Legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives to end mandatory participation in the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey could compromise the reliability of statistics used by federal, state and local policymakers to plan for the future, equitably distribute services and measure progress on a variety of benchmarks, local policymakers say.
For instance, when Vancouver considers land rezoning, officials turn to American Community Survey statistics to determine how much land should be designated for single-family and multi-family residences, and commercial and industrial use, said Laura Hudson, the city’s community development director.
Hudson and other Clark County policymakers say that by making results unreliable, House Bill 931 by U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, could render the survey useless.
“I can’t imagine not having it be accurate,” Hudson said. “Worst-case scenario, we would have to do a sample survey ourselves to have the data we needed. That would be very expensive. Who knows if what we did would be the same as other cities? We wouldn’t have comparability across jurisdictions.”
During a hearing in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee this month, Poe argued that the survey should be voluntary, because it’s outside the constitutionally required census and is an unnecessary invasion of privacy. An individual who refuses to participate faces a fine of up to $100, according to Section 221 of the U.S. Code.
“Government makes way too many things mandatory,” said Kelly Parker, chief executive officer of the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce. “I would argue private-sector research companies and marketing companies could do similar research in the community.”
Making the survey optional would decrease participation by at least 20 percent and could double the outcomes’ margin of error, according to an analysis by the Census Bureau.
“A voluntary American Community Survey would reduce the reliability and the chance of skewing the data, depending on who chose to respond and who didn’t,” said Ken Pearrow, Clark County GIS coordinator. “I am concerned it would make the information less useful and less reliable.”
Response rates are 97 percent to 98 percent because the survey is mandatory, according to Census Bureau director Robert Groves. In order to keep participation at the same rate, Congress would have to invest about $66.5 million per year to make home visits to unresponsive survey recipients in order to persuade them to respond, Groves said. That’s unlikely given several years of budget cuts.
Clark County uses the survey’s statistics to divvy out federal community block grants for home improvements for people in poverty and plan for transportation, health department and other services, Pearrow said. The survey also helps the federal government decide how much each state or county receives in federal funds, including community block grants, said Pete Munroe, Clark County housing and community development manager.
The annual survey — the largest in the nation — began in 2005 to replace the long-form census and for the first time, provide continuous annual data on demographic, social, economic and housing characteristics of places as big as the nation and as small as census tracts. The survey also simplified the decennial census by reducing the number of questions respondents have to answer.
More than 3,000 Clark County households and 3.6 million nationwide (about 2.5 percent of the population) receive the survey each year. Results are accumulated and then reported every year, every three years and every five years.
In addition to policymakers, researchers, economists, businesses, nongovernmental organizations and others use the statistics to plan and measure a population’s characteristics. Journalists use the information to report new social trends or to provide wider context for an anecdotal story.
Scott Bailey, regional economist for the state Employment Security Department, said he uses the survey, along with other sources, for his economic studies.
“The American Community Survey is our only tool for tracking a wide range of demographic statistics in Clark County on a consistent basis: population, age, race/ethnicity, language spoken, income, poverty, housing, and on and on,” Bailey said. “I use it all the time. I just made a presentation using ACS data for a five-county economic development planning effort in the (Columbia) Gorge and am slated to make a presentation next month for a four-county planning consortium here in Southwest Washington.”
The Columbia River Economic Development Council uses survey results on a regular basis, said president Lisa Nisenfeld.
“It’s part of calibrating where we stand on a wide variety of demographic issues: Are we increasing household income? How do we compare on high school (diplomas)? Degree achievement? Poverty?” Nisenfeld said. “We have committed to become more outcome-driven, but if we lack the data to describe those outcomes, we are in trouble.”