The Economic Impact of Ending the American Community Survey? Not Good.

On Tuesday, the Congressional Joint Economic Committee held a hearing entitled, “The Economic Impact of Ending or Reducing Funding for the American Community Survey and other Government Statistics.” In direct response to the May 10th vote by the House of Representatives to strip funding for the American Community Survey (ACS) and 2012 Economic Census, the hearing offered inquiry into the economic value of U.S. economic statistics, their timeliness and accuracy. Four economists were called to testify. From the Democratic side: Mr. Kenneth Simonson, Chief Economist at the Associated General Contractors of America and Vice President of the National Association for Business Economics; and Dr. Andrew Reamer, Research Professor at George Washington University Institute of Public Policy. From the Republican side: Mr. Keith Hall, Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and former Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics; and Mr. Grant D. Aldonas, Principal Managing Director of Split Rock International. Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY-14) presided.

Though the hearing proceeded as you might expect any economic conversation would in this staunchly partisan Congress, there were several points that should be of particular interest to information policy advocates:

First, the hearing room was filled to capacity with eager observers. Congressional aides, representatives from nonprofits and the general public turned out in large numbers, rendering the Cannon House Office Building room to standing room only. Several audience members held signs calling on Congress to “Stop cutting tools for job creation.” An infant in an ACS onesie was also in attendance. The majority of the audience, it appeared, was there to show support for these vital Census Bureau programs and research tools—a critical reminder that the values and work of AALL members do not exist in a vacuum.

Second, Dr. Reamer made several persuasive points about the importance of data as a public good. Dr. Reamer founded and managed two economic development consulting firms and in 2010, published a report for the Brookings Institution measuring the overall impact of the ACS. In his prepared remarks, Dr. Reamer drove home a message familiar to law librarians:

Data are a classic ‘public good,’ resulting in substantial underinvestment by the private sector. Consequently, the tendency is for markets to lack access to information necessary to be efficient. Only the Federal government has the fiscal resources, authority, and motivation to produce data that are objective, reliable, and relevant to policy needs, consistent over space and time, and freely accessible to multiple users. Free access provides substantial benefits to society, including improved public and private decision-making and economic outcomes.  (emphasis added)

Equitable, no-fee permanent public access to authentic online legal information is a tenet of AALL’s advocacy work and Dr. Reamer’s statements about the value of the ACS emphasized this message.

Lastly, though most testimony fell along party lines, by the end of the hearing three out of four witnesses conceded that no adequate substitution or replacement for the ACS exists in the private sector, nor does the decennial Census provide sufficient socio-economic data to replace the ACS. Further, three out of the four stated that making the ACS voluntary would compromise the response rate and, therefore, the integrity of the data collected. The fourth witnesses declined to answer these questions. The ACS has gained bipartisan support with the Chamber of Commerce and economists at conservative think tanks like the Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute and The Heritage Foundation all speaking out in support of funding.

The House Appropriations bill (H.R 5326) that defunded the ACS is still awaiting consideration by the Senate, so there is still time to act. If yesterday’s hearing is any indication, these valuable research tools are being given real consideration. Your calls to your Senators just may turn the tide.

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