Virulent Word of Mouse

May 20, 2012

A dumb compromise to save the ACS and Economic Census

Filed under: Editorial,Uncategorized — Shane Greenstein @ 9:02 pm

Last week I commented in this space about the Tea Party’s desire to make a symbolic cut in government by eliminating the American Community Survey and the Economic Census at the US Census. This would change economic statistics in the US, upending a system that has been in place since the end of World War II. And it really makes no sense for pro-business Republicans to be leading the charge, since business is one of the primary beneficiary of all this data about the US population and business.

Over the weekend, the economic correspondent for the New York Times wrote an opinion piece. She pointed out how many businesses had come out against this change, including the United States Chamber of Commerce, the National Retail Federation and the National Association of Home Builders.

The article did give a hint about what might actually be going on. To quote the article:

“Republicans may hope that when the Senate and House bills go to a conference committee, a final compromise will keep the survey, but make participation in it voluntary. Under current law, participation is mandatory.”

That observation is rather amazing, since there is no mystery to the answer. That question has been studied. Let me quote from the summary of a report on the consequences from imposing voluntary participation:

* “A dramatic decrease occurred in mail response when the survey was voluntary. The mail cooperation rate fell by over 20 percentage points and the final response rate after all three modes of data collection was about four percentage points lower…
* The estimated annual cost of implementing the ACS would increase by at least 38 percent if the survey was voluntary and the survey maintained the current reliability levels.
* The use of voluntary collection methods had a negative impact on traditionally low response areas that will compromise our ability to produce reliable data for these areas and for small population groups such as Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Lower reliability and higher cost seem like a dumb thing to aspire to produce. Like I said last week, this proposal is just stupid.


  1. If we look towards our northern neighbor Canada for clues, I am pessimistic that we would be able to preserve mandatory participation in US government surveys.

    Munir Sheikh, former head of Statistics Canada, had to resign in July 2010 because Harper’s government scrapped the mandatory long-form census ( Munir Sheikh noted in his resignation:

    “I want to take this opportunity to comment on a technical statistical issue which has become the subject of media discussion. This relates to the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census. It can not. ”

    Munir Sheikh’s resignation came as a response to claims by industry minister Tony Clements that the change to voluntary survey was being made with consultation and support of Statistics Canada (–statscan-recommended-move-to-voluntary-census-tony-clement-says).

    Later, Clements claimed that “The government took this decision because we do not believe Canadians should be forced, under threat of fines, jail, or both, to divulge extensive private and personal information”. (

    Apparently, Harper’s conservative government has stuck with its decision about keeping the survey voluntary. In Feb 2012, Statistics Canada’s chief economic analyst Mr. Cross resigned ( Mr. Cross seems to think that the big recent mistake has been with census and national household survey.

    The ideological basis for the change in USA seems similar to what Clements claimed about mandatory survey in Canada. Ironically, it may be “lobbying” by business groups that may help preserve US government surveys. I am not sure but my guess would be that lobbying and campaign financing are more potent in USA than in Canada.

    Comment by M. Zia Hydari — May 21, 2012 @ 11:16 am | Reply

  2. I really do not agree with much of anything that the Tea Party supports. This would be an exception. I am a business owner and a registered democrat. I am pretty liberal. I hate the economic census. What a freaking waste of time and money. The damn thing is hard to get through and I have to think it costs the US a few billion in productivity alone.

    Comment by David — March 14, 2013 @ 5:31 pm | Reply

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