THE US Census Bureau has a 220-year record of not abusing the public trust. So why go after the agency now, as the recent House appropriations bill does?
The bill, which passed the Republican-controlled House in May, strikes the Census Bureau in two ways. It provides only $625 million for “periodic censuses and programs,” such as the 2012 Economic Census. That’s $86 million less than the White House requested and $64 million less than the Census Bureau had available for such programs last year. More problematically, the bill prohibits the use of any of the money to conduct the American Community Survey, or ACS.
This survey replaced the census long form, which began in 1940 and made its swan song in 2000. The long form was mailed to about 1 in 6 households, asking the household’s “primary” resident 53 questions, and it seemed to burden too many Americans. So the Census Bureau replaced it with the ACS, which was mailed to 1 in 40 households annually, asking 48 questions of each primary household resident.
The information it provides is invaluable, and not just to researchers; voters need knowledge to choose their government. Our legislative leaders — including Scott Brown, whose support could prove important — should strongly defend the census.
Some objections to the ACS focus on its mandatory nature, but high response rates are crucial for survey accuracy. In practice, the Census Bureau is hardly heavy-handed. While people who fail to fill out the survey are subject to a $5,000 fine, the bureau also acknowledges that it isn’t a prosecuting agency and that a fine is highly unlikely. This combination reminds me of unfortunate parenting moments, where I’ve threatened a toothless punishment to encourage better behavior.
The most sensitive data in the ACS have to do with income, but we hand over far more sensitive information to the Internal Revenue Service. There’s no evidence the Census Bureau misuses the information in its custody.
I have spent much of my life working with census data, often relying on the long form. I am an unpaid but sworn census agent, a status that has occasionally allowed me to work with non-public information from the economic census. House Republicans should not fear the truth that statistics reveal: Census-related work that I’ve done with other researchers has documented not just declining levels of racial segregation since 1970, but also a strong correlation between private entrepreneurship and local economic growth.
Meanwhile, we can imagine a world without the community survey, by considering our knowledge of America before 1940, when the census long form began. Before that year, we have little knowledge of income or education or housing values across the country as a whole. Old tax records provide limited data on the very rich, but otherwise we see our country through a dim lens.
Suddenly in 1940, the light of data shines. The long form teaches us that education predicts economic growth and that places with high incomes see less income growth over time. It also documents how wealth and poverty are dispersed within the country and how housing prices are determined. We should not voluntarily return to darkness.
The House’s attempt to cut costs is more understandable. A blog post titled “A Future Without Key Social and Economic Statistics for the Country” by Census Director Robert Groves seems a bit overwrought, given that the cut is 9.2 percent relative to last year’s available funding. The agency should explain better what America gets for the amount of money in question. Indeed, it and all agencies should present Congress with a spending menu. What is the least we would lose with less spending and the best we could get with more? Such a menu should help build support for more spending.
In 1790, James Madison proposed that the nascent census be “extended so as to embrace some other objects besides the bare enumeration of the inhabitants,” which would provide “an opportunity of marking the progress of the society, and distinguishing the growth of every interest,” and “furnish ground for many useful calculations.” Whatever mistakes the US government has made, the census is not one of them. The census and the ACS both deserve our support.
Edward L. Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard University, is author of “The Triumph of the City.’’ His column appears regularly in the Globe.