Hearing Witnesses Reinforce the Necessity of American Community Survey for Future Economic Success

Cutting funding and making participation the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) voluntary would significantly impede the government’s ability to gather vital information, thereby weakening the economy, according to experts testifying at a June 20 Congressional Joint Economic Committee hearing.

Making ACS participation voluntary “would destroy [the] comprehensiveness, accuracy and timeliness” of critical data and “would be a blow to the U.S. economy,” said Kenneth D. Simonson, chief economist and vice president of the Associated General Contractors of America. Simonson was one of four panelists who testified at the hearing.

Research Professor Andrew Reamer of the George Washington Institute of Public Policy said if the ACS were made voluntary, the response rate would drop at least 20 percent and the government would have to actively follow up with responders, which would cost millions more to the government.

Several panelists cautioned that making the ACS voluntary or eliminating it completely would be equivalent to driving the American economy without a functioning GPS device. Keith Hall, former commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, said that “good information leads to good decisions,” and without ACS data, business leaders and policymakers would lack reliable data to inform their decisions.

The U.S. Constitution mandates a census every ten years. Since 2005, the ACS has functioned as a companion to the national census, replacing the “long form” questionnaire. While the Census asks only a few basic questions, the ACS is a longer-form, yearly survey that asks a smaller sample of the population more detailed questions about their demographic, social, economic, and housing characteristics. These detailed questions allow public and private decision makers and advocates to gain a more accurate understanding of the needs and challenges facing a diverse range of communities, allowing them to make more informed decisions about the distribution of trillions of federal, state, and private dollars.

The compulsory nature of the ACS has been fundamental to ensuring the accuracy and quality of the data collected. But some Republican members of Congress are questioning the costs and constitutionality of the survey, despite court rulings upholding the constitutionality of the ACS. The U.S. House of Representatives voted last month to end the ACS, and Senator Rand Paul, R. Ky., is backing similar legislation in the Senate, where it stands less chance of passage.

At a time when the American demographic landscape is becoming increasingly diverse, gathering information on who we are as a nation is essential. These demographic changes create new challenges our nation must face, “as racial and economic disparities persist in housing, education, and employment,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “We don’t learn any of this information by osmosis. We know it because of the Census Bureau, through the ACS.”