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Experts: Census needs funding to repair its data ‘backbone’

March 8, 2022 GMT
FILE - With the downtown skyline in the background, expansive urban sprawl continues to grow, Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, in Phoenix.  A U.S. Census Bureau survey that is the premier source of yearly information about the U.S. population and workforce needs tens of millions of extra dollars to get more respondents to participate and make the data more timely and accurate, according to a report released Tuesday, March 8, 2022.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
FILE - With the downtown skyline in the background, expansive urban sprawl continues to grow, Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, in Phoenix.  A U.S. Census Bureau survey that is the premier source of yearly information about the U.S. population and workforce needs tens of millions of extra dollars to get more respondents to participate and make the data more timely and accurate, according to a report released Tuesday, March 8, 2022.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
FILE - With the downtown skyline in the background, expansive urban sprawl continues to grow, Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, in Phoenix.  A U.S. Census Bureau survey that is the premier source of yearly information about the U.S. population and workforce needs tens of millions of extra dollars to get more respondents to participate and make the data more timely and accurate, according to a report released Tuesday, March 8, 2022.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
FILE - With the downtown skyline in the background, expansive urban sprawl continues to grow, Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, in Phoenix. A U.S. Census Bureau survey that is the premier source of yearly information about the U.S. population and workforce needs tens of millions of extra dollars to get more respondents to participate and make the data more timely and accurate, according to a report released Tuesday, March 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
FILE - With the downtown skyline in the background, expansive urban sprawl continues to grow, Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, in Phoenix. A U.S. Census Bureau survey that is the premier source of yearly information about the U.S. population and workforce needs tens of millions of extra dollars to get more respondents to participate and make the data more timely and accurate, according to a report released Tuesday, March 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

A U.S. Census Bureau survey that is the premier source of yearly information about the nation’s population and workforce needs millions more in funding to encourage participation and produce more accurate and timely results, according to a report released Tuesday.

Increasing funding for the annual American Community Survey would be “a huge return on investment for the nation,” enabling the Census Bureau to enlarge the pool of respondents, be more nimble in adding or removing timely questions and speed up the results, according to The Census Project, a nonpartisan coalition of researchers, advocates and former Census Bureau staffers.

The American Community Survey’s budget was $226 million in 2021. The Census Project report recommends spending $100 million to $300 million more in a combination of a one-time infusion and recurring funding.

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The survey of 3.5 million households each year is the “backbone” of the U.S. data infrastructure, producing 11 billion statistics based on respondents’ answers to questions about their jobs, income, housing costs, disabilities, marital status, Internet access, health insurance, number of vehicles owned and types of appliances they have in their homes.

The American Community Survey launched in 2005 as a substitute for the census’ long-form questionnaire which had been sent out to about a sixth of all U.S. households during the once-a-decade head count of every U.S. resident.

The data ripples through the economy, used by local governments to decide where to build schools and hospitals and by businesses in determining where to locate stores.

Increasing the pool of respondents by a million households, using administrative records from federal agencies including the Social Security Administration and hiring more workers to do follow-up interviews with households that haven’t answered the survey would improve the accuracy of the data, particularly in rural areas and among subgroups, such as families with young children, the report said.

The extra money also could plug in data gaps caused by the pandemic, hurricanes and wildfires during the nation’s latest once-a-decade head count, since “states and localities especially cannot afford to wait another 10 years to remedy such potential shortcomings in the 2020 Census count,” the report said.

The report also recommends expanding questions on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as adding a question about parental place of birth, to better measure rapidly changing concepts of identity and offer insight on the characteristics of second-and-third generation immigrants.

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Demographer Allison Plyer, who wasn’t involved in the report, said the American Community Survey helps drive the U.S. economy by providing the data used in making big decisions.

“It’s critical. If someone were to say, ‘Let’s just stop posting stock numbers every day,’ can you imagine what people would do? This is foundational information for our economy,” said Plyer, chief demographer of The Data Center in New Orleans.

The Census Project commissioned the report after the Census Bureau said last year that 1-year estimates from the 2020 the American Community Survey weren’t usable because of problems in collecting data caused by the pandemic. Next week, the bureau plans to release a version of the 2020 estimates that incorporates data over five years.

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Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MikeSchneiderAP