The Census Project Sheds Light on the American Community Survey

The Census Project held an informational briefing, The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey: Ten Years of Delivering Data for Smart Decision-Making, on May 27 that focused on the wide use of data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) and the reasons to support keeping the survey mandatory. COSSA was one of the cosponsors of this event. 

Mary Jo Hoeksema, co-director of the Census Project, provided an overview of the ACS, noting its genesis as a replacement for the long-form census, covering the same topics such as transportation, education and housing, but providing more timely demographic and socio-economic data on a regular basis. She emphasized the broad reliance on ACS data in both the public and private sectors. She also pointed out making the ACS voluntary would harm the quality of the data and increase cost.

Larry Johns, assistant executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, talked about the reasons the Conference opposes cuts in funding for the ACS. He highlighted that the ACS is the only reliable and consistent source of data for all communities and is used by cities and states to make informed decisions. The data is especially important because cities are constantly changing; for example, the growth in New York’s population from 8.2 million to 8.5 million between 2010 and 2014. Therefore, mayors need data to know how to accommodate the needs of their whole population. Data from the ACS is used to allocate $415 billion in federal aid, which serves a critical role in supporting health care, job training, and other needs.

Chris Gerlach, director of Public Policy Research for the International Council of Shopping Centers, called ACS data “the driving force behind every retail real estate development in the U.S.” According to survey findings, “lack of transparent data” was the single largest barrier preventing foreign firms from expanding in many communities in the U.S.. He explained how ACS data help real estate companies to decide “where to build,” “what to build,” and “when to build.” When it comes to the public sector and municipalities, he argued that cities need to aggregate the data and push out the information to attract retailers and developers.

Terry Ao Minnis, director of Census and Voting Programs at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, highlighted the crucial role of accurate ACS data in ensuring the ability of the human rights community to do its job. This includes promoting equal voting rights, especially in marginalized communities, and implementing relevant civil rights laws. She mentioned that ACS data helps identify where the target communities exist, determine where the problems upholding voting rights are, and is particularly important in carrying out Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, which focuses on minority language voters.

Howard Fienberg, director of Government Affairs for the Marketing Research Association, talked about proposals to make ACS response voluntary and some of the other challenges faced by the survey. He praised the high response rate of the ACS, which is over 90 percent. He argued that a voluntary ACS would destroy much of the survey’s value and that the federal government would need to pay much more to boost the response rate. As to the ACS’ other challenges, Fienberg mentioned the burden on respondents’ time, as the survey takes 40-45 minutes to complete, and privacy concerns. Last, he noted that the funding level proposed in the House Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) Appropriations bill this year would likely result in a substantial cut to the ACS, which could reduce its sample size dramatically, affect the accuracy of the data, and leave a lot of rural areas without reliable data.

COSSA intern Jianyi Nie contributed to this post.

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