration approval.

“This bill … devastates the nation’s statistical information about the status of the economy and the larger society,” Groves said in a new video released on the agency’s website (see above). “Modern societies need current detailed social and economic statistics. The U.S. is losing them.”

Indeed, data from the American Community Survey are nearly ubiquitous. Most of the House members who voted to end the survey have links to it on their official websites so that constituents can learn more about their communities. Webster’s own site links to the information (see screen shot).

Webster’s office could not immediately be reached for comment.

But Republicans argued that the survey was unconstitutional and too intrusive because it asks such questions as how many flush toilets people have in their homes and whether they are married. A recent study by the Brookings Institution’s Andrew Reamer found that seven of those questions — including the one on marriage — have been on the survey since 1850.

A Future Without Key Social and Economic Statistics for the Country
Robert Groves | Director’s Blog [Census Bureau]
May 11, 2012

MODERN SOCIETIES NEED CURRENT, DETAILED SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC STATISTICS; THE US IS LOSING THEM.

in ALL CAPS, because he sounds pretty mad in his video summarizing his blog post:

Annual Census at Risk in House Budget Bill
Sabrina Tavernise | The New York Times
May 11, 2012

“Demographers feel betrayed,” said Andrew Cherlin, a demographer at Johns Hopkins University. “We were told not to worry about the demise of the census long-form questionnaire because we could still get the detailed information from the A.C.S. Now the House wants to end that, too.”

“The situation is very serious,” she [Lowenthal] said, adding that there were legal requirements that rely on the survey’s data, like implementation of the Voting Rights Act, which draws on detailed neighborhood data on race and ethnicity. “I don’t think the leadership in the House has thought through the consequences of this.”

Republicans attack ‘intrusive’ survey from Census Bureau
Pete Kasperowicz | The Hill
May 11, 2012

Who’s Afraid of Economic Data?
Josh Barro | Forbes
May 11, 2012

Republicans think they’re striking a blow for federalism here, but they’re really doing the opposite. In order for state and local governments to serve as “laboratories of democracy,” we need comparable performance data across jurisdictions. Without ACS, it would be a lot harder to figure out what local policies are working.

AEI’s Andrew Biggs made this point in his testimony in favor of the ACS earlier this year:

Third, and most importantly, without good data policymakers are essentially flying blind, lacking solid knowledge of the Americans they are seeking to assist. We already suffer too much from what might be referred to as “policymaking by anecdote,” where lawmakers seek to pass legislation before sufficiently examining the severity – or sometimes even the existence – of a perceived problem. Reducing the quantity and quality of data available to policymakers, analysts and researchers threatens to exacerbate this problem.

Wonks: House Plan to get rid of American Community Survey “Absolutely Terrible”
Shani Hilton | Washington City Paper
May 11, 2012

“It’s an absolutely terrible decision—it’s terribly shortsighted,” says David Cooper, an economic analyst at the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute.

Killing the American Community Survey Blinds Business
Matthew Phillips | Bloomberg Business Week
May 10,2012

Tom Beers, executive director of the National Association of Business Economists, says that without good economic data, businesses would be “flying blind.” He adds: “You end up in a guessing game about what’s going on in the economy. The types of losses that result are far worse than what you end up spending to fund these surveys.”

Webster says ending the ACS could save $2.5 billion over the next decade. Asked to respond to concerns from the business community over the impact of stopping the ACS, Webster’s communications staff referred me to his comments on the House floor, which don’t address those concerns.

House bill reins in Census Bureau, Justice
Stephen Dinan | The Washington Times
May 10, 2012

This article is favor of the cuts – sees it as reining in the Census Bureau.

Conservatives have long argued the agency pries too deeply into Americans’ lives with its long-form questionnaire, which over the past decade has become the American Community Survey. The ACS doesn’t replace the decennial census, but rather is taken every year of a smaller group of Americans, giving the Census Bureau continually updated data.

House lawmakers voted first to halt the Census Bureau from fining anyone who refuses to participate, and then voted 232-190 to end the ACS altogether.

“We need to ask ourselves whether this survey is worth $2.4 billion,” said Rep. Daniel Webster, Florida Republican, who offered the amendment to eliminate the ACS.

House Votes to Cut Census Survey Done Since Thomas Jefferson
Michael McAuliff | Huffington Post
May 9, 2012

“The Republicans have earned a reputation as the ‘do-nothing party’ and now they want to also be the ‘know-nothing party,’ “ said Rep. Carolyn Maloney after the vote. “This vote repeals the work done by Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama and six Congresses to modernize the census, and does so without even a hearing or full debate.”

Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), who ran the floor debate for Democrats, seemed especially vexed.

“We’ve been doing surveys in the long form since 1790 as a nation,” Fattah said, referring to the time when Thomas Jefferson oversaw the census. “It’s critically important. The idea that we’re going to leave the greatest country in the world with less information about the condition of communities and of our families — and that we’re going to do that appropriately — defies logic.”

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