Taking aim at the Census

You've probably never heard of the American Community Survey. It's on the cutting room floor in Congress. And businesses are not pleased.

Kai Ryssdal: There was a story in the New York Times this weekend that caught our eye, about -- essentially -- data. Last week, Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to get rid of something called the American Community Survey. It's done by the Census Bureau every year. A sampling of households are asked about everything from how local schools are doing, to the number of flush toilets in the average home.

Data, like I said. It helps government planners figure out where to spend money. So they like it. But there's another group trying to keep the survey alive too. Marketplace's John Dimsdale reports from Washington.


John Dimsdale: Did you know that 2.8 percent of Americans walk to work? Or that the median number of rooms in an American home is 5.5? That's from the 2010 American Community Survey of three million random households. The survey asks each household member nearly 50 questions -- revealing occupations, languages spoken and number of refrigerators -- all without identifying individuals.

The data give governments and businesses an important annual snapshot of the economy, according to Maurine Haver, who runs Haver Analytics.

Maurine Haver: A store like Target will use the American Community Survey to figure out where to place their stores.

Transportation officials get warnings when growing housing developments will cause traffic congestion. Grocery stores know where to stock Asian vegetables. Without the information, Haver says it'd be a guessing game.

Haver: You might call it flying blind.

Budget-cutters would rather see a voluntary survey. But Kenneth Prewitt says that's not good enough. He helped start the survey when he was director of the 2000 Census.

Kenneth Prewitt: If the Census is underfunded and its voluntary, data quality will go down. You'll just have higher error terms when you're trying to decide where to put that veterans' hospital or where to put that bilingual teacher.

Prewitt says if participation wasn't mandatory, fewer Americans would fill out the questionnaires. Then Census-takers would have to knock on doors to find the answers, and costs would go even higher.

In Washington, I'm John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

About the author

As head of Marketplace’s Washington, D.C. bureau, John Dimsdale provides insightful commentary on the intersection of government and money for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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