Life After the American Community Survey?

By: - May 22, 2012 12:00 am

The U.S. Senate is expected to vote next month on an appropriations bill that could end the U.S. Census Bureau’s survey of state and local population, income, health and other data. Known as the American Community Survey, the federally funded program continuously samples about 3.5 million households each year to produce crucial data used to divvy some $400 billion in government money to states and localities, according to the Census Bureau.

The American Community Survey data is also used by states to plan for schools, roads and health and welfare needs.

The debate over getting rid of the survey, which private businesses and economists consider invaluable for planning purposes, started in the U.S. House over the question of whether Americans should be required to answer the bureau’s questions. Some House members wanted the survey to be made voluntary, arguing it represents government intrusion into private lives. In addition, some proposed cost-cutting measures that would make the survey less expensive.

But on May 9, the Republican-led House voted on an appropriations bill that would stop funding for the survey altogether.

Medicaid is the biggest federal program that relies on American Community Survey data to shift funding when states’ average incomes rise or fall. At about $270 billion in federal funding and nearly a quarter of state budgets, the federal-state health insurance program for low-income people uses the survey’s income data to determine federal allocations that can have huge impacts on state budgets.

Allocation of education grants, highway money and other social services funding also rely on the data.  States also use the information to allocate state money to county and local governments. So far, it is unclear what data the federal government would use to allocate billions in grant money, if the survey is discontinued.

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Christine Vestal

Christine Vestal covers mental health and drug addiction for Stateline. Previously, she covered health care for McGraw-Hill and the Financial Times.