Arizona congressman Paul Gosar has introduced a bill that would prohibit federal funds from being used to collect data about housing and racial disparities. Is his move a precursor to an attack on the ACS? Image by Gage Skidmore licensed under Creative Commons.

Since Donald Trump took office, there has been a lot of concern about his administration restricting government agencies from collecting and publishing data. Now, Congress is pushing to keep federal dollars from being used to collect data about housing and racial disparities in the US. Is this a precursor to an attack on one of the most important functions of the United States Census?

In a Streetsblog post a couple weeks ago, Angie Schmitt reported on the Local Zoning Protection Act, a bill introduced by Arizona Republican Paul Gosar that would "curtail the production and distribution of data about racial segregation." She then interviewed David King, a transportation and land use researcher at Arizona State University.

"King," Schmitt wrote, "thinks this attack on research is a preview of what’s to come under Trump and the GOP Congress." During the interview, King referred specifically to data collection effort run by the US Census called the American Community Survey.

The Census is required by the Constitution, but the actual requirement is only a count of the total population of each state every ten years so the government knows how to apportion taxes and seats in the House of Representatives  However, since it first started in 1790, the Census has collected other demographic data as well. 

Traditionally, this data was collected as part of the every-ten-years Census but, since 2005, the Census Bureau has collected most of its non-population data via the ACS. On a rolling basis, the survey asks questions like whether or not anyone in the household has graduated from college, how many vehicles a household owns, or even how many computers or smart phones are in the house.

Information from the ACS helps governments and businesses make big decisions

Census demographic data is used to help make government policy by providing information about the needs of different communities: the Federal government allocates over $500 billion each year based on funding formulas that depend on data from the American Community Survey. 

This includes info that tells leaders where new transportation projects should be located (which comes from looking at commuting patterns) or where extra educational opportunities are (which comes from looking at how how many people in a given area have reached a certain level of schooling).

For example, Dan used ACS data to make this map of how many people in various places in our region commute by bus and how close they live to Metro, and this chart of the percentage of people in various cities who bike to work comes from ACS data too. A few years ago, Dan Reed used ACS data to tell us how many of Montgomery County's homes are single-family detached houses. 

And the government is hardly the only user: social science researchers depend on the data, and the business community uses it to make investment and advertising decisions. Businesses use the ACS to make decisions about where to locate. A store owner can choose the best location, for example, if she knows where customers more likely to use her products live. Also, thanks to the ACS, universities or other research groups can study things on a regional or national scale without having to put together nationwide resources together to collect the data.

The business community in particular has a history of being a vocal supporter of the American Communities Survey and other federal government surveys and statistical data collection that provide economic data.

Republicans in Congress want to cut the ACS's funding

In recent years, Republicans have attacked the American Community Survey, along with other Census efforts to collect data beyond a basic population count, as intrusive: in 2012, House Republicans voted overwhelmingly to defund the survey.  In 2014 and 2015, Congressional Republicans supported legislation that would have made responding to the survey voluntary, effectively reducing its sample size and potentially biasing results. 

More recently, the "‘Local Zoning Decisions Protection Act of 2017", which was introduced into committee in both the House and the Senate in January, would ban Federal funds from being used to "design, build, maintain, utilize, or provide access to a Federal database of geospatial information on community racial disparities or disparities in access to affordable housing."

In the new session, House Republicans have already been pushing to lower the bureau's budget, even as it needs to ramp up activities to prepare for the 2020 Census.

So far, it is unclear what the Trump administration's approach to the Census Bureau will be, but Trump's pick to head the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney, has expressed opposition to the American Community Survey and a desire to make it voluntary. Also, both the commerce secretary and the Census Bureau's director— both presidential appointees—have the power to add or remove questions, meaning executive action can gut the ACS.

The ACS is an important tool for everybody. As of now, it's not going anywhere, but the odds that it comes under attack don't seem all that long either. If we do away with it, real issues that affect people all over the country will be much harder to tackle.

Tagged: census

Dan Rowlands is an adjunct chemistry professor and Prince George’s County native, currently living in College Park. More of their writing on transportation-related and other topics can be found on their website.  They also write on DC transportation and demographic issues for the DC Policy Center, where they are a Fellow.  In their spare time, they volunteer for Prince George’s Advocates for Community-Based Transit.  However, the views expressed here are their own.

Canaan Merchant was born and raised in Powhatan, Virginia and attended George Mason University where he studied English. He became interested in urban design and transportation issues when listening to a presentation by Jeff Speck while attending GMU. He lives in Falls Church.