Back in 2009, Michele Bachmann told an interviewer that she was refusing to answer any questions on the census form other than how many people lived in her household. It seems this passionate advocate of the Constitution as sacred text found Article 1, Section 2 incompatible with her small-government ideology. But that's the problem with seeing things through such narrow blinkers: when you are convinced that every question in public debate has but a single answer ("Government is bad!"), then your answers to some ordinary questions can become absurd.
So it was when the House of Representatives, a body now seemingly devoted to seeking out new ways to make itself look stupid when it isn't pushing the country toward economic calamity, recently voted to undermine the American Community Survey, a supplement to the decennial census. The ACS gathers information on many different measures of Americans' lives, providing valuable data that demographers, historians, and all manner of social scientists use to understand our nation and its people. Because the ACS is far larger than ordinary public opinion polls, it provides highly reliable data that are also used by government itself and by private industry. So how could something like that become politicized? How could any congressional Republican, no matter how stupid, possibly come to see it as some kind of liberal plot or wasteful boondoggle? Catherine Rampell of The New York Times explains (forgive the long excerpt; it's a good explanation):
This survey of American households has been around in some form since 1850, either as a longer version of or a richer supplement to the basic decennial census. It tells Americans how poor we are, how rich we are, who is suffering, who is thriving, where people work, what kind of training people need to get jobs, what languages people speak, who uses food stamps, who has access to health care, and so on.
It is, more or less, the country's primary check for determining how well the government is doing — and in fact what the government will be doing. The survey's findings help determine how over $400 billion in government funds is distributed each year.
But last week, the Republican-led House voted to eliminate the survey altogether, on the grounds that the government should not be butting its nose into Americans' homes. "This is a program that intrudes on people's lives, just like the Environmental Protection Agency or the bank regulators," said Daniel Webster, a first-term Republican congressman from Florida who sponsored the relevant legislation.
"We're spending $70 per person to fill this out. That's just not cost effective," he continued, "especially since in the end this is not a scientific survey. It's a random survey."
In fact, the randomness of the survey is precisely what makes the survey scientific, statistical experts say.
Each year the Census Bureau polls a representative, randomized sample of about three million American households about demographics, habits, languages spoken, occupation, housing and various other categories. The resulting numbers are released without identifying individuals, and offer current demographic portraits of even the country's tiniest communities.
It is the largest (and only) data set of its kind and is used across the federal government in formulas that determine how much funding states and communities get for things like education and public health.
I don't for a minute think that John Boehner has been gunning for the ACS for years, or that the entire Republican caucus feels passionately about it one way or the other. But in the House today, all it takes is one simpleton of a first-term Tea Party congressman to bring this up, and the rest of them say, "Gee, I don't want to vote for government! Because government is bad!" So they go along. All but ten House Republicans voted for Webster's amendment, and Rand Paul has a companion bill in the Senate. What a fine display of leadership and responsible governing.
And about Webster saying the ACS "is not a scientific survey. It's a random survey," a bit of explanation is in order. When you say a survey is "random," it means the respondents are selected randomly, meaning everyone in the population has an equal chance of being in the sample. That's what makes a sample unbiased, as opposed to, say, interviewing only men or only people in California, which would be non-random surveys. Surveys have to be random, except under some very carefully defined circumstances, in order to allow you to extrapolate to a larger population. But what obviously happened is that Webster saw something about the sample being "random," and said, "What?!? It's just some random survey? What the hell? Let's kill this thing!" And here's where it's really disheartening. From that point forward–as he wrote his bill, convinced his colleagues, and saw it passed through the House–nobody clued him in to the first thing about how surveys work in general or how this survey works in particular. Nor, obviously, did he try to find out for himself. Because who cares?
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