homeprev issuesexecpublic affairsSTAFFASA home

New American Community Survey Is In Jeopardy

Congressional budget inaction slows innovative U.S. Census program to provide community policymakers with useful stream of demographic data

by Torrey Androski, ASA Executive Office

The U.S. Census Bureau’s proposed American Community Survey (ACS) is a new program designed to address the fast pace of modern demographic change by providing public data users with a continuous source of accurate and timely data on American communities. The program’s nationwide start in 2003, however, has hit a snag, with congressional inaction on the federal budget bill that would have provided the necessary funding to conduct the survey.

In fact, as this issue of Footnotes went to press, a number of federal agency appropriations bills awaited the 108th Congress’ action in January. While the Senate had passed an omnibus spending bill that incorporated all of the pending bills, negotiation with the House remained to be initiated. Until Congress completes action on these funding bills, the government is operating at last year’s spending levels (or less), and ACS nationwide implementation would require an additional $60 million over last year’s budget to perform the pilot testing.

The annual ACS would replace the Long Form distributed by the Census Bureau (once every ten years) by collecting data every year for all states as well as for cities, counties, metropolitan areas, and areas instead with populations of 65,000 or more people. The survey would accumulate data on demographic, housing, social, and economic characteristics. The Long Form currently struggles to provide accurate data because the responses it generates once a decade rapidly become out of date and unreliable. As a result, planners and other data users, whose decisions about critical government functions affect thousands of citizens, are reluctant to rely on the current Long Form. The ACS was intended to help provide these federal, state, and local governments with an annual information base for the administration and evaluation of government programs and policies.

Innovative Plan Is On Hold

The new ACS may miss a timely launch, unless Congress acts quickly on the appropriations bill. Currently, the Census Bureau is funded through a temporary spending measure (a continuing resolution, or “CR”), but the provisions of this resolution expired on January 11, 2003. When the 108th Congress convened in January, Senate legislators began the unfinished business to complete the federal government’s 2003 appropriations. If negotiations with the House are not resolved quickly, Congress could choose to extend the CR, which would leave the Census Bureau with no funding increase over last year’s levels.

To begin the collection of data for ACS in 2003 the Census Bureau would require $124 million, a $64-million increase over last year’s budget. Without this money, ACS will only be able to collect data through the Supplemental Survey, which is a national sample of 700,000 housing units. While the Supplementary Survey is a helpful addition to the Long Form, it cannot all together replace it. The ACS is most vulnerable now, during the window of time when additional funding is needed to bring the project to the next level. The expectation is that if adequate funding is provided in 2003, the Census Bureau will be able to eliminate the Long Form in the 2010 Census.

Despite the uncertain prospects for ACS’s initiation, stakeholders have continued to advocate full funding and national implementation of the ACS. Recently, the Decennial Census Advisory Committee wrote to the Secretary of Commerce recommending that the necessary funding be made available and that Congress be made aware of the importance of adequate funding for ACS in 2003. The National Association of Towns and Townships, National Conference of State Legislatures, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the Congressional Black Caucus have also expressed support for the ACS.

The ultimate decisionmakers are in Congress. They are the ones that need to be convinced that the $124 million needed to finance the ACS is worthwhile. With an effective design and a long-term funding commitment from Congress, the ACS will be an effective resource in helping to better understand and efficiently manage our American communities.