I LIKE TO ANSWER POLITICAL QUESTIONS! Does this make me a freak? A weirdo? Probably. But it doesn't mean you shouldn't ask your question about politics. I've been involved in politics for a little while, now. I'll do my best, though I make no guarantees you'll love the answer. Email me at bkirby816 AT yahoo DOT com.
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Dear Spencerian Editors:
What's with all the wasted resources on the American Community Survey?
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Thanks, Recrat --
First of all, let's be totally fair to Recrat: he asked a great question. The only problem with it was that it was in the neighborhood of, oh, around 1,250 words. The highlights he asked about involved wasted resources in producing the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey in the area of money, time, energy, and paper.
Turns out the ACS, as it's called, has kind of a surprsing base of "haters" (if you will). I think Recrat's setup begins to speak to the core of the animosity towards how this Constitutionally mandated function is executed.
Recently, I was notified via mail that I was a picked "at random" as a participant in the American Community Survey. Then, a week or so later, I received the survey itself. If it follows the same pattern as the 2010 Census, I will get two more notifications, and someone will show up at the door to ask me the questions even though it has been filled out and sent in. Barring any other concern about the 2010 Census and focusing on the ACS, this is what I (along with 3 million other Americans) received:
• Pre-notice Letter
• Introductory Letter
• ACS Questionnaire
• ACS Instruction Guide
• Frequently Asked Questions Brochure
• Follow-up Letter
• Reminder Card
• Outgoing Envelope
• Return Envelope
Couple of things right out of the gate. First, Recrat, you were randomly selected. Your quotes indicate you don't really believe this, but I've yet to see any evidence of anyone being targeted. In fact, targeting people in America to count would be counterproductive to what the ACS and Census are supposed to do.
The other thing I notice about this is that you are legally obligated to complete the survey. It's a misdeameanor and a fine if you don't. I have a strong suspicion this is the driving force behind a lot of the opponents of the ACS, like this site:
250,000 homes are now being targeted every month by the Census Bureau and its corporate lackeys to comply, under threat of prosecution, with a survey demanding answers to over 70 privacy invading questions. Questions, that as Congressman Ron Paul and others have pointed out, are none of the government's business.
"...under threat of prosecution..." That's one of those phrases I really hate. I live "under threat of prosecution" if I go fifty miles an hour above the speed limit, too -- but you don't see me complaining about that.
So what is it about the ACS that has the Ron Paul/Tea Bag Party/Libertarian collective panties in a wad?
Here's a link to the actual ACS survey [PDF]. Now, this is where I am just a little different than everyone else. I read through the 14 page PDF, and found nothing so intrusive as to offend me. But I don't really have any secrets. It'd take a lot for me to turn away a Constitutionally-empowered Census taker. Certainly more than things like:
- My name
- The name of the people who live in my house
- How many acres my house is on, how many rooms it has and how it is heated and cooled
- How much I pay in rent (if I rent, which I don't)
- If anyone has gotten food stamps in the last 12 months in my house
- Questions about my mortgage (whether they payments cover property taxes, etc.)
- My age, race, other languages I speak in my home (does baby talk count?)
- Questions regarding military service
- Questions around health insurance, disabilities, and employment
There's more, to be sure. But I found none of it to be so intrusive I wouldn't share it with my government.
Where I do scratch my head a little bit -- and this gets more to your point, Recrat -- is that some of those questions I'd expect the government to already know. For example, how hard is it to know if I'm on food stamps or not. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (what used to be called food stamps) is run out of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Census and ACS are run out of the Department of Commerce.
USDA, Commerce. Commerce, USDA. So glad I could introduce you guys. Just wait until you meet the Department of Defense. Those guys can tell us all about military personnel. We'll get the VA in here to tell us about veterans, and when we get Health and Human Services, it'll be a party!
My point in a less snarky way is this: why are they asking me if I've gotten food stamps? If I'm on food stamps, someone at USDA knows it. Why not ask them? If I'm a veteran, won't someone at the VA know this? It speaks to effeciency and cross-departmental workings that I'm not so sure exist right now.
