Cutting the Census, impairing our democracy

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: Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a measure to reduce Census Bureau funding so drastically that the Bureau will need to eliminate the American Community Survey – an annual effort that enables researchers and the general public to accurately monitor what’s happening in communities around the nation.

As researchers, we understand that, without a reliable metric for describing community conditions and community change, we can’t dig into the issues. Proposed cuts to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey will greatly lessen our ability to understand social and economic trends which influence our future, such as the share of children in poverty, the share of the population with advanced degrees, or the characteristics of the foreign-born community. 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.

Some oppose the American Community Survey because they feel that we should trust the federal government with so much information. 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.

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. Members of our community who will lose the capability to succeed in their pursuits include:

  • The new entrepreneur, who aspires to create a small business that will add to the tax base and economy of a town
  • The large employer, who seeks the best location for a plant that will bring jobs to a community
  • The school superintendent, who wants to plan as effectively as possible to meet the needs of students and prudently and minimally assess the taxpayers
  • The U.S.-based multinational corporate leader, who wants to create a long-term strategy that will strengthen the global competitiveness of the nation
  • The leader of a religious congregation, who intends to work on issues of poverty and other social problems
  • The police chief, who needs a data-driven plan to promote public safety through prevention, rather than dealing with crime after it occurs
  • The county manager, who seeks to attune government services to the county population’s needs in the most effective manner and at the lowest cost
  • The member of a volunteer organization, who wants to build the membership and increase the organization’s impacts

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.

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Paul Mattessich's picture
Paul Mattessich

Paul Mattessich became executive director of Wilder Research in 1982and has served as a member of the Wilder Foundation's senior leadership team since then.