June 13th, 2012


Published: Sunday, June 10, 2012, 5:32 AM

Most people I talk to in my work as the executive director of the Alabama Poverty Project know Alabama is a poor state, but they are not sure how poor.

Thanks to the U.S. Census Bureau, I can tell them 18.9 percent of Alabamians live below the federal poverty threshold, which is just more than $22,000

a year for a family of four. That makes Alabama the third-poorest state in the country.

Dig a bit deeper, and you will find that 27.4 percent of Alabama children and 45.9 percent of single moms and their children live in poverty, according to the American Community Survey.

These are some of the statistics included on the Alabama Poverty Project’s 2012 Alabama Poverty Data Sheet, which we distribute throughout the state to encourage policymakers to make policy decisions based on facts rather than conjecture.

While that may seem logical — making policy decisions based on solid knowledge of community needs — it may soon be all but impossible. A few weeks ago, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to abolish the American Community Survey, which is the successor to the long-form census that had been around for 200 years.

Each year, the Census Bureau asks approximately 3.5 million American households to answer questions on age, race, housing and health. The bureau uses the responses to produce dense demographic information, including characteristics of poor families, commute times and even what kind of fuel households use for heating.

The federal government then uses the data to divvy up more than $400 billion in grants and benefits to states and communities. Alabama receives federal funding to do things like provide medical care for poor children through the ALL Kids health insurance program and build new highways, including Corridor X linking Birmingham to Memphis.

Alabama, in turn, uses the American Community Survey to allocate state funds to county and local governments. In addition, policymakers and community organizations use survey data to understand who are poor and where they live so leaders can strategically deploy resources for education, law enforcement and disability services.

The private sector also utilizes American Community Survey data. Businesses such as Target rely on the survey to decide where to locate new stores and gain insights on consumer spending habits, and economic developers use the numbers to figure out where potential workers live.

U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla., who sponsored the House legislation, claims the compulsory survey is not cost effective. In addition, he argues the survey is unconstitutional and intrusive, with those willfully neglecting to answer questions technically subject to fines up to $5,000. However, Census Bureau Director Robert Groves said he was unaware of a single prosecution for noncompliance and that interviewers’ ability to educate respondents on the survey’s importance is far more effective than threatening to levy fines. Responses rates are about 97.5 percent, far exceeding typical rates for surveys.

As Founding Father James Madison recognized, the government is uniquely suited to gather socioeconomic information about the population in order to make “proper provision for the agricultural, commercial and manufacturing interests.” With that in mind, the American Community Survey enjoyed bipartisan support from its creation in the mid-1990s through its full implementation in 2005.

Conservative groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, have expressed support for the survey.

The Senate has not yet considered the House action on the survey. Observers think the Senate may accept a compromise that would make the survey voluntary, not mandatory, and thus drastically reduce its effectiveness.

Libertarian Andrew Biggs, a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, said in his March testimony to Congress that “(w)e already suffer too much from what might be referred to as ‘policymaking by anecdote,’ where lawmakers seek to pass legislation before sufficiently examining the severity — or sometimes even the existence — of a perceived problem. Reducing the quantity and quality of data available to policymakers, analysts and researchers threatens to exacerbate this problem.”

Biggs and other leaders on both sides of the aisle recognize that the American Community Survey’s value centers on our ability to advocate for and make policy decisions based on a reliable, factual analysis. As the performance management maxim goes, we cannot fix what we do not measure.

Kristina R. Scott is executive director of the Alabama Poverty Project.