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Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

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

Letter of concern to Congressman Duncan re the horrendously bad HR1638 “Census Reform Act of 2013”

We at FGI have been long-time supporters and agitators for the US Census and its companions, most notably the American Community Survey (ACS) — see for example “Fear, uncertainty, or doubt? Why the Census and ACS are critical to a well-functioning democracy.” So it was a complete shock to the system to learn about the Orwellian bill H.R. 1638: Census Reform Act of 2013 making its way through Congress. And we were so happy to learn that Kathy Karn Carmichael, Documents Librarian/ Instructor of Library Science at the University of South Carolina Aiken was going to be in Washington DC and planned to drop off letters of concern to Congressman Duncan’s office.

My colleague Kris Kasianovitz and I hastily wrote a letter (attached PDF and below), sent it to our University Librarian for approval, and were extremely grateful that he approved it and agreed to add his name to it. We sent a PDF copy to Kathy who added it to her own letter (attached PDF and below), and then sent paper copies to Congressman Duncan, the 14 co-sponsors of the bill, the Chairs and ranking members of the 3 committees taking up the bill, as well as to Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, [D-CA18], Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, [D-CA19] and our 2 Senators Feinstein and Boxer.

But a bill like this demands more than a letter of concern. So we’re posting our letter here on FGI for others to copy/crib and otherwise use as a template for letters of your own and to pass around to friends, family and colleagues, especially to those in districts represented by Congressman Duncan and the other 14 co-sponsors. Kathy has also generously allowed us to post her letter as well. We’d be happy to post copies of others’ letters as well. Help us assure that HR1638 “Census Reform Act of 2013” does not move beyond committee and does not rear its ugly head again.

June 13, 2013
The Honorable Jeff Duncan
116 Cannon House Office Building
United States House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Representative Duncan:

I am writing regarding H.R. 1638, the Census Reform Act. As a librarian in the Federal Depository program, I am opposed to eliminating the various censuses targeted in this legislation. This data provides valuable, free information, not only to the citizens of South Carolina and the entire country, but to local, state, and federal governments so that they may assess the needs of their constituents. Furthermore, it provides information which is not available elsewhere to business leaders, entrepreneurs and researchers.

In addition to my responsibilities as the FDLP coordinator, I am also a reference and instruction librarian at University of South Carolina Aiken. As a frequent user of this data I am able to assist students, faculty, and citizens in this community with their government information research needs. Additionally, I work with clients of the South Carolina Small Business Development Center to help them access government information to prepare business plans or market analyses. Only last week, I was assisting one of their clients with her market analysis. The American Community Survey provided access to data which helped demonstrate the need for a type of healthcare service which is unavailable in our small community and would prevent patients from seeking treatment across the state line in Georgia. You, as a former small business owner, are aware of the challenges in beginning a new business. The ability to access demographic and economic data at no cost which might help these entrepreneurs better understand their target market is vital to ensure their future success.

According to your website, this legislation is in response to complaints by South Carolinians who feel these censuses, in particular the American Community Survey, are too intrusive. Living in the age of social media and electronic information and given the recent revelations regarding the government’s access to private information of its citizens without our knowledge, asking questions about the size of your property or the distance of your commute seems trivial. Eliminating these data collection programs impact all Americans. If implemented it would severely limit the ability of all librarians to assist the constituents of the other 434 members of Congress with accessing timely demographic information. I hope you will reconsider moving forward with this legislation and look for alternative methods to resolve the concerns of your constituents.


Kathy Karn-Carmichael, MLS
University of South Carolina Aiken
Gregg-Graniteville Library
Aiken, SC 29801

June 17, 2013

The Honorable Jeff Duncan
116 Cannon House Office Building
United States House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Congressman Duncan,

We are writing to express our grave concern regarding 113 HR 1638, the “Census Reform Act of 2013,” the bill you introduced on April 18, 2013. This bill, rather than “reforming” the Census, will eliminate the collection of the nation’s most critical statistical instruments and cause the nation irreparable harm in negatively affecting public policy planning, scientific and academic research, and the economy. As we understand it, HR 1638 calls for:

1) The repeal and cancellation of certain census activities including the census of agriculture, census of governments, economic census, etc.;
2) curtailing the Census Bureau from conducting any census, survey, sampling or questionnaire including the American Community Survey (ACS) and rescinding any unobligated moneys to carry out the ACS;
3) prohibiting surveys or questionnaires and limiting statistics collected in a decennial census;
4) Repeal of the Census of Agriculture act of 1997.

The US Census is enshrined in the US Constitution (Article I, Section 2) and was a significant act by our founders of empowering the people over unruly governments. The legality of the Census has been repeatedly affirmed by the courts. The gathering of information is done in accordance with the US Constitution under the authority of Congress and is regulated by other laws and regulations. The various Census instruments – including the American Community Survey (ACS) – are implemented in a careful, public way under the Constitution, the U.S. Code, and the Code of Federal Regulations – all with the approval of the courts.

Today the data gathered by the Census Bureau is used by US citizens, businesses, and researchers and students across the hard- and social sciences and humanities – many of whom access current and historic data in Federal Depository libraries across the country – to measure our economy, know how to adjust spending for and develop social, financial and economic programs, and ensure that we are producing crops and livestock to support consumption and trade.

Here are just some of the uses for Census data :

• Attracting new businesses to state and local areas.
• Forecasting future transportation needs for all segments of the population.
• Planning for hospitals, nursing homes, clinics, and the location of other health services.
• Designing public safety strategies.
• Making business decisions.
• Economic development of rural areas.
• Planning urban land use.
• Creating maps to speed emergency services to households in need of assistance.
• Planning investments and evaluating financial risk.
• Facilitating scientific research.
• Providing evidence in litigation involving land use, voting rights, and equal opportunity.
• Drawing school district boundaries.
• Assessing the potential for spread of communicable diseases.
• Drawing federal, state, and local legislative districts and re-apportioning seats in the House of Representatives.

These data that HR 1638 seeks to destroy underpin and are critical to sound policy-making. Without it, the US Congress, State and local governments, businesses, academia, the American people and the libraries which serve them will be flying blind in terms of public policy, planning and ensuring that the US is on sound economic footing. We strongly urge you to reconsider and withdraw HR 1638.


Michael A. Keller, University Librarian*, Stanford University
James R. Jacobs, FDLP Coordinator, Government Information Librarian*, Stanford University
Kris Kasianovitz, Government Information Librarian*, Stanford University

123D Cecil H. Green Library
Stanford University
Stanford, CA 94305

*title and address used for identification purposes only.

cc Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, [D-CA18] Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, [D-CA19]

Bill co-sponsors: Jason Chaffetz [R-UT3]; Andy Harris [R-MD1]; Walter Jones [R-NC3]; Steve Pearce [R-NM2]; Reid Ribble [R-WI8]; Steve Southerland [R-FL2]; Raúl Labrador [R-ID1]; Thomas Massie [R-KY4]; Bill Posey [R-FL8]; Steve Stockman [R-TX36]; Howard Coble [R-NC6]; Todd Rokita [R-IN4]; Jim Bridenstine [R-OK1]; Austin Scott [R-GA8]

Chairman Steve King and Marcia Fudge, ranking member, House Committee on Agriculture: Department Operations, Oversight, and Nutrition

Chairman Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers [R-KY5] and Ranking Member Rep. Nita Lowey [D-NY17], House Committee on Appropriations

Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa [R-CA49] and Ranking Member Rep. Elijah Cummings [D-MD7]

Senator Diane Feinstein
Senator Barbara Boxer

US Census programs under attack again

Over the last several years, the US Census (including the American Community Survey and the Statistical Abstract of the US) have been under attack — see “Fear, uncertainty, or doubt? Why the Census and ACS are critical to a well-functioning democracy” and “OMB Watch on Census Cuts” for more context. Budgets and funding, only part of the problem mind you, have been the cause of closing down the Census Bureau’s Statistical Compendia unit and ostensibly of the Census Bureau’s recent plan to drop the question on “number of times married” from the American Community Survey (see the single sentence at the end of an otherwise harmless Federal Register notice of request for comments).

Social conservatives and others on the right/libertarian political spectrum have long worried about — if not outright feared — the collection of demographic and other statistics by the US government. So it should come as no surprise that there’s a new bill working its way through the US House of Representatives. H.R. 1638: Census Reform Act of 2013: The bill would eliminate the Census of Agriculture, the Economic Census, Census of Government, any mid-decade Census surveys, and any survey (including the American Community Survey) using survey sampling that does not tie directly to the decennial census of population. The Bill was introduced in the House by Jeff Duncan of South Carolina.

Hearing Tuesday 6/19/12 “Economic Impact of Ending or Reducing Funding for the ACS and other Government statistics”

Finally! I hope all of our DC friends will show up for this Congressional hearing next week entitled, “The Economic Impact of Ending or Reducing Funding for the American Community Survey and other Government Statistics” being held by the Congressional Joint Economic Committee (JEC). As we’ve argued over and over, these types of data/statistics are critical to a well-functioning democracy. Here’s a great chance for the American public to shut down the misguided and unsupported perspectives of Representative Daniel Webster and other politicians of his ilk. Support the ACS and the Census!

The U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee (JEC), will hold a hearing entitled, “The Economic Impact of Ending or Reducing Funding for the American Community Survey and other Government Statistics,” at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 19, 2012, in room 210 of the Cannon House Office Building.

WHAT: Hearing on “The Economic Impact of Ending or Reducing Funding for the American Community Survey and other Government Statistics”

WHO: Mr. Kenneth Simonson, Chief Economist
The Associated General Contractors of America and Vice President,
National Association for Business Economics
Washington, DC

The Honorable Vincent P. Barabba, Former Director of the Census Bureau (1973-1976;
1979-1981) and Current Chairman
Market Insight Corporation
Capitola, CA

The Honorable Keith Hall, Senior Research Fellow
Mercatus Center at George Mason University and former Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor
Arlington, Virginia

The Honorable Grant D. Aldonas, Principal Managing Director
Split Rock International
Washington, DC

WHEN: 2:30 p.m., Tuesday, June 19, 2012

WHERE: 210 Cannon House Office Building

Fear, uncertainty, or doubt? Why the Census and ACS are critical to a well-functioning democracy

[UPDATE 7/10/12: We have received a few flame comments against the ACS which have been deleted without being published. Only comments — pro or con — that are actually reasoned with cited references in support of their argument will be published. Flames do nothing to forward the conversation and will not be tolerated. FGI editors]

Recently we posted about a petition to save the American Community Survey. We received the following comment from reader “David”:

What a joke this article is. Social infrastructure and welfare distribution worked just fined [sic] without the ACS, which by the way only officially began in 2000. If there is a ‘demographics information’ demand, the market will provide that information, it is not the role of the government to provide that kind of luxury.

Besides the ACS and the long arm [sic] (its older brother) Census are not constitutionally mandated. But I guess if your [sic] into big gov, dem or repub you don’t care about constitutional boundaries.

Normally we would simply delete this comment because FGI isn’t a forum for attacking or defending long-established, legal, respected, government information gathering policies. Unfortunately, this comment is similar to many others we see on the web every day about the Census and similar government information programs. You can hardly find a blog post or newspaper article about the census without also finding a comment very much like this one. They share factual inaccuracies, inflammatory accusations, unsubstantiated assertions, falacious slippery slope arguments, and a fervent distrust of government. In short, these arguments display classic characteristics that marketers and propagandists use to spread Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD).

It is, of course, impossible to know the motives behind any given individual or comment, but it is probably reasonable to assume that professional politicians and organizations are aware of what they are doing and some individuals are victims of FUD and are repeating what cynical politicians have told them. Regardless of the intentions behind this comment and those like it, it is surely true that they are at best misguided and at worst intentionally misleading.

So, we decided to take the time to respond to these kinds of arguments against the ACS and the Census. We think it might be helpful to document why we believe ACS is both legal and good.

Some Context

Although there have always been some people who express doubts and fears about the Census (Callahan), recently some conservative and libertarian politicians are pushing hard to turn these doubts and fears into policy (Canadian Press). It is reported that Britain will drop its census (UPI) and Canada has already scrapped its own long-form Census (Roman) — prompting the head of Statistics Canada to resign in protest (Proudfoot). In the U.S., in addition to the bill before Congress (H.R. 5326) that would kill the ACS, the Republican National Committee has described the Census Bureau as behaving like “a scam artist” and recommended (RNC) that the American Community Survey be eliminated (which is what H.R. 5326 does), dumbed-down to make it less accurate (which is what Canada has done to its long-form census), or make the ACS no longer mandatory (Groves) .

What this means is that, although censuses have long been an accepted part of modern governments world-wide and most countries conduct regular censuses of their populations (ESRC), there are those, not just in the U.S., who are actively trying to shut down (Seife) or dumb-down (Milligan) national censuses.

When I told a friend I was working on this post, she said, “Oh, no! You’re not trying to correct the Internet, are you?” (Munroe). No, this isn’t about silly internet debates. This is about an actual, current political attack on something that, until very recently, almost everyone took as a noble and important part of any functioning government.

Getting the Facts Right

If we are to discuss the efficacy of the census, the first thing we have to do is get our facts right. Let’s look at some of the claims that David and others like him make about the Census and the ACS.

Claims about ACS

David gets the facts wrong in a very specific way that — if he were accurate — would strengthen his case. But he is not correct when he says, “Social infrastructure and welfare distribution worked just fined without the ACS, which by the way only officially began in 2000.”

The Facts. What is actually true is that the ACS replaced the “long-form” questionnaire that had been a part of the decennial census since 1940. The Bureau has conducted longer surveys to gather more detailed information than the decennial census since 1850 (Yglesias). The ACS is part of a long history of the government gathering social and demographic information. The ACS is not a new program that suddenly sprang up in 2000. In fact, the Bureau began testing the ACS methodology in 1996 and the first ACS was in 2005, (not 2000) (GAO).

Claims about Constitutionality and legality

Those who fight to cancel or reduce the accuracy or scope of the Census often claim that it is unconstitutional or otherwise illegal. The RNC makes this claim and says the Census excedes its Constitutionally mandated “scope” (RNC). David writes that “the ACS and the long arm [sic] (its older brother) Census are not constitutionally mandated.”

The Facts. The legality of the Census has been repeatedly affirmed by the courts. The gathering of information is done in accordance with the Constitution under the authority of Congress and is regulated by other laws and regulations. It is essential to understand just how important this is. Neither the Census nor the ACS is a wild and crazy abuse of power. It is implemented in a careful, public way under the Constitution, the U.S. Code, and the Code of Federal Regulations — all with the approval of the courts.

As the Bureau notes, putting the Census in the Constitution (Article I, Section 2) was a significant act of empowering the people over unruly governments:

Enshrining this invention in our Constitution marked a turning point in world history. Previously censuses had been used mainly to tax or confiscate property or to conscript youth into military service. The genius of the Founders was taking a tool of government and making it a tool of political empowerment for the governed over their government. (Census Bureau “Constitution”)

The Constitution is, of course, just the starting point of our system of checks and balances designed to prevent abuse. It authorizes our elected representatives to create laws to carry out what the Constitution enables. Congress enacted 13 U.S.C. § 141 which requires a decennial census of population and authorizes The Secretary of Commerce “to obtain such other census information as necessary.” The law goes further with its checks and balances by requiring the Bureau to notify Congress of what subjects it will address:

Title 13, U.S. Code, does not specify which subjects or questions are to be included in the decennial census. However, it does require the Census Bureau to notify Congress of general census subjects to be addressed 3 years before the decennial census and the actual questions to be asked 2 years before the decennial census. (Census Bureau “Constitution”)

The Congressional law is further implemented by regulations which are created by professionals under the supervision of Presidential appointees, announced to the public for comment in the Federal Register, and codified in the Code of Federal Regulations. In the case of the Census, regulations appear in four CRF Titles: 15, 19, 22, 39 (Cornell).

The Government Accountability Office has determined that The Bureau has the authority under 13 U.S.C. § 141 and 13 U.S.C. § 193 to conduct the ACS (GAO). The information gathering also conforms to the Paperwork Reduction Act, the Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency Act, and the Privacy Act.

All these laws and regulations are subject to further checks and balances through reviews by the courts. The Bureau notes that the courts have repeatedly confirmed the legality of the Census:

On numerous occasions, the courts have said the Constitution gives Congress the authority to collect statistics in the census. As early as 1870, the Supreme Court characterized as unquestionable the power of Congress to require both an enumeration and the collection of statistics in the census. The Legal Tender Cases, Tex.1870; 12 Wall., U.S., 457, 536, 20 L.Ed. 287. In 1901, a District Court said the Constitution’s census clause (Art. 1, Sec. 2, Clause 3) is not limited to a headcount of the population and “does not prohibit the gathering of other statistics, if ‘necessary and proper,’ for the intelligent exercise of other powers enumerated in the constitution, and in such case there could be no objection to acquiring this information through the same machinery by which the population is enumerated.” United States v. Moriarity, 106 F. 886, 891 (S.D.N.Y.1901). (Census Bureau “Constitution”)

In short, those who claim that the Census or the ACS are not legal are wrong.

Claims about proper role of government

David says, “If there is a ‘demographics information’ demand, the market will provide that information, it is not the role of the government to provide that kind of luxury.”

The Facts. Is collecting demographic information a “luxury” and an improper role of government? This is, of course, a matter of opinion, but the facts suggest that having official statistics makes government more efficient and effective and provides information useful to the private sector. Making government effective and efficient shouldn’t be considered a luxury by anyone, should it? (We’ll examine separately below whether or not “the market” could provide this information.)

The gathering of census information is widely recognized as an essential role of government. The private sector supports this activity (Jacobs). The Wall Street Journal calls conducting the ACS a “useful government purpose.” The Economist notes that the ACS “helps target government spending on those who need it most.” Business Week points out that the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Business Economists, and even conservative think tanks like the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation support the public collection of data (Philips). Non-profits and social organizations agree (Baker).

The Decennial Census and American Community Survey are critical not only for “demographics” and Congressional apportionment, but for public policy analysis at the Federal, state and local levels. Policy makers can’t know how their policies are affecting citizens without data — and citizens can’t know how they are being affected by their elected officials’ policies without data! Even Republican mayors and governors say that Census data help them run their states and cities more efficiently (Loth). Elimination of the ACS would not only make government less efficient, but it would eliminate a critical tool for profit-driven businesses (Hogue). The National Retail Federation told Congress that they wanted a mandatory ACS (Shearman). The ACS is even more important now because the long form of the decennial census was discontinued for the 2010 census. (The long form, by the way, used to be required of one household in six; the ACS questionnaire goes to just one in 46.) The ACS and the Census, rather than being “big gov” (with the implication that “big” is always “bad”), actually do much to keep costs down and assure that governments are spending in a wise and targeted fashion.

So, The Census and the ACS are critical tools for a well-functioning country. Which leads us to our next question: Should we leave it to “the market” to provide us those tools?

Claims about The Market

David says, “If there is a ‘demographics information’ demand, the market will provide that information.”

The Facts: Although there are lots of private sector companies that repackage government-provided information and combine it with privately gathered information, there is no evidence that the private sector wants to or can gather the kind of information that the government does. In contrast, see above all the business groups and businesses and business press that are supporters of the ACS and the Census.

But this argument also goes against common sense. Imagine if the government stopped collecting the demographic information that it uses to monitor and run government programs and that businesses use to make business decisions. There would be only two alternative scenarios. First, some or all of that data would go uncollected. That would clearly be bad for everyone. Second, the private sector would collect at least some of the data. This raises a host of questions, though: What data would ‘the market’ value and collect and what data would be deemed by the market as inessential? Would ‘market’ data be collected, but data that help governments operate efficiently and effectively be left uncollected? What price would ‘the market’ charge for the data and who would have access to it or be denied access because of costs? Would privacy of respondents be respected? Would there be any transparency or public accountability for market-gathered information the way there is for government-gathered data? Would respondents be more likely to trust business surveys than government surveys and what effect would that have on the accuracy of those surveys?

In short, claiming that ‘the market’ can adequately serve the very real needs of government and businesses while providing accurate, affordable information is a claim without support and a claim that is contradicted by the business community itself and by common sense.

Claims about privacy

A favorite claim of those who oppose the ACS and the Census in general is that these surveys are an invasion of citizens’ privacy. (David doesn’t bring up this point, but it commonly made, so we want to address it here.) The RNC says, for example, that “ACS is an invasion of privacy that demands detailed personal information that the government has no business seeking, knowing, or compiling” and that the Census Bureau is “conducting a dangerous invasion of privacy” and that the Bureau is “violat[ing] the rights and invad[ing] the personal privacy of United States Citizens.” These claims are often linked to descriptions of possible, not actual, abuses of power. For example, Ron Paul asks us to “imagine the countless malevolent ways our federal bureaucrats could use this information,” and others ask us to imagine “the new American police state” (Loth). David B. Kopel, an associate policy analyst at the Cato Institute, piled on the hypotheticals as far back as 1990, saying the Bureau would “probably” help the Department of Justice and that it “may not even keep its word.” Kopel also repeats the story of the federal government’s using census data to locate citizens of Japanese descent and imprisoning them in concentration camps.

The Facts. 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. Disclosure of confidential Census information is punishable by prison and fines (Census Bureau “Principles”). It cannot share confidential information even with other agencies.

It is against the law for any Census Bureau employee to disclose or publish any private information that identifies an individual or business. This is true even for inter-agency communication: the FBI and other government entities do not have legal right to access census information. In fact, these protections have been challenged, Title 13’s privacy and confidentiality guarantees have been upheld.

In addition, other federal laws, including the Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency Act and the Privacy Act, reinforce these protections. (Census Bureau “Privacy”)

The purpose of the Census is to create aggregate information, not personal information. In other words, it profiles states, cities, and communities, not individuals, by aggregating (summarizing) the information it gathers from individuals. The personal, individual information is confidential and is not disclosed. The summaries are what we all use every day when we want to know the population of a city of the change in population over time and so forth. The Bureau uses sophisticated statistical procedures to ensure that information about an individual cannot be gleaned from the summary information about cities and communities that it publishes (Census Bureau “Safeguards”).

The story of the federal government using census data to locate citizens of Japanese descent in 1942 is at least partially true, but the Census critics oversimplify the facts to the point of making misleading arguments and draw, what I believe to be, the wrong conclusions from it. Until recently, the Bureau has maintained that it did not divulge any confidential information to aid in internment. The Bureau maintained that it did not provide information on individuals, but that it did produce public, summary reports that identified neighborhoods where Japanese-Americans lived (Holmes). The Bureau officially acknowledged and apologized for this activity in 2000 (Watanabe). But a paper published in 2007 (Seltzer and Anderson) says that there is now evidence that the Bureau did, in 1943, provide to the Secret Service information on 79 individuals in the Washington D.C. area. The disclosures were legal at the time (Watanabe). Seltzer and Anderson also say this:

“However, over time, and certainly in retrospect, Census Bureau came to realize that the provision of information gathered under a pledge of statistical confidentiality to law enforcement and intelligence agencies was antithetical to the Bureau’s statistical mission…. In the post World War II period, the Census Bureau vigorously sought to end the confidentiality violations sanctioned by the Second War Powers Act.”

What lessons can we draw from this experience? I personally believe that the Bureau should not have provided special and personal information during World War II, and am heartened by the fact that the Bureau worked to close confidentiality loopholes in the law. But I am disheartened by the fact that, as recently as 2004, the Bureau provided specially tabulated population statistics on Arab Americans to the Department of Homeland Security (Watanabe). Although the disclosures were legal and only included summary statistics using already-public data, this strikes me as an example of how there are still those who will use “national security” to justify the use of Census data to try to identify individuals.

In short, misuse of Census data has been extremely rare (are there any others than these two?). Misuse of Census data is not a common or recurring or systemic problem. Because the Bureau has a long history of systematic and professional protection of the confidentiality of Census records (see legal and procedural safeguards above and, for example, Benson), hypothesizing worst-case scenarios is more misleading than it is useful or informative.


I draw two conclusions from all this: First, the benefits of gathering the information with the Census and the ACS far outweigh the possible, but unlikely, abuses of that information. Second, I would rather have this kind of information gathered (as it is being done) under the Constitution, the U.S. Code, and the Code of Federal Regulations by elected officials and public servants under transparent conditions, than by un-accountable private-sector companies.