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American Community Survey in jeopardy

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HACKENSACK, N.J. - A one-stop source for data on everything from how much people make and how far they commute to what languages they speak would cease to exist under a congressional proposal to end the nation's largest survey of economic, social and housing conditions across the country.

The Republican-sponsored cost-cutting bill, which has come under broad criticism, would end funding next year for an annual U.S. Census Bureau program that collects data on subjects that include income, living arrangements, commuting patterns and disabilities.

The measure passed the House of Representatives on May 9. It is pending in the U.S. Senate as part of a broader funding bill included in the federal government's 2013 proposed budget.

The bill has no effect on the once-a-decade census used to get official counts of the population and apportion congressional seats among the 50 states. But if it becomes law, it will halt the yearly American Community Survey, which provides a vast array of information used by government to help decide where to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money, by businesses to figure out where to operate, and by academics and the media to report on local and national trends.

While some say the bill has little chance of getting through the Democratic-controlled Senate, there are fears the survey's $242 million annual tab could become a bargaining chip in continuing political battle over cutting the $3.8 trillion federal budget and reining the national debt.

"This is extraordinarily significant. It means we would know a lot less about a lot of things," said Rutgers University demographer James Hughes.

Foes of the program, say that, on top of concerns about spiraling budget deficits, it represents an invasion of citizens' privacy by the government and an inappropriate use of taxpayer money. They have singled out for criticism survey questions about whether households have flush toilets or whether mental disabilities prevent people from doing errands or making decisions.

"It is the very picture of what's wrong in Washington, D.C.," the lead sponsor, Daniel Webster of Florida, said on the House floor. "It's the definition of the breach of personal privacy."

Scott Garrett, R-N.J., said in an emailed statement that he voted with Webster because "our country is broke. With almost $16 trillion of debt on the books and an annual budget deficit of $1 trillion, we cannot continue spending money we don't have. Regardless of the merits of the survey, we can't afford it anymore."

But to the Census Bureau, most Democratic representatives and other advocates of the survey, including major business trade groups and a political cross section of think tanks, losing the data would make a wide range of government and business operations more difficult.

"It's a horrible idea," said Jane De Lung, president of the Population Resource Center in Washington. "To not collect the data will cost the nation much more money. We won't have the data to plan where to put the Wal-Marts, where to put the grocery stores, where to put the new roads, which languages will be spoken in our schools. We will be driving by the seat of our pants without even the minimum of a road map for where we are going."

David Crowe, chief economist of the National Association of Home Builders, called the move a "shortsighted" action that would "leave us with a lack of understanding of what's happening in the country."

For his part, Census Bureau Director Robert Groves said the measure "devastates the nation's statistical information about the status of the economy and the larger society."

Under fire is a program the Census Bureau began rolling out in 2005 with annual information to replace data previously collected once a decade. Based on a sampling of about 3 million households nationwide, the survey provides single-year tables for states and most counties and cities, with three- and five-year tables available for smaller places.

Questions cover topics that include income and wages, amounts people spend on housing, disabilities that affect daily life, home heating and plumbing, marital status, sexual orientation of household partners, level of education and children going to public versus private schools. To varying degrees, the Census Bureau has asked those types of questions since the early 20th century.

The survey is not without problems.

Much of the data at small-town levels offer only rough estimates with large margins of error that make comparisons over time or among different places difficult. For example, in North Jersey, the median household income in Bogota in the second half of the 2000s was reported at $77,375, give or take $13,132. And in Haledon, there were 890 adults with college degrees, give or take 280.

Congressional opponents also object to the study's mandatory nature, which subjects people to possible fines if they refuse to respond.

But others say killing the program or making it voluntary would be far worse. Losing the data, they say, would deprive government of information needed to do things such as plan transportation improvements, allocate grants to aid children in poor areas or fund Medicaid or Medicare.

On the business side, they say retailers would lack information used to decide where to put stores, while developers would have little to go by when planning new housing construction.

"Potentially, it costs you more in lost economic activity," said Crowe of the home builders group.

A voluntary survey, meanwhile, could produce distorted results and increase the cost if census workers have to spend more time trying to get people to respond, advocates say.

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