House votes to cut the American Community Survey

Last month Republicans were pushing a bill to get rid of the American Community Survey, an 11-page questionnaire about housing, education, and other things. Yesterday, a bill passed to cut the survey in a 232 to 190 vote.

Republicans, acknowledging its usefulness, attacked the survey as an unconstitutional invasion of privacy, arguing that the government has no business knowing how many flush toilets someone has, for instance.

“It would seem that these questions hardly fit the scope of what was intended or required by the Constitution,” said Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.), author of the amendment.

“This survey is inappropriate for taxpayer dollars,” Webster added. “It’s the definition of a breach of personal privacy. It’s the picture of what’s wrong in Washington, D.C. It’s unconstitutional.”

The ACS is the picture of what’s wrong in Washington? This is idiocy.


  • It’s not idiocy, it’s following the law. Because something is a priority to you does not make it right to use the force of government to make it happen. Granted, it seems far fetched with all of the unconstitutional laws passed just this year that a congressman would be so bold to use this justification. However, we would be a more free and productive country if government officials did not laugh off their oath of office.

  • John Galt May 10, 2012 at 10:39 am

    If the survey was optional, then I would have far fewer complaints about it.

    BTW – though filling out the survey is “mandatory” and “required by law”, if you tell them enough times that you won’t do it, they will eventually give up. For me, that took three letters, four phone calls, and three people visiting my house. _That’s_ the waste.

  • The ACS is run by the Census Bureau, who are required by law to keep individual responses confidential and to use the results only for statistical purposes. There is no violation of privacy here.

    The ACS questions themselves used to be part of the decennial census, but they were removed from the census and put into an annual sampling methodology so as to provide more helpful data. So, if the survey is unconstitutional, was it also unconstitutional to ask the same questions as part of the Census? Is the issue with detail, or with methodology? Could this, just possibly, be a minor political football where there is in fact no substantive policy issue at all? Hmm…

    • John Galt May 10, 2012 at 11:28 am

      The purpose of the census is to determine the population in order to allocate congressional representatives.

  • It seems like a pretty hysterical claim to me but then I find a lot of rhetoric these days to be hyperbole. I say so what that it goes away? The districts where this stuff is most opposed receive more then their fair share of federal spending and without these numbers we’ll need another way to determine funding. Do it by taxes paid so that the North East can finally get their fair share. Start linking spending to revenue by district and some of those States will change their tune.

  • John said: “The ACS is run by the Census Bureau, who are required by law to keep individual responses confidential and to use the results only for statistical purposes. There is no violation of privacy here.”

    You are confusing the notions of confidentiality and privacy. Yes, I trust the CB keeps all information confidential. But violations of privacy are in the eye of the beholder. Many people feel the ACS is a voilation of their privacy (I’ve spoken to many of them on this very topic), and it has nothing to do with keeping the information confidential. It has more to do with the question of “Why does the government need this information from me?” (the number toilets being a good example). The fact is, the Census Bureau does a terrible job of communicating WHY this information must be collected. If they communicated this better, we probably wouldn’t haven’t seen the vote we saw in the House.

    Incidentally, there is a movement among some social scientists in the government (in some of the health-oriented agencies) to add a question on sexual orientation to some surveys. Also, some want to capture sex-changes – in other words, add additional categories to the standard gender categories of “Male” and “Female.” Just wait till these hit the fan.

  • Guillaume Wiatr May 10, 2012 at 12:36 pm

    Nathan, why don’t you take this opportunity to tell us more why you disagree with this decision, from your expert point of view. I use your book, follow your blog and comments and trust you. You share a lot of really valuable knowledge. I never had to take this survey.

    That being said, if data is powerful, trusted and seen as valuable, which I would tend to think it is, would’t the survey likely to be used again in the future?

    Also, with the development of new ways to get generate personal data, what would be some other means to get the same data? How could we think outside the box?

