May 15, 2012 in Opinion

Editorial: Deep-sixing extension of census is misguided


The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

Members of The Spokesman-Review editorial board help to determine The Spokesman-Review's position on issues of interest to the Inland Northwest. Board members are:

In the seemingly bottomless well of issues to divide Americans, here’s another: The U.S. House of Representatives voted last Wednesday to slash the Census Bureau budget and end the valuable American Community Survey.

It was a mere seven years ago that bipartisan congressional forces implemented this ongoing statistical snapshot so that business and government could base decisions on real-world demographic data. Some $400 billion in federal spending is predicated on these surveys, which go out to 250,000 households per month. Businesses use the information to help make decisions on what to produce, where to build and how many people to hire.

But fear-mongering about this alleged invasion of privacy has surpassed common sense and sparked an unfortunate “too-much-information” backlash.

This is foolhardy and misguided. While the survey does ask respondents questions about how they live, their identities are kept a secret. In fact, divulging that data is a serious crime that carries a fine of up to $250,000 or a five-year prison sentence – or both. The information is valuable in the aggregate, not on an individual level.

The fine for refusing to participate can reach as high as $5,000, which is much too harsh. But nobody has ever been charged. Instead, the Census Bureau has been successful in persuading respondents of the survey’s importance.

What small-government opponents of the survey don’t seem to understand is that their actions will cause bureaucracies to grow more inefficient.

Plus, the information they’re aiming to quell is a boon to businesses. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is normally in favor of government spending cuts, is a strong proponent of the survey.

Without the annual data, government and businesses would have to rely on the census information gathered every 10 years. However, citizens’ needs and consumer trends are fleeting, so the country is well-served by staying in touch. A data blackout would be like tackling crime without insights into where and when it occurs.

This would not be a blissful ignorance.

Some critics contend the annual surveys run afoul of the U.S. Constitution, which calls for decennial census taking. But this is a crimped interpretation of the Founding Fathers’ views. In touting the first census bill, James Madison observed that “if this bill is extended so as to embrace some other objects besides the bare enumeration of the inhabitants, it would enable them to adapt the public measures to the particular circumstances of the community.”

Regular snapshots are far more revealing than guesswork based on information culled once every decade. This is especially true in today’s rapidly changing world. Those who worry about invasion of privacy ought to come up with concrete examples that arise from the American Community Survey.

Then again, that would require gathering information, rather than debating in the dark.

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