Data-Driven Decisions

posted on Thu, May 17 2012 12:00 am by Liz Peterson

I try not to write much about political issues, but a recent action has the research community in high dudgeon: The House of Representatives has voted to abolish the Census Bureau's American Community Survey (ACS). The American Community Survey replaced the long-form for the decennial census several years ago, in a move to have more current and accurate information. The census is the foundational data, obtained directly from We the People, that many (perhaps most) government decisions are based on. What will they base their funding decisions on if they don't have data about us?

And then I thought of Minnesota Compass, which has become such an easy and reliable source of information about a host of issues in Minnesota (including data by city and county), and how it would be decimated. I went to the Wilder Research website to email Compass staff for a ballpark estimate of the percentage of data that would go away, and what should I run across but Paul Mattessich’s blog on this exact topic. 

Being a lazy sort and not wanting to reinvent the wheel, and since Paul says it so very well, I suggest you read his blog post about the impact of eliminating the American Community Survey.

These are the key things that resounded with me:

"At this moment, researchers of many persuasions—Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, and libertarians as well—from research institutions as varied in their points of view as the Heritage Foundation, the Urban Institute, and the Cato Institute—all share an apprehension…"

That apprehension was shared by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.

"Without the data, we can’t interpret what’s happening. We can’t apply our values to the facts.

"At Minnesota Compass, we remain as nonpartisan as we possibly can. We respect multiple political perspectives. We respond to requests from public officials of all parties, advocates on both sides of issues, and everyone else, for sound information to inform their decision-making, because we believe that no person or political party has a corner on morality or the truth. Elimination of the American Community Survey will weaken everyone’s vision; no matter what our points of view, we will all fail to see what lies around us and to forecast what lies down the road."

One of the reasons cited for ending the survey is that it is an invasion of privacy to ask detailed questions about such things as the number of flush toilets in one’s house. To those who feel the government is asking things it has no business knowing, Mattessich says, "I would direct those to the Census Bureau’s thorough documentation of the rationale for each question—which often points to federal law or regulation."

He continues: "If legislators, or even the entire voting public, want to blind themselves to the realities of the social and economic trends which influence our lives, if legislators want to inhibit businesses from understanding their markets, serving their customers optimally, and creating the jobs that our economy needs, if legislators want to lessen the opportunities for our public-serving nonprofit organizations to enrich the communities which they serve, they have the right to do that. However, they need to understand the full implications."

He discusses the breadth of impact this would have on a wide array of constituents: new entrepreneurs, large employers, school districts, multinational corporations, police departments, counties, and nonprofits are a starter list.

"In short, we all lose something if the existence of reliable, meaningful census data becomes a partisan issue. We are hopeful that legislators will choose not to undermine our ability to understand. As President Abraham Lincoln advised: “If given the truth, [Americans] can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”  If we really wish to blind ourselves to the social and economic happenings around us by cutting off the American Community Survey, let’s make certain that we decide to do so with our eyes wide open to the consequences."

Hear, hear!

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