  • Knowledge is half the battle. To some Republicans, stopping the government from providing *informed* or *effective* services is a strategy. It’s like cutting off the enemy’s ability to perform reconnaissance. Once these services are stumbling around blind, you point to how ineffective they are to justify cutting them completely. “Why are we subsidizing running water for reservations? I’ve got flush toilets, everyone I know has flush toilets. Waste of taxpayer money!” I close my eyes, and nobody is there.

    Here in Canada, we had the same thing. The Harper government made a big deal about how the census should be voluntary because privacy, and then authorized widespread surveillance of your internet communications because criminals.

    Munir Sheikh was right.

  • I once had a job where I had to estimate the financial impact of proposed health insurance legislation on a statewide level. Our work was impartial and we provided the results to the legislators to help them make fully informed decisions when voting. The ACS was one of our key sources of demographic data, and I can’t imagine what the people who do that work now will have to do to figure out what the various affected populations might look like, especially when the bills impact populations that they don’t have regular contact with.

  • Sue Meyer May 10, 2012 at 8:57 pm

    It is nice to see that someone is educated on the American Community Survey. This survey is vital in that it is used to compile the needed statistics to allocated tax dollars. These statistics indicate where new roads, bridges, schools, libraries and healthcare facilities are needed, the needs of the elderly and disabled, the funds that may be needed for different areas in times of disasters as well as the need for police officers and firefighters. If one would look at the website that the Census Bureau has for the American Community Survey, it explains the purpose of each question asked. I do not see how that the survey itself is an invasion of privacy because one doesnot have to give their name. They can merely respond as gentleman or man of the house, lady of the house, child one, child two etc.

    • Have you taken the American Community Survey? I just got one in the mail and am completely “creeped out” by it! It is 28 pages long, and asks, by individual in the household; work habits, time you leave for work, where you work, how much money you made in the last 12 months, your property tax cost, homeowner’s insurance cost, mortgage payment and how many rooms are in your house. I’m sorry, asking for an average household income, how many people live in the house, etc is ok, but asking specific information by resident by name (yes, you have to give each person’s name) the survey is far from anonymous and I won’t be filling it out. They can fine my my $100, but this is a complete invasion of privacy and definitely feels unconstitutional. It’s very patriot act.

    • yes you do have to give your name and your childrens names, ages, full dates of birth, how long they have lived there, how they are related to you, what time they each leave for work the full name of employer if an individual, full name of land lord if renting, way more than they should really need, they can simply base roads and bridges on traffic count, and hospitals on amount of usage without invading our privacy, there is already a law firm fighting this.

  • If I’m correct, the GOP also wanted to cut the CBO because it provided conclusions that were contrary to the manipulations they presented to the public, therefor, biased.

  • For all those who ask the question “why does the government need to know about _______”

    Guess what, the census is very good about providing explanations for all their data. I went to their website and in less than 30 seconds I found the following explanation for the flush toilet question:

    “Plumbing facilities provide an indication of living standards and assess the quality of household facilities within the housing inventory. These data provide assistance in the assessment of water resources and to serve as an aid to identify possible areas of ground water contamination. The data also are used to forecast the need for additional water and sewage facilities, aid in the development of policies based on fair market rent, and to identify areas in need of rehabilitation loans or grants.”

    • Good government drone aren’t you. The government says this or that and you automatically lick their feet. The government is NOT your friend. Especially over the last 4 years. I’ll take the fine because my business is not their business.

  • The explanation that government uses the statisitcal information it gathers to distribute our money begs the question. I would venture to guess that most of the people who object to the provision of the invasive personal information called for by the ACS are NOT members of any of the dependency groups upon whom the Federal Government showers its (our) largess. Completion of the form by these people will not net any information on communities in need of Federal givaways. It will, rather, just provide a list of individuals who are not government-dependant whose communities can be disregarded by the Feds. Let the people who seek Federal handouts surrender their privacy and fill out the form. Those who have nothing to gain, and consitutionally protected privacy to lose, should be left alone.