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How America Knows How It’s Doing

Mon Mar 05 2012
Robert Groves
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Every modern nation state, every developed society runs on data.  Over the decades, business has demonstrated that those firms actively measuring their production processes, supply chains, and distribution networks become more successful.   Local, state, and central governments have proven that when government services are tracked by process data and outcomes are quantified, taxpayer money is expended more effectively, and the public is better served.

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The Census Bureau plays an important role in providing businesses and governments with the statistics they need to make informed decisions.  The Census Bureau key economic indicators are timely, well-documented barometers of the current performance of the U.S. economy.  The American Community Survey provides businesses and local governments much-needed detailed statistical information on consumers in localities around the country.

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The American Community Survey is relatively new.  Indeed, it produced its full complement of statistical information for the first time in fall of 2011.  Because it is new, the Census Bureau technical staff was able to take advantage of all the statistical design and methodological innovations that have occurred in survey research over the past years.  It’s our cutting edge demographic survey on several dimensions – it offers optional modes of data collection (mail questionnaires, telephone interviews, face-to-face interviews), each of which appeals to different segments of our diverse society.  Its sample design permits the statistical description of very small areas; it pools data to produce 1 year, 3 year, and 5 year statistics for different levels of geography.  Each year it produces over 11 billion statistics describing housing, demographic, and socioeconomic characteristics of the population, all with web-based dissemination instantly available to the entire world.  Starting January 2013, ACS will offer an internet option to respond, a new mode that our research has shown appeals to large proportions of respondents.

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As the successor to the now-dropped “long form” of the decennial census, it is the sole source of accurate small area statistical information for the entire country.  Because it replaced the long form, participation in the ACS is mandatory by law, just as the decennial census has been since 1790.  The same logic that the once-in-a-decade long form statistics were important enough to mandate participation applies to the ACS.

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Some have argued that it is inappropriate to require Americans to respond to the ACS.  I understand that position, and I empathize with respondents who are asked to take a few minutes out of their busy day to perform this civic act.  Similar questions arise about why we are legally required to fill out birth and death certificates, register for the Selective Service, take tests for drivers’ licenses, refrain from smoking in airplanes, etc.

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These kinds of laws impose some constraints on the public.  Each of them, however, seeks to attain some common good.  Every society chooses what common good acts are mandated by law and which remain subject to norms or encouragement.

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In all such domains, a tradeoff decision must be made – does the common good achieved by the mandated behavior justify the burden on the public?

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Each year the Census Bureau asks a different 2.5% of the U.S. households to spend on average 40 minutes to complete the ACS.  Based on the ACS statistics, businesses, local governments and the Federal government direct billions of dollars to decisions that help the country’s progress.

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Contemplating a voluntary ACS demands attention to some research completed last decade – a test of a voluntary ACS compared to a mandatory ACS.  Because some households never open the ACS mail questionnaire envelope, they do not return a completed form.  If so, the Census Bureau then telephones and/or visits their home to seek the information, spending much more taxpayer money than the postage.

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With the mandatory version of the ACS, a message on the envelope stating that completion is required by law was found to encourage households to open the envelope, take the request seriously, and complete the form.   Without that attention-grabbing message, much more followup by telephone or personal visit was required, costing much more money than the mandatory form required.  If the budget remained the same and ACS became voluntary, fewer sample households would be measured, statistics for small areas would become more unstable, and the key goal of the ACS to serve all communities across the U.S. could not be fulfilled.

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