URBAN NATION: Defending the American Community Survey

URBAN NATION: Defending the American Community Survey

Anyone who has ever written a graduate thesis on gentrification has relied on ACS data. Credit: Flickr user The Bees

Urban Nation is an occasional column by Ben Adler, NAC’s federal correspondent, on the latest urban-related policy issues in Washington.

Republicans in Congress have mobilized to eliminate one of the most important and cost-effective federal programs for cities: The American Community Survey (ACS).

For those unfamiliar with the ACS, here’s a summary from the New York Times:

“Each year the Census Bureau polls a representative, randomized sample of about three million American households about demographics, habits, languages spoken, occupation, housing and various other categories. The resulting numbers are released without identifying individuals, and offer current demographic portraits of even the country’s tiniest communities.”

This data is in turn used by cities, and the people who study cities, to understand important demographic changes. Without this information, you cannot know if a neighborhood is getting richer or poorer, or more unequal, or more or less populated, or suffering white flight to the suburbs or filling in with immigrants (and if so, where they came from). Anyone who has ever written a graduate thesis on gentrification has relied on ACS data.

The federal government as well as state, county and city governments rely on ACS data. Education dollars must go where there are students, anti-poverty dollars must go where there are poor people and roads must be built where people are moving. A 2010 study by the Brookings Institution found that “In [fiscal year] 2008, 184 federal domestic assistance programs used ACS-related datasets to help guide the distribution of $416 billion, 29 percent of all federal assistance.” This includes funding for everything from Medicaid to transportation.

Claiming that the ACS invades people’s privacy, the House of Representatives voted last month to eliminate it. If congressional Republicans succeeded in abolishing the ACS’s vital data collection, cities would be rendered incapable of allocating resources in a number of crucial ways.

For example, the ACS collects information on what languages are spoken in the homes they survey. That means cities with large and constantly changing immigrant populations know what language abilities are in each area and can target them accordingly, from posting signs in other languages to assigning translators in public hospitals.

“People who deliver services to the elderly need to know if they speak English, if they’re literate,” says Joe Salvo, director of the population division at the New York City Department of City Planning. “A few years ago the Fire Department came to us and asked where the people who don’t know English are, because a lot of new immigrants don’t know about smoke alarms. They needed to know where to go and what languages are spoken.”

The ACS collects information on what languages are spoken in the homes they survey. Credit: ACS

The ACS can actually be used to help immigrants assimilate. “The Office of Immigrant Affairs just came to us asking for data on immigrants who are not naturalized in an effort to reach out to them and help them become citizens,” says Salvo. “In order to reach out they need to know where the clusters are. You can’t reach out to the entire city. We have limited resources.”

The City Planning Department itself uses ACS data every time they consider rezoning an area. “Whenever you contemplate changes, knowing who is in those neighborhoods has to have a demographic backdrop,” says Salvo. “Our planners know who is in the neighborhoods where changes are being proposed. ACS is the only source of that data.”

ACS data also helps cities attract corporate investment. Companies need more detailed and current information than the short-form decennial Census provides on whether there is sufficient population density and adequate income to form a consumer base, or an available workforce, before opening a business.

“Companies that come to New York and want to do business here, it’s always target marketing, where is the population that is going to consume what you are providing,” says Salvo. “There’s nothing that exists at a local level except the ACS.”

The Democratic Senate is not likely to go along with any effort to eliminate the ACS, nor is President Obama. But all spending bills must originate in the House, and if Republicans really wanted a showdown over the ACS, they could simply refuse to pass any budget that allocates funding for it. Probably they won’t force the issue in an election year: Either they are just doing this symbolically, or they will pursue the death-by-one-thousand-cuts approach they often take to disfavored programs such as food stamps.

Republicans have also proposed making responding to the ACS voluntary. This may sound like a compromise, but it would effectively destroy the program. “Canada made its long form [census] voluntary and they had to increase the sample by 65 percent, something that is not going to happen here,” notes Salvo. “It would increase the cost so dramatically that an increase that size would not be feasible in this budget environment. It would be equivalent to eliminating it.”

Without the ACS, city deparments would be left with a combination of incomplete data sets and guesswork. Credit: Flickr user wentzy

If Republicans win control of the Senate and presidency in November, then the ACS could very well be on the chopping block. It would make governing all the more harder: The ACS is how we know where there is a concentration of poverty, or where there is a boom in children under 18. If your city’s department of youth services wants to target its summer jobs program to communities with the greatest need, it uses ACS data. Without the ACS they would be left with a combination of incomplete data sets and guesswork.

The same is true of research organizations that help cities make policy. “We use the ACS to update our housing and transportation affordability estimates,” says Scott Bernstein, president of the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago. “People use those to re-program money.”

Even the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page scolded the House GOP for letting ideology get in the way of business. The Journal made essentially two points: That governmental efficiency is good, and that the ACS is useful to the private sector as well.

Some federal programs — the Surface Transportation Law, for example — are not mere charity. They actually enable both the private and public sectors to do their own jobs more efficiently. They generate more money than they cost. The ACS is one such program, and even conservatives should see the value in it.

Ben Adler is a journalist in New York. He is a former reporter for Grist, The Nation, Newsweek and Politico, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian and The New Republic.

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Tags: washington, d.c.governancetechnology

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