‘Intrusive’ survey actually helps countless Americans

03/12/2014 10:22 PM

03/12/2014 10:22 PM

Here is the belief: The federal government is unnecessarily intrusive into American life.

Here is the disaster that idea can cause when taken to an extreme: The implosion of solid demographic data used to distribute $450 billion in federal funding annually. Every city and county in the nation could have been hurt.

This week, more rational thinking prevailed. A bill seeking to neuter an annual survey of the American public by making it voluntary was stripped from this week’s congressional markups.

The American Community Survey is what used to be known as the long form of the U.S. Census. Every year, about 3.5 million addresses receive the questionnaire. This is the nation’s largest sample survey. The information it generates helps decide where schools, nursing homes, hospitals and roads are built. Researchers use it for reports, foundations to make grants, developers to start projects; virtually every facet of American life is affected.

Mess with gaining accurate information and everything can be thrown off kilter.

U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, a Texas Republican, almost did that, led by old conservative arguments. He sponsored a bill to make the mandatory survey voluntary, claiming that the government has no business being so nosy.

Here’s the karma of putting that mentality into play. A voluntary survey could harm rural communities the most. That was a red flag to the GOP, which realized voters in their base would be angry when federal dollars for the new highway, funding for veterans, any number of endeavors, might not materialize without accurate data.

Statistical information about areas with low population would be distorted by a non-mandatory survey. Some Republicans saw that problem and reversed course. House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa pulled the bill late Monday from this week’s agenda.

And making the survey voluntary would mean even more people would have to be surveyed to maintain a statistically valid sampling. That would raise costs, possibly by as much as $66 million, according to Census estimates.

Again, not something conservatives want to be responsible for causing.

The backlash is ideologically driven. The arguments don’t hold up to factual scrutiny or common sense.

But that’s also why this bad idea could easily resurrect itself, perhaps in amendments to the budget this spring.

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