House Continues Assault on Cities by Defunding ACS

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 232-190 to defund the American Community Survey (ACS), one of the Census Bureau’s most significant demographic data-collection programs in addition to the decennial census.  The ACS, conducted annually, effectively replaced the long-form of the census and provides important data to planners and policymakers at every level of government.  The program’s elimination is just one assault in a long line of legislative actions against transit and cities by the House.

The impetus for the cut is that the ACS is too prying and too costly.  What supporters of the bill are forgetting, however, is that the data the ACS provides informs how hundreds of billions of dollars are spent and which programs they go to, including those that concern transit, housing, and urban infrastructure.   Elimination of funding not only has a major impact on public policy, but would also effectively kill academic research and private economic development programs vital to the health of cities.  The Atlantic has a good synopsis on what kind of effects this move has:

The issue is that the information collected in the ACS is used heavily by the federal government to figure out where it will spend a huge chunk of its money. In a 2010 report for the Brookings Institution, Andrew Reamer found that in the 2008 fiscal year, 184 federal domestic assistance programs used ACS-related datasets to help determine the distribution of more than $416 billion in federal funding. The bulk of that funding, more than 80 percent, went directly to fund Medicaid, highway infrastructure programs and affordable housing assistance.

Reamer, now a research professor George Washington University’s Institute of Public Policy, also found that the federal government uses the ACS to distribute about $100 billion annually to states and communities for economic development, employment, education and training, commerce and other purposes. He says that should the ACS be eliminated, it would be very difficult to figure out how to distribute this money where it’s needed.

House Republicans are forgetting that there is a lot of money, both private and public, directly and indirectly attached to the ACS.  While the Senate won’t likely reciprocate defunding the program, this move puts the program in a dangerous political crossfire that jeopardizes funding for cities whenever voters feel like electing someone new every election cycle. That makes it a risk too great to toy with.  Call your congresspersons today to oppose the cut.

Comments

  1. Cascadian says

    What’s the likelihood that this will get through the Senate? My default assumption is that this is an election-year ploy that will never actually pass, and so I shouldn’t worry about it. Am I just in denial?

  2. Doug Bostrom says

    Ignorance is bliss? What we don’t know can’t hurt us?

    Perhaps we can find a revenue-neutral way of funding scientific investigation into the Great Cloud of Suffocating Stupid we’re currently living beneath.

    • Ben Schiendelman says

      When we can’t show that people are moving into dense areas more and more, we lose a big part of the ability to fund urban projects over sprawl-generation projects. :(

  3. Zach Cochran says

    I approve of this, actually. I’m not comfortable with a gigantic federal study deciding how money (and often, money that’s been filtered through an extensive federal bureaucracy at heavy cost) is spent here in Seattle. Seattle’s needs are best met by Seattle, not by Washington DC. The very fact that Republicans in the House are able to take away funding from Seattle transit lies in the reality that we gave them that power in the first place.

    This will reduce the size and control of a far-off entity to determine Seattle’s transit destiny. Let’s keep it here.

    • Kyle S. says

      Unless you feel like upending the entire funding structure of the republic, all that killing the ACS is going to do is make it difficult to correctly spend the money that the federal government is already collecting and will continue to collect.

    • says

      The argument is often made here and in other blogs that cities end up with less money than the revenue they contribute.

      If so, then Seattle and cities should welcome any reduction in the size of central government so that they can retain more of their revenue for themselves.

      As for myself, I think what it would be like if people here in Kent could take some the thousands of dollars paid each year in federal income tax, sales tax and so on…and use it directly…right in the neighborhoods.

      • Aleks says

        The problem is that this is *not* a reduction in size of the federal government, but rather a change in scope. Every penny not spent on the ACS will be redirected towards conservative/rural priorities, such as farm subsidies, highways, and military spending. Those programs seem to have a way of always growing, even (especially!) under “anti-tax” conservatives.