But Recrat's question wasn't really about the content of the survey, the merits of which we could argue all day. His question spoke more to waste. Let's look at his point on paper usage:
Paper: I am not a crazy environmental activist, and I even question the actual savings when related to energy consumption on recycling, but even I am appalled at the waste of paper here. That is three letters, a reminder card, the survey itself, a glossy FAQ brochure, and a 16-page "how to answer questions in this survey" booklet, plus the survey itself, and envelopes for all of the outgoing and return mailings except for the card times three million. The letters alone are 9 million wasted pieces of 8½" x 11" paper. Think about that number. I don't think I've ever seen 9 million of anything. The survey itself couldn't have stated its purpose on the opening page without the need of a cover letter? Did we really need the 16-page guide on filling out the survey? Including the support phone number wasn't enough? I am not even factoring in the ink and envelope glue here. It is 2010; I would think that most people have access to the internet or a telephone, even if it is someone else's phone or the internet at a local library (which is still free in most communities, right?). Why not send out a post-card or registered letter instructing people to take the survey via the web or by phone? It can't be much different from what has already been set up as a "support" to the paper survey.
I don't think I've ever seen 9 million of anything, either, Recrat. And I actually like your post-card idea -- except here are two problems on this issue.
First, not everyone has access to the Internet, or even a phone. I know, I know -- I'm in the marketing and PR business, and this issue comes up all the time. Everyone has a cell phone, everyone has a computer, or can get to a computer -- even poor people. Eh. Maybe (I'd debate that point, and note that you need some way to count who has access to this stuff and who doesn't...)
But here's the second thing: remember how we said this is a Constitutionally mandated thing? In other words, you are legally obligated to do this. Rather than just mail you your 14-page form along with a legal-ese letter which tells you to either do this or get arrested, the Census folks have determined it's better to give people every opportunity to fill out the forms themselves and send them back.
The point here is, the Census Bureau has clearly made a cost/benefit determination that it's better to spend the money on printing and paper to make sure folks get this thing done than to have to invest in a far costlier process of following up after the fact.
I suspect this is all applicable to energy, time, and manpower, too -- it's just a necessary expenditure.
While I do take a certain pride in being selected for performing a civic duty, I cannot help but wonder about the deployment of something like this on such a massive scale. I understand that one may feel that the collection of this data is imperative, but perhaps the process through which it has been undertaken can be reviewed. Perhaps the next time this survey is taken, eliminating so much paper will be a more viable option with new technologies appearing almost daily.
Here's one thing I can guarantee, Recrat: the next Census and ACS will be different from this one. Yes, technologically it will probably be behind the curve -- but I'm also willing to bet (based on conversation with research colleagues who know a whole lot more than I do), that they'll be able to utilize what technology they can to glean great amounts of information.
Which leads me back to one last word on content -- and perhaps a disturbing confluence on collection effeciency. Those who dislike the ACS and Census, who think it is "Orwellian", those who want to "just say no" to the ACS, are barking up the wrong tree.
Ever purchased anything with a credit card? Ever subscribed to a magazine? Ever bought a home, applied for a loan, signed up for one of those "shopper's club" key fob deals at the supermarket? Started an online account of any kind?
If your answer was yes to any of those (and there's much more), then there is a corporation out there with your information. And by "your information," I mean a profile, a portfolio on you that can be bought, then sold to the highest bidder.
I mentioned earlier I'm in the marketing and PR world. That's true, and I've seen some presentations from marketing firms that would make your skin crawl. These companies know so much about you, from a marketing point of view, it's totally awesome.
From a citizen's point of view, it's pretty goddam creepy.
I'm not sure if the effeciency is worth the actual Orwellian connotations we'd get from this kind of public/private partnership, but I wonder if the Census folks will ever work with the marketing world and corporations who know so much about such a broad swath of Americans, anyway. Those corporations certainly know how to be effecient about it.
Thanks for your question, Recrat.
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