Experts Say American Community Survey Is Key to a Successful 2020 Census

2020 Census 08.3,12

Witnesses testifying at a recent hearing on planning for the 2020 census emphasized the value and importance of the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). The July 18 hearing was held by the Senate subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services, and International Security.

The U.S. Constitution mandates a census every 10 years. Since 2005, the ACS has functioned as a companion to the national census, replacing the “long form” questionnaire.

With the costs of the 2020 census projected to nearly double those incurred by the 2010 census, reducing costs was a top concern of senators, who heard from experts on such cost-cutting options as moving toward the use of the Internet to collect survey data. But experts also expressed serious concerns about a recently passed House bill, Amendment 1077, which would cut funding for the ACS and make participation optional.

“Given the pervasiveness of the Internet and the public’s ever-increasing reliance on it, we find it difficult to envision a 2020 census without an internet response option,” said Inspector General Todd J. Zinser before the subcommittee. “Defunding the ACS means losing the opportunity to use the survey over course of the decade to build and perfect the IT infrastructure necessary to securely use an internet option for 2020.”

Witnesses agreed that the ACS plays an invaluable role in Census Bureau planning as a test bed for future internet surveys, highlighting plans for interactive online features to make the data more accessible and “user friendly.” In addition to limiting the Internet testing for future data collection surveys, the Census Bureau has found that a defunded or voluntary ACS would result in increased government expenditures for more survey follow-up attempts to ensure the accuracy of the data collected.

“If we did have to design a voluntary ACS, given the expected reductions in response rates from the mail and Internet response options, we would need to increase the sample size for the survey in order to maintain current levels of reliability of the estimates,” said Robert M. Groves, director of the U.S. Census Bureau.

While the census asks only a few basic questions, the ACS is a longer annual 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 decisionmakers 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.

“Recent attempts to undermine, underfund, or do away with the census or its programs like the American Community Survey have no place in a 21st century America,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, in testimony submitted to the hearing. “The civil rights community fought hard to be counted fully, and then equally, in the decennial census. Now we need to ensure an accurate picture of all of us so that we can achieve the equality of representation and economic opportunity that is the promise of our nation.”