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ASA requests that American Community Survey remain mandatory

Honorable Danny Davis, Ranking Member
Subcommittee on Health Care, District of Columbia,
Census and National Archives
Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
Washington, DC 20515

March 5, 2012

Dear Ranking Member Davis:

The American Sociological Association appreciates the opportunity to share our views about the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), an innovation that has greatly benefited social science researchers, policy makers, and the communities they both serve.

The growth and rapid demographic shifts of our nation’s population highlight the need for the nationwide collection of community-based data more frequently than every 10 years. The innovation of introducing the ACS in place of the decennial census long form has been a outstandingly important effort to meet this national need. To preserve the value of the ACS and the benefits it has brought to the American people and their communities, the ACS should continue to be mandatory.

Recent reports confirm what most social scientists’ research experience would predict, namely that response rates to a voluntary ACS would drop significantly from those under a mandatory system. To maintain response levels under a voluntary system that are necessary to produce reliable estimates at the community level, which is a central benefit of the ACS, the Census Bureau would have to rely on significantly more expensive data collection modes (e.g., telephone, door-to-door visits). A voluntary ACS, therefore, without substantially greater resources would have the undesirable consequence of providing an unclear understanding of U.S. populations and demographic shifts across states and localities.

The current pressures on the federal budget would make it extremely difficult for Congress to increase funding for a voluntary ACS that might be as high as 30 percent in order to maintain the survey’s integrity and usefulness. The short and mid-range consequences should Congress not provide the necessary resources, however, would be profound. A significant decline in the quality of ACS estimates, especially for the smaller geographic areas and population groups for which no alternative sources of data exists, would make the ACS estimates too unreliable for important purposes such as allocating federal and state government program funds, implementing the Voting Rights Act, and informing sound private sector investment decisions. The value of the ACS as a whole enterprise would quickly diminish.

Congress relies on ACS data to guide the federal government’s distribution of approximately $485 billion annually in grants to states and localities. Preserving the accuracy of these data is a cost-effective investment to ensure that federal funds are meeting the needs Congress intends to address. In addition, State and municipal officials routinely use the ACS as their major (and often only) source of reliable data for planning and resource allocation. Most have no other consistent, reliable source of detailed information about the social and economic dimensions of their communities. Both large and small businesses report using ACS data regularly to guide investment decisions including where to locate new facilities and offer services. Improving the ACS, not weakening it, is important for the economic well-being of American communities across the spectrum of size and rural/suburban/urban location.

Sociologists doing research on American society, often for or in conjunction with state, local and federal governments as well as private industry, are among the heaviest users of the ACS for conducting both basic and applied research. The American Sociological Association, founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association of over 14,000 members dedicated to serving sociologists in their work and promoting the contributions and use of sociology society. Ensuring that the integrity and usefulness of the ACS to American communities and researchers are not undermined is a matter of great importance to our members and leaders.

I very much appreciate this opportunity to share with you the observations and concerns of the American Sociological Association about the ACS. It is one of the most important and valuable innovations that the Census Bureau and Congress have implemented in recent decades to meet the data needs of federal policymakers, state and local policymakers, business leaders, and the research community. As a vital part of the decennial census, the American Community Survey should remain mandatory as it is under current law (Title 13, U.S.C., §221).

Cordially,

Sally T. Hillsman, PhD
Executive Officer