Summary of H.R. 931 Hearing [Voluntary ACS]

There hasn’t been much news coverage about the possibility of changing the methodology for the ACS (voluntary as opposed to mandatory) and recovering the expense of enlarging the sample (a la Canada and its voluntary NHS) by charging users for access to the data.

Link to hearing materials:

Jordain Carney | Scripps Howard News Service
March 7, 2012

Those who argued for making the ACS voluntary said requiring participation is unconstitutional.

“I am here to suggest that the federal government does not have an overriding, compelling state interest to force people to divulge their private matters,” said Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, who appeared as a witness at the hearing.

Poe has repeatedly said the ACS should be voluntary. He introduced a bill, H.R. 931, in March 2011 that would make the survey voluntary.

Census Bureau Director Robert Groves disagreed. “The U.S. Constitution empowers Congress to carry out the census,” Groves said. “That is unambiguous in the Constitution.”

Groves said Census Bureau staff are required to find a statute that allows them to collect information before they put a question on the survey.

Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican who is chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said legally requiring a response violates the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments.

Most of the witnesses were in favor of the ACS as a source of small-area data and left it to the Census Bureau to determine how to collect the data.

“It is literally this country’s only source of small-area statistics,” Groves said.

Making the survey voluntary would dramatically decrease responses and increase costs by approximately $66 million per year, he said.

“Without good data, policy makers are essentially flying blind,” Andrew Biggs, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said.

Those who do not complete the survey can receive a fine of as much as $5,000. Groves said no one has ever been penalized for refusing to answer the survey.

An alternative to the required ACS could be having the private sector pay for at least part of the Census Bureau’s survey.

Groves said the Census Bureau doesn’t have the research to say if receiving private funding would threaten the accuracy of the data.

“We haven’t considered this seriously,” Groves said. “Other countries have taken the posture that this is a basic responsibly of the central government.”

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