American Community Survey in the Spotlight

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

Statisticians and demographers don't usually find themselves in the middle of a national policy debate. But a vote last month by the U.S. House of Representatives to kill the federal American Community Survey (ACS) has raised the profile of a workshop starting tomorrow by the National Academies' Committee on National Statistics.

The 2-day workshop will explore "the benefits and burdens" of the ACS, which debuted in 2005 as a replacement for the long form of the decennial census. Its 48 questions on housing, education, employment, transportation, and other topics help businesses decide where to locate plants and what to stock in their stores, guide government agencies in allocating nearly half-a-trillion dollars a year in federal assistance, and provide data for a host of other purposes, from civil rights enforcement to public health initiatives.

The workshop was planned well before last month's House vote, which would defund the $250 million-a-year survey conducted by the Census Bureau. And it's not connected to a campaign by business and academic leaders aimed at preventing a similar amendment from being attached to a parallel spending bill in the Senate (see details in Friday's issue of Science). "But it provides a heck of a context," admits Ken Hodges, co-chair of the workshop and chief demographer for Nielsen, the worldwide marketing and demographics research firm.

Presentations will describe how ACS data help public officials address health care and transportation needs, prepare for and respond to natural disasters and emergencies, and address issues of social equity. Participants will also discuss privacy protection and communicating survey results to the public. The workshop is aimed at helping the Census Bureau improve the quality of the survey without increasing its cost.

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