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The Death Of American Community?

Is it the end of American community as we know it?

The U.S. House of Representatives voted last week to kill the American Community Survey, an ongoing survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau that collects demographic and economic information from over three million households every year.

The goal of the ACS is to continually provide information about ourselves that has been deemed crucial for policy makers, planners, academics, and businesses. The ACS replaced the long-form of the decennial census that used to collect the same information.

House Republicans, however, argued that the ACS was an unnecessary intrusion into our privacy by the federal government - if not a device used to push a liberal agenda by overestimating (and overemphasizing) the presence of racial/ethnic minorities in the country as well as the impoverished.

Despite its utilization by market research firms, polling organizations, and local governments and their agencies, the ACS somehow became expendable to those searching for budget cuts in a hyperpartisan, anti-government environment.

* * *

In the strictest sense of a Constitutional mandate, Section 1, Article 2 does not call for conducting such surveys beyond the decennial census used for redistricting. And historically, it was never the perfect tool to do even that. In our nation's first census in 1790, mostly the white men who owned properties were counted because they were the only ones who could vote. Even today, we can only provide educated guesses for the number of homeless and undocumented immigrants in our midst.

The importance and utility of census data simply increased over time for a variety of constituencies. The fact that all the information gathered with tax dollars is freely available - just as long as each respondent's confidentiality is ensured - has seemingly gone unnoticed outside of demography courses at universities.

While some people may balk at the cost of conducting a census ($2.4 billion for the last one), for many businesses and academics, the value of census data is often immeasurable. Also, the federal government easily disseminates nearly 35 times the cost of the census in funding based on its results.

Despite such an important role, the level of distrust by the public toward government undoubtedly further raises the cost for the census as increasing number of Americans refuse to participate. This cynicism is, of course, about much more than our contentious relationship with the government. Vast swathes of Americans also believe that data and statistical analysis can be - and is - simply a tool manipulated to represent a pre-existing viewpoint.

This may be true insofar as, for example, poorly conducted public opinion polls go; such polls as well as some forms of market research have ruined it for true scientists and researchers. But rejecting wholesale scientific endeavors is not the remedy.

Maybe American society has just become too cynical, too polarized, and too individualistic to collect information using traditional methods that rely on a sense of duty and communal curiosity. Such cynicism and distrust of government is reflected in ever-decreasing rate of participation in political elections, decennial censuses, and virtually any type of governmental actions that require citizens' participation.

Census data these days seems most popular when used by individuals to research their own genealogy. Perhaps society has become too self-absorbed to be concerned about who we are as a whole. In many ways, it is this dwindling public interest that makes the elimination of this governmental function most significant.

* * *

There are two large issues that will follow upon the elimination of the ACS: First, the path of reducing the government's role in census-taking will eventually lead to a discussion of privatizing the census as a whole, just as we've seen in other areas of large governmental functions that once represented civic participation and service (schools, Social Security, the post office). "[T]he Senate is unlikely to vote similarly to cut off the ACS, but House approval of the elimination plan could help to further a Republican-led goal of changing the ACS into a voluntary survey," Nate Berg notes on the Atlantic Cities blog.

Second, it will be a crushing blow for those who rely tremendously on census data and the result will be more ignorance and less self-knowledge as a nation.

Given the existing institutional demand for this type of information, economic principle suggests that private entities will step up to fill the void by continuing to generate some form of this data.

But if government steps aside from this massive task of collecting information about its residents, this shift would likely come with limited access and a heavy price tag that few could afford. Census data would no longer by unifying, but divisive.

A private entity would also be drive to collect better information at a lower cost. In the process, there will be financial incentives for the public instead of a civic incentive. Many of those yelping now about their privacy will be bought by, say, a $5 bill slipped into a privatized questionnaire. For $10, they will allow twice as much of their privacy to be violated. Better information by one measure; less reliable by another.

* * *

If the comments on news reports about this sad development are any indication, our intellectual polarity is even more severe than commonly reputed. There are many here among us who just can't get enough data in our quest of knowledge about our country, while many more seem to believe that gathering such information does not advance society in any way. How can that be?

Perhaps those who concern themselves with civic engagement have been so focused on increasing the level of participation by making it easier - the click of a button to sign a petition and or make a donation - that they've forgotten about making civic engagement better.

Civic engagement has to be taught, just like anything else. Are our schools doing that? Is there a focus on civic participation among our political and civic leaders - beyond asking for a vote or campaign contribution?

In some ways, the effort to eliminate the ACS places American society at a crossroad: A quick, short-term solution would be to privatize one more governmental function for the sake of efficiency and cost effectiveness and still manage to fulfill the constitutional mandate.

A lasting, long-term solution would be to educate the public about what makes the American version of democracy uniquely challenging, and raise the level of conversation by constantly revisiting the data to learn how it reflects upon us.


Kiljoong Kim is a research consultant and doctoral student in sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He welcomes your comments. Read more in the Who We Are archives.


Posted on May 15, 2012

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