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It Only Takes 5: news from Minnesotans for the American Community Survey (ACS)

[Editor’s note: this is a guest post from Joan Naymark, director of Minnesotans for the American Community Survey (MACS). Joan’s bio is posted below. Check out MACS facebook page to keep up to date and find out how you can help assure that the ACS continues.]

Did you know that it only takes five phone calls from constituents to create an “issue” for a member of Congress? When the American Community Survey (ACS) is in the field in a local area, members of Congress hear about it. They typically receive five or more phone calls, and they are not happy calls. “What is this? Do I have to respond? Why do they need to know when I leave my house in the morning, or how many toilets there are? Is someone going to rob my house when I’m gone for the day?” Without education, how would an ordinary resident of Anytown USA know the importance of answers to these questions? As a smaller, ongoing survey, the ACS doesn’t have the benefit of the full advertising and publicity campaign that accompanies the once-a-decade census (and ACS’ predecessor, the census long form). Few people are aware that the ACS is part of the decennial census which was among the first creations of our founding fathers. Article 1, Section 2 of the United States Constitution provides for a decennial census, a critical component of our government “by the people”. No less than Thomas Jefferson and James Madison discussed knowledge based on facts as an essential component of our democracy. Today, census and ACS data continue to guide informed decision-making and allocation at all levels of government, by businesses, and at the community level. Equally important, objective, publicly available data allow Americans to hold their elected representatives and business leaders accountable for policy choices and to be actively engaged in our democracy. In short, the US census and ACS data are a public good!

Those of us who use, prepare, analyze, disseminate, and depend on census data are not among those who complain about the ACS survey. Instead, we typically hope to receive one in the mail, unlike your average constituent. Yet we don’t voice our support often enough for the ACS and other census data. Why not? To preserve the ACS survey and data, we need to voice our perspective about the benefits the data offer. That is the reasoning behind the creation of a new grass-roots coalition earlier this year, Minnesotans for the American Community Survey, or MACS. Several ACS data users from diverse sectors banded together with the mission of educating the public and members of Minnesota’s Congressional delegation about the importance and widespread support for ACS and other census data. Our goal is to provide “the other side of the story,” a counter-balance, if you will, to the small but vocal number of constituents who complain about Census Bureau surveys.

MACS’ first letter to Minnesota’s 10 members of Congress started with fewer than 15 signatories. By April, we were 40 strong, and by June, 60. Today, we have over 70 members from the private, public, and nonprofit sectors, as well as individual data users. We use census data to drive economic growth and create a better place for all Minnesotans. In the past month, MACS has begun direct conversations with four congressional offices and that of our senior senator. Our size, growth, and diverse membership have caught their attention. Why? We represent Minnesotans. We have a common desire to improve our state and nation based on evidence, facts, data, and analysis. Only data from the Census Bureau is objective, consistent, reliable, and valid for all places across the nation, and over time.

It’s hard to believe in a democratic system of governance like ours, but Census and ACS data are now at risk, which is the primary reason that MACS was founded. Bills before the House and Senate mirror those of the 2012 Congressional season, with the intent to either eliminate the ACS altogether, or to make it a voluntary survey. The U.S. House of Representatives actually voted last year to make ACS response optional, and then to cut all funding for the survey; fortunately, cooler heads prevailed in the U.S. Senate. Making ACS response voluntary would degrade data for small geographic areas and small population groups to the extent where it would not be valid, and likely would not be released for public use at small geographic levels. (Canada’s recent experience with a voluntary census long form bears out these consequences.) No data. Not a good scenario for our state, our neighborhoods, families and seniors, or for keeping our country economically competitive. Key Census Bureau programs, such as adequate planning for the 2020 Decennial Census and processing the 2012 Economic Census, face significant funding risks from sequestration, cuts to the FY2013 budget, and potential shortfalls in the FY2014 budget. Being a supporter of census data is not for the faint hearted.

Yet, you may be wondering, are constituent concerns about privacy and a mandatory response to the ACS questionnaire valid? That’s a reasonable question, and one that members of Congress rightly should address. The purpose of the Census is to create aggregate statistics; your personal responses are just a means to this end. In other words, the ACS profiles states, cities, and communities, not individuals, by summarizing the information it gathers from individuals. But here are the facts on privacy. Personal, individual information is confidential and may not be disclosed to any other government agency, outside entity, or individual.

In fact, personal information is protected by the strongest statistical privacy law on the books! The Census Bureau is bound by Title 13 of the US Code to protect the confidentiality of the information it gathers and it has always done so (Census Bureau “Principles”, “Privacy”, and “Safeguards”). Responding to census surveys is an important responsibility of Americans for congressional apportionment and legislative redistricting as well as public policy analysis and resource allocation at the Federal, state, and local levels. The traditional Census long form was sent to roughly one in six households. The ACS questionnaire goes to just one in 46 households, making it a more efficient, less burdensome survey. ACS data must be representative in order to be valid and reliable for all communities and population groups. Therefore, mandatory response to the ACS is a reasonable expectation for those households that receive the questionnaire (most never will!); respondents can be assured that the confidentiality of their personal information will be protected.

MACS is unique, as far as we can tell, as a geographically based, grass-roots coalition in support of census data for the public good. We are having a positive impact, and our voices are being heard. If you are interested in starting a coalition like MACS in your state or community, let us know. We’d love to collaborate with you. You’ll find there are far more voices that support the data in your area than the few who complain about getting the ACS. And you can make a difference supporting this critical public resource – census data.

Joan Naymark
Director, MACS – Minnesotans for the American Community Survey

APDU, the Association of Public Data Users, and manages their Webinar series for 2013.

Ms. Naymark was a member of the Census Advisory Committee from 1995-2011 representing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. She partnered with the Census Bureau regarding business use of American Community Survey and Economic Census data and testified before congressional committees on the importance of the data. Joan was on the steering committee for the National Academies workshop, “The Burdens (and Benefits) of the American Community Survey”, June 2012.

Joan recently founded Minnesotans for the American Community Survey – MACS, to educate the public and Minnesota’s Congressional Delegation about the importance and widespread support for census data to drive sound decisions, investment, grow our economy, and efficiently allocate public and private resources.

Ms. Naymark obtained her B.S. and M.A. degrees in Sociology/Demography magna cum laude from Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington, 1975 and 1979.

Joan Naymark can be reached at:

J.G. Naymark Demographics
4517 Tower Street, Edina, MN 55424

MACS Steering Committee:

The MACS Steering Committee was formed in May 2013. MACS consists of:

  • Susan Brower, Minnesota State Demographer
  • Will Schroeer, Director, Infrastructure for Economic Development, Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce
  • Todd Graham, Principal Forecaster, Metropolitan Council
  • Katie Genedek, Director, Data Dissemination & Outreach, MN Population Center, University of Minnesota

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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