Congress takes aim at critical Census survey

Potential loss of American Community Survey huge for government, business

By , ITworld |  Big Data, Zettatag

In the quest for more sources for rich and voluminous data, it would seem more than a little strange to watch a government entity actually hamper one of the most tried-and-true data-gathering organizations on the planet.

Yet that appears to be what has happened thanks to the U.S. House of Representative's decision to slash the U.S. Census Bureau's budget by up to $100 million for the 2020 Census. The appropriations bill passed 232-190 on May 9 by the House also specifically discontinued the American Community Survey (ACS), an annual survey of approximately three million randomly selected U.S. households that collects deep demographic information.

The amendment to cut the ACS and reduce the budget for the upcoming 2020 Census may, as its author Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL) suggests, indeed save the Federal government $2.5 billion over the next 10 years. But what Rep. Webster and the rest of the bill's supporters may not understand is that the costs from the loss of the data from the ACS will be much, much greater.

The issue is this: the data collected from the ACS is used to distribute nearly $420 billion annually to communities and states--everything from economic development and commerce, to Medicaid and highway funding.

In other words, the ACS tells the government where money should be best spent.

Granted, the Federal government--and the state governments that also make use of the ACS data--don't always know how best to spend any funds, but at least with the ACS data they can make some fairly well-stipulated target amounts.

George Washington University Professor Andrew Reamer put the death of the ACS in very succinct terms in an interview with The Atlantic last week:

"'It would cause massive disruptions in the federal government, because you've got all these programs that are statutorily required to distribute these funds based on certain criteria, and those criteria assume that data is there,' Reamer says."

It's not just government that would suffer: businesses can put a huge value on the data from the Census Bureau and the ACS specifically.

"Census Bureau data gives us information around [urban] population density, around owner occupancy where we know that space is at a premium," explained Ted Smetana, Director, Store Segmentation for Target in a video on the value of ACS data. "So thinking about folding chairs, smaller furniture, to help guests when they have smaller spaces."

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