Jonathan J. Higuera

American Community Survey

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The American Community Survey (ACS) is the Census Bureau’s annual study of U.S. socioeconomic conditions. Data from the 21-page questionnaire are used to help the government best determine how to distribute federal assistance dollars, including Medicaid benefits and federal grants to states and communities.

The data provided by the ACS help determine how more than $400 billion in federal and state funds are spent annually. Businesses also rely heavily on the ACS results to decide such things as where to build new stores or whether to hire new employees, as well as get valuable insights on consumer spending habits.

Each year, about 3 million households are randomly selected to fill out the survey and those chosen are legally required to do so under the penalty of law. That requirement is partly the reason why the House of Representatives in Congress voted to eliminate the ACS in May. They believe it is intrusive, an example of government overreach and a cost burden.

“This is a program that intrudes on people’s lives, just like the Environmental Protection Agency or the bank regulators,” said Daniel Webster, a first-term Republican congressman from Florida who sponsored the relevant legislation.

Some private companies and industry groups, including the United States Chamber of Commerce, the National Retail Federation and the National Association of Home Builders, are fighting back.

Retailer, Target, recently released a video explaining how it used these census data to determine where to locate new stores. Economic development organizations and other business groups say they use the numbers to figure out where to find potential workers.

Some observers believe that the Republican in the House who led the charge to eliminate the ACS may hope that, when the Senate and House bills go to a conference committee, a final compromise will keep the survey, but make participation in it voluntary.

Even that would hinder the effectiveness of the survey, say those who want the ACS kept in place as is. If it were made voluntary, experts say, the Census would have to spend significantly more money on follow-up phone calls and in-person visits to get enough households to answer.

And, with Congress planning to cut the census budget, it would make such follow-ups prohibitively expensive.

“Census data is really the only source of information that can give us neighborhood-level data,” said Joan Naymark, Target’s director of market analytics and planning, in a video exploring how the company uses ACS data.

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