      • Nathanael says

        Yeah, the thing is, for the last 40 years, only left-wingers ever try to create “small government”. Right-wingers LOVE Big Government, and don’t you forget it; any statements to the contrary are just the usual lies. You can tell the truth by their constant demands to increase the already-bloated military budget, and their repeated attempts to have government investigators in everyone’s bedrooms.

    • Erik G. says

      I’m all for selling the slave states to the French as we should have in 1861.

    • james says

      You are confused – the ACS simply provides local governments with data so they can make better decisions. It’s not “some federal study”, it’s data that is needed for good public policy.

      • Bernie says

        Data that I think is available from multiple other sources, if anybody really cares. You have school enrollment, L&I stats, etc. Running this survey every year is simple TMI. It’s essentially a subside to bureaucrats.

      • Nathanael says

        Much of this data is not available anywhere else. The other studies which used to give similar data have mostly been defunded over the last decade.

        And it is very important to have yearly surveys. There’s no way to tell a trend from a blip if you only do your survey every ten years.

    • Ben Schiendelman says

      Zach, the money that isn’t spent on urban projects just ends up spent on rural and suburban projects. This doesn’t reduce the size of government at all.

      • Aleks says

        The problem is that it’s the Republicans, not the Democrats, who understand the urban archipelago. When the Republicans wage war on us, we simply sit back and take it.

        I, for one, am sick of this shit.

      • Nathanael says

        But the Republican electeds don’t actually understand *anything*. Point: Scott Walker in Wisconsin deliberately defunded a bunch of rural farm programs. The Republican electeds aren’t even bothering to appeal to their voters any more.

        The reason why rural areas are voting Republican is that they have a lack of Internet service, and Republicans have bought all the TV stations and radio stations, and most of the newspapers. That’s really all there is to it. Republicans aren’t actually doing any good for rural areas; information bias is the only possible reason for rural people to keep voting Republican.

  4. Mike Orr says

    They’re not forgetting at all. They want to eliminate all those other programs too because they’re socialist, market-distorting, dependency-creating, etc. Except highway funding, but I’m sure they can think of an alternate formula for highway-funding distributions. And if, in the interim before those other programs are killed, the agencies have complete freedom to decide how to distribute the money without guidelines to go by, it wouldn’t be the first time.

  5. Austin says

    Good riddance (if it makes it past the other hurdles). Great to how many and where; nobody’s business what color and income.

    • Kyle S. says

      You don’t think the United States has a valid interest in the ethnic and economic makeup of its constituency?

      How do you serve your constituents if you don’t know who they are?

      • Austin says

        I believe we have different views of the role a lawmaker fills. I sure wouldn’t want to be the minority constituent in your America.

      • Kyle S. says

        I think you’re intentionally misunderstanding my point.

        The ACS is what tells us who and where our minority populations are.

  6. Jason Barbour says

    Some of my other indirect sources tell me there are many bills in both houses that have no chance of passing, it’s General Election fodder for future attack ads (ex: “Rep. such-and-such voted against making government efficient, so vote for the other candidate”).

    The ACS also provides the entire country with standardized data. For those familiar with the Census’ American Fact Finder site, most of that information is from the ACS, not the decennial census. Imagine just how much more expensive it would be for local governments if they were given an unfunded mandate to have a consultant produce similar data, then have to defend how the data is statistically similar to everywhere else in the country.

    And I realize there are other “sources” of data out there… usually there’s a statement buried deep within their fine print that the data is actually from the U.S. Census Bureau (read: ACS) and recompiled by that company.

    It would not surprise me in the slightest if the most efficient, consistent, transparent way of collecting such data is… the ACS/U.S. Census Bureau.

    • Nathanael says

      There used to be some other major studies, but they’ve all been cut back. The General Social Survey is only every other year now.

  7. Mike Orr says

    There is a belief among libertarians that the sole legitimate job of the Census is to count the number of people in each state. Tracking income or ethnicity or the number of toilets per house is constitutionally suspect. That’s the most basic impetus for this bill. The second impetus, as I said above, is that these statistics lead to thinking about inequality and government grants to minimize it and people voting for politicians who will do so, and the anti-ACS people reject all of these, so it’s a good way to kill four birds with one stone.



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