Investments in America’s Data Infrastructure Are Essential to Our Democracy

By Steve Jost

James Madison envisioned that the 1790 Census should add questions beyond “bare enumeration” so that Congress might “adapt the public measures to the particular circumstances of the community.” Today, this Madisonian vision of measuring America is manifest in the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) — an important evolution from what was known as the census “long form.”

Each year, the ACS surveys roughly 3 million households, providing rich, detailed, and comparable data on every community in the nation. It is the premier source for information about America’s changing population, households, and workforce — and a crucial component of American democracy — providing the basic data behind shaping voting districts, ensuring access to the ballot, and measures of voting participation.

Despite its pervasive use, the ACS faces ongoing challenges. Delayed investments to improve the survey and postponements of data releases have compromised the utility and reliability of the data essential to social and economic planning for the country.

High-quality, trustworthy statistics are essential for our democracy. They empower policymakers, businesses, journalists, scientists, and other citizens to make data-driven decisions that help meet the changing needs of the populace — decisions that otherwise would be based on anecdotal evidence, gut feelings, rumor, guesses, or worse: disinformation.

If roads, bridges, railways, and ports form the heart of America’s physical infrastructure, then the ACS is the backbone of the country’s data infrastructure. The ACS is unlike any other data source in the nation, providing critical social, economic, housing, and demographic data about our nation every year for communities large and small.

At the very moment the country was most in need of trusted information to respond to multiple challenges — a once-in-a-century pandemic, a severe economic downturn, and rapidly rising inflation — the ACS was challenged with historically low response rates, diminishing data quality. This became a clarion call to rescue America’s vital data infrastructure.

The Census Project initiated a comprehensive review of the ACS to outline how it could be enhanced to better aid the nation as we address compounding changes in the labor force, the workplace, supply chains, social dynamics, and neighborhoods across America. The coronavirus pandemic disrupted America’s data infrastructure — including the ACS — and reminded us that our access to high-quality data for decision-making is not guaranteed.

Stakeholders came together to compile a comprehensive report demonstrating how vital the ACS is to the country’s future and laying out a plan of action to enhance and strengthen the survey. The objective is to pose the question of how we can ensure the quality and accessibility of ACS data for all those who rely on the data.

With this 2023 edition of our report, including additional detailed examples of ACS data uses for economic development, business decision-making, and support for veterans, we are putting greater focus on the need to invest in the ACS, to strengthen the survey, and to enable it to better serve the nation.

Over the coming weeks, census stakeholders are engaging in a special outreach campaign to make the country more aware of the need to strengthen the ACS, which includes educating members of Congress on the vital need to make greater investments. Watch this space.

Steve Jost is a contributor to The Census Project’s ACS report, and consultant to them. He formerly served as appointee to the Census Bureau by two presidents, leading national outreach efforts for the 2000 and 2010 Decennials.