Hearing on “Census: Planning Ahead for 2020”

Location: Subcommittee On Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services, And International Security

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (The Leadership Conference) appreciates the opportunity to submit a statement for the record on this important topic.

The Leadership Conference is a coalition charged by its diverse membership of more than 210 national organizations to promote and protect the civil and human rights of all persons in the United States. Founded in 1950 by A. Philip Randolph, Arnold Aronson, and Roy Wilkins, The Leadership Conference works in support of policies that further the goal of equality under law through legislative advocacy and public education.

The Leadership Conference is ideally positioned to address many of the most pressing issues affecting the successful implementation of Census Bureau programs, surveys, and initiatives.  The Leadership Conference’s coordinating role among so many diverse organizations allows for the sharing of different perspectives, as well as the development of broader strategies that occur within the purview of any individual organization. All of our work draws on the expertise of the cross-section of national organizations, and examines the impact of civil rights policy on a broad range of constituencies.

The Leadership Conference considers a fair and accurate census and comprehensive American Community Survey (ACS) to be among the most significant civil rights issues facing the country today.  Our wide-ranging efforts to promote equality of representation and economic opportunity are informed by objective, inclusive data on America’s diverse communities and populations.  The Leadership Conference and member organizations appreciate the importance of fact-based analyses for identifying disparate access and outcomes and devising effective solutions.

American Community Survey
FY 2013 funding to support reliable ACS data is critical for sound government and business profitability, and the pursuit of national economic prosperity. We believe the president’s FY 2013 budget request of $252.7 million sufficiently invests in the ACS program to ensure that the sample size is large enough to produce reliable and useful data for less populated geographic areas, such as towns and rural counties, and especially for less populous subgroups. This funding also would allow for improved telephone and field data collection; sufficient follow-up of unresponsive households in remote areas; and a comprehensive review of three-year and five-year ACS estimates. These activities are imperative for ensuring the ACS can continue to provide valid data about the socio-economic and demographic characteristics of the American people on an ongoing, annual basis.

The fact that the ACS has been the target of multiple legislative attempts to gut, undermine, underfund, and even do away with the survey altogether, is extremely troubling for The Leadership Conference and our members. For our members, the ACS is not an end in and of itself, but a foundation for future policies, allocations of funds, and political representation.  The ACS’ greatest strength is that it gives detailed information about us as a people. This, in turn, can show where populations are growing and new schools or hospitals may be needed.  It can provide the impetus for government intervention in areas of high unemployment or influence local government to build a new highway or expand a public bus system.  It’s also the basis for the distribution of trillions of dollars in public – and private – investment.

Simply put, the loss of ACS data would thwart both public and private efforts to address the needs and interests of our diverse country. 

That’s because, for an ever-diversifying nation, the ACS provides the only accurate, reliable source of data that helps us understand who we are.  For example:

  • The Voting Rights Act relies on ACS data to determine which jurisdictions must offer multi-lingual ballots. 
  • The ACS collects information on place of birth, citizenship, year of entry, and language spoken at home in order to better serve the needs of immigrants and refugees. 
  • The ACS is our communities’ major source of state and local data on poverty, household income, education level of the workforce, types of disabilities of local residents, and scores of other major indicators.

We are also troubled by efforts to convert the ACS from a mandatory to an optional survey, despite evidence indicating voluntary participation would not yield accurate and reliable data.  For example, in 2003, Congress directed the Census Bureau to explore the possibility of making the ACS voluntary.  In two reports[1] and several more recent analyses, the Bureau concluded that mail response rates to a voluntary ACS would drop “dramatically,” by more than 20 percentage points.  Cooperation in traditionally low mail-response areas (which tend to equate with hard-to-count communities, such as people of color, low income families, people with disabilities, and rural households) declined even further when ACS response was voluntary.  In addition, a significantly higher percentage of traditionally easier-to-count populations, such as non-Hispanic Whites, also failed to respond during the mail and telephone phases of the ACS.  These findings suggest that the quality of estimates produced from a voluntary ACS would be severely jeopardized for all segments of the population and all types of communities.

Additionally, decline in mail response rates would force the Census Bureau to use more costly modes of data collection, such as telephone and door-to-door visits, thereby increasing the cost of the survey by thirty percent ($60 million at the time of the 2003 field test).  Without an increase in funding in an amount necessary to overcome low initial response rates, the Census Bureau will be left with insufficient response to produce reliable data for smaller (e.g. rural communities; towns; urban neighborhoods) areas and population groups (e.g. people with disabilities; veterans; immigrant groups).  Because optional response would significantly diminish the quality of estimates for less populous areas and smaller demographic groups, it is likely the Census Bureau would stop producing these data sets.  That means we might not have these vital measures of the nation’s socio-economic condition and progress for the majority of counties, for large swaths of suburban areas, and for diverse urban neighborhoods.

In short, making the ACS optional would undermine the only source of reliable data to guide decision-makers.  For all of these reasons, losing the ACS—whether through decreased funding or making the survey optional—would have serious adverse consequences that could leave the nation in a precarious decision-making vacuum and hinder our economic recovery and future growth. And for The Leadership Conference and its 200-plus member organizations, losing this data would mean hurting every community and population we represent.

2020 Census
The ACS also plays a critically important role with respect to planning for the decennial census. We support the president’s FY 2013 request for 2020 Census activities, which is nearly double the FY2012 funding level, from $66.7 million in FY 2012 to $131.4 million in FY 2013. As the Government Accountability Office has consistently documented, reasonable investments in census planning in the early part of the decade will help save hundreds of millions, and perhaps billions, of dollars in census costs down the road. The FY 2013 budget will also support the ability of the Census Bureau to design programs and operations for the 2020 Census that have residual benefits for other Census Bureau data collections.

The president’s FY 2013 budget request may also allow for the resumption of the critically important Partnership Program, which was an integral component of 2010 census outreach efforts, especially with respect to hard-to-count populations. We believe that the Partnership Program is necessary in order to reach hard-to-count populations and ensuring their participation in future surveys and censuses.  The Leadership Conference and its members are aware of numerous cases across the country where the vitality of local partnerships with Census Bureau staff played a critical role in the success of local outreach efforts around the 2010 census. In short, the Partnership Program ensures that timely and locally relevant information from the Bureau reaches community leaders, and that local enumeration efforts are able to use limited resources efficiently. 

The civil rights movement of the 1960’s was a fight to stand up and be counted at the voting booth and in the fullness of American life. And in today’s data-driven society, we shouldn’t need to fight again just to be counted by our census.  

Given the enormous stakes, we applaud the subcommittee for holding this hearing, and hope that this information is helpful to you. Thank you for your leadership on this important topic.

[1] “Meeting 21st Century Data Needs – Implementing the American Community Survey, Report 3: Testing the Use of Voluntary Methods” (Dec. 2003) (http://www.census.gov/acs/www/Downloads/library/2003/2003_Griffin_01.pdf) and an update, “Report 11: Testing Voluntary Methods — Additional Results” (Dec. 2004) (http://www.census.gov/acs/www/Downloads/library/2004/2004_Griffin_02.pdf).