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War on statistics

It’s often said that information is the lifeblood of business. That’s equally true for communities.
Why, then, do House Republicans want to eliminate the nation’s single best source of objective and comprehensive social, economic and demographic data? It’s a good question, and one without a satisfactory answer.
The lawmaker who offered the amendment targeting the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, Florida freshman Daniel Webster, argued that the survey is "the definition of a breach of personal privacy. It’s the picture of what’s wrong in Washington, D.C. It’s unconstitutional."
In fact, his amendment is a much better example of what’s wrong in the nation’s capital-too much political nonsense, too little common sense.
Launched in 2005, the ACS is the new version of the long-form census questionnaire whose roots stretch back to the nation’s early days. The Constitution clearly allows such collection of socio-economic information. And while the questions asked are detailed and might strike some as personal, privacy controls are tight; only aggregate data are reported.
According to the bureau, the ACS is the nation’s "only source of small area estimates on social and demographic characteristics." Among others, a wide range of businesses use this data for market analyses. Income and poverty estimates also derived from ACS data are used, for example, in allocating funds to school districts.
Andrew Reamer, a research professor at the George Washington University Institute of Public Policy and author of a report on the ACS, told BusinessWeek that "the loss of the American Community Survey will cause chaos and inefficiency in the operations of business and government in the U.S."
To make matters worse, the House also approved cuts to the bureau’s budget that would do away with the Economic Census, which gathers benchmark data from more than 25 million businesses and 1,100 industries, helping to compile measures of productivity, producer prices and other key economic indicators.

Although the Senate is unlikely to pass its version of this legislation, the mere possibility has spurred a broad coalition-including business groups, non-profits and others-into action to defend the ACS and Economic Census. Let’s hope their efforts prove to be unnecessary.

5/25/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.


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