Tell the Census to Keep Important Questions on the ACS

04 Dec 2014 | Justin Scoggins
Tell the Census to Keep Important Questions on the ACS
Above: Economics & Statistics Administration, US Department of Commerce

The National Equity Atlas is part of a growing movement toward data-driven decision-making and policy happening in this country—and consistent collection of data by government agencies is a critical foundation for these efforts. But data is almost always on the short-list when it comes to government spending cuts.

Case in point: the Census Bureau just announced plans to drop six questions about undergraduate education and family structure from the American Community Survey. At first glance, these cuts might sound fairly benign, but in reality, it would be a huge loss. These data points are critical for understanding—and developing policy solutions for—some of the country’s most pressing challenges.

Here are some of the equitable economy-related questions that we will not be able to answer if these cuts go forward:

  • Are America’s students learning the skills that are in increasing demand by employers?
  • Are we reducing racial inequities for students of color and female students in access to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education
  • ​Which undergraduate fields of study lead to good-paying jobs? In which fields is there greater pay equity by race and gender?

Please join us and other data advocates in telling the Census not to cut these questions! Send Jennifer Jessup in the Department of Commerce (jjessup@doc.gov) an email request to keep these questions.

My letter is below. You can use it as a template to make your own points or simply copy and paste it into an email with a quick note at the top saying “I agree with Justin Scoggins’ points in his letter below. These questions are important for researchers, practitioners, and advocates working to ensure equitable access to higher education, strengthen the workforce, and build an equitable economy.” Whatever you do, please copy the folks at the University of Minnesota who are leading the advocacy effort (nhgis@umn.edu).

For more information:

 

Dear Ms. Jessup,

I am writing to express my dismay at the intent to drop questions on marital history and field of undergraduate study from the American Community Survey (ACS). I can understand the constraints imposed by budgets and wanting to keep the survey less burdensome for respondents – which can arguably improve response rates and data quality – but the costs of losing this valuable information are likely to outweigh any gains. These two particular sets of questions are highly important to the study of the impacts of changing family structures as well as field of study on economic and policy outcomes.

There are currently no other regularly updated and sufficiently detailed sources of information in the U.S. on marriage, divorce, widowhood, and remarriage. Given the ways in which federal allocation of Social Security and other entitlement programs are, in part, based on marital status, lack of good data means less efficient allocation and forecasting of public expenditures. This constrains our understanding of how marriage impacts economic well-being (which is particularly important as family structures shift).

There are myriad reasons why the questions on field of undergraduate study are important to keep. As costs of education are spiking, real questions are surfacing about the financial prudence of making an investment in one’s education – long assumed to be the most sound. Of course, financial returns vary widely by field of study, so without this information it is not possible to draw any strong conclusions on the value of this investment or whether its returns are in fact diminishing. Keeping this question will allow us to provide data-driven answers.

Perhaps more important, the questions on field of study help us understand how well we are doing at improving equity in pay by race and sex, and also at equipping the next generation with the sorts of skills that are in increasing demand by the labor market – such as those gained from a background in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Our nation is faced with the challenge of a stark underrepresentation of young people of color in STEM fields, a challenge that is particularly alarming (even for those less concerned with social and racial equity) given imminent demographic trends that suggest people of color will be the majority of the workforce by 2050. Fortunately, there are people and organizations from various sectors working to improve access to STEM fields of study and equity in pay, but without good data the ability to track progress will be difficult at best.

The proposed elimination would sacrifice accuracy for efficiency. Given the high stakes in accurately measuring demographic and educational shifts, it is vital that we preserve these questions. I appreciate your consideration of my thoughts on this matter and hope that prompt action is taken to avoid the loss of these valuable questions from the ACS.

Sincerely,

Justin Scoggins
Data Manager
USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity