Time To Reform The American Community Survey

PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Neil Siefring Vice President, Hilltop Advocacy
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If you give the government an inch, they will usually take a mile. That is exactly what has happened with the census. Originally set up in the Constitution to ensure adequate representation for the electorate in the House of Representatives, it is now being used to help Washington DC engineer social policy. The offending instrument is the annual American Community Survey (ACS). A bill has been introduced in the House to help limit its use. If the Founders’ vision of limited government and your privacy matter to you, then this problem and its solution should as well.

As the Census Bureau explains, “[t]he fundamental reason for conducting the decennial census of the United States is to apportion the members of the House of Representatives among the 50 states.” That is what the Founders intended when they included a very limited census in Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution. The number of representatives in the House is set at 435 members who can vote on the floor of the House on legislation (five non-voting delegates and a non-voting resident commissioner for Puerto Rico bring the total number of members of the House up to 441). The census helps determine how these 435 representatives should be spread out among the state House delegations to help insure fair representation for all Americans in the lower chamber: since the 2010 census, “each member of the U.S. House of Representatives will represent an average population of 710,767.”

The process is straightforward and fairly elegant given the complexities of electoral politics, as is most of the Constitution. Career bureaucrats, with the aid of permissive politicians, have done with the census that which they have done with most of the Constitution. They twisted it out of shape to serve the ends of a sprawling central government.  After testing and demonstration, the Census Bureau implemented the intrusive ACS in 2005 and 2006. Why did the ACS come about? As the Census Bureau stated, “the survey generates data that help determine how more than $400 billion in federal and state funds are distributed each year.”

The federal government spends a copious amount of your cash carrying out functions that should be left to the states. So they require you to divulge personal information to help them in their central planning. Participation is not optional:  failing to answer is a crime and you can be fined for not participating. For the record, your correspondent urges full compliance with the law.

What type of questions will confront you if you receive the ACS? This year’s version requires the recipient or recipients to tell the federal government about their race, the type of plumbing in their dwelling, if people in the dwelling access the Internet, the fuel most often used for heating in the dwelling, monthly rent, level of education, any “serious difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions,” issues climbing stairs, if an occupant of the dwelling has “difficulty dressing or bathing,” how many times they have been married, and how they get to work.

So much for the census simply determining how many people are where in order to have a representative House of Representatives.

There have been various attempts over the years in Congress to restrict or rescind the ACS. This year, Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) has again introduced important legislation to re-center the census within the Constitution. His bill, H.R. 2255, would make participation in the ACS voluntary. The only questions to which a citizen would have to respond would be those “that elicit the name of the respondent, contact information, the date of the response, or the number of people living or staying at the same address where the respondent resides.” That is it. Rep. Poe’s vision for the census matches that of the Founders. The current ACS matches the vision of central planners administering a vast and growing bureaucracy.

The ACS is a symptom of an overgrown federal government that needs to collect information in order to redistribute wealth while administering a massive welfare state. Hardly the state of affairs planned for by the Founders. H.R. 2255 takes an important step in limiting what the federal government can force its citizens to disclose about their lives. It should also spur a conversation about why the federal government is doing so many things the Founders never wanted it to do.

The census is needed to help calibrate representation in the House. It shouldn’t be a tool for federal micromanagement of communities. H.R. 2255 helps restore the balance the Constitution established between the people and the government they elect.

Neil Siefring is president of Hilltop Advocacy, LLC, and a former Republican House staffer.  Follow him on Twitter @NeilSiefring