Census taking and privacy

Getting accurate counts should trump privacy concerns

Those who want to turn effective federal support upside down should be eager to see the end of the collection of U.S. Census Bureau data. Without knowing where Americans fall short in what they have or do when comparing different parts of the country, and to what degree, it would be easy to say that there is no reason for any assistance from Washington.

That would be unfortunate. As much as many people would like to see a much smaller federal government, in at least some selected ways, it is certain to be with us for the future.

What is under some attack in Washington is the mandatory gathering of information about how Americans live. In addition to the every-decade census, the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey continuously gathers household information, according to a recent Wall Street Journal column. Its sample size of 3.5 million households this year may be small in relation to the country’s size, and in contrast to the major effort that goes into the every-decade census which determines Congress’ makeup, but its statistics have value.

A response to the ACS survey is mandatory, and that is what has some politicians upset. The mailed survey, containing questions that are approved by Congress, is followed by telephone calls and in-person visits.

Not that anyone has ever been prosecuted for not completing the survey, as no one has, according to the Journal.

Survey proponents say the threat of criminal action results in much more thorough statistical responses than otherwise would be the case, which certainly sounds logical. If completion of the survey was not required, it would seem as though many more inquiries would have to be distributed to gain the same return. That might be more expensive.

Independent of the desire of some elected officials to reduce the role of the federal government, there is a growing concern in the country about the general loss of privacy. That has people refusing to complete a variety of printed and telephonic polls, whether they are legitimate or not or in many cases merely pre-election political “push” polls. Who can blame them?

That mood also risks cutting into the American Community Survey’s annual results if survey completion was not required.

Agricultural producers in this country are used to participating in seasonal grain, hay and cattle inventory surveys on a regular basis, directed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Those surveys, which also include wool and honey, for example, are designed to aid in agricultural production planning and purchasing. Hog farmers might decide not to feed as many pigs for slaughter if corn plantings are reported as low and thus prices are expected to be higher. That is good business management.

As important, if the Department of Agriculture surveys did not exist, agricultural producers could be victimized by private survey takers with selfish agendas.

Anecdotal information is what is to be avoided, some say in the Journal, including a representative of the conservative American Enterprise Institute: “We already suffer too much from what might be referred to as ‘policymaking by anecdote.’”

Whether Congress chooses to use federal influence and resources to intervene in the well-being of Americans should be decided on the merits of the issue at hand, not on incomplete and inaccurate information. Surveys – from Washington on a scale that makes for meaningful results – ought to be continued and their responses required.