Does government knowledge mean government intrusion?

at 03:05 PM ET, 05/13/2012

Nothing says government overreach like asking about the toilets in your house.


Statues at the Supreme Court. Maybe they, and the rest of government, should just close their eyes. (Andrew Harrer - Bloomberg News)
At least that’s the justification that House Republicans are giving for their bill to cut funding for the American Community Survey, a detailed complement to the census that surveys 2.9 million households every year. “We do not have an intrusive federal government that would impose a fine on people if they didn’t let the information come out about whether they had a flush toilet,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said last week, according to the Huffington Post.

On Wednesday, House Republicans passed a bill to eliminate the ACS, 232 to 190, out of fear that the government survey was an unconstitutional invasion of privacy. According to the Census Bureau, the annual survey is an essential tool for local officials across the country, as the decennial census paints a portrait of the country only in very broad strokes — and only every 10 years, at that. “Information from the survey generates data that help determine how more than $400 billion in federal and state funds are distributed each year,” the Census Bureau explains. Yes, there may be questions about how many flush toilets are in the house, but the data could help, say, a local government determine the water needs of its residents.

Washington City Paper’s Shani Hilton takes a closer look at how critical the ACS is to providing social services on the local level. “Without [the ACS] we really wouldn’t have a reliable way to look at income, poverty, and housing costs on the state level,” Jenny Reed of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute tells her. Eliminating the ACS would also blindside business, which depends on the data to help tailor products and services to customers.

Just listen to executives at Target describe how they use ACS data in this video flagged by Businessweek. “The Census Bureau data gives us information on population density or on owner occupancy where we know space is at a premium. So thinking about folding chairs, smaller furniture to help guests where have smaller spaces,” explains Ted Smetana, director of store segmentation for Target. “By using Census Bureau data, in combination with our sales data, we’re able to better understand how we can meet our guests’ needs.”

But the GOP’s Big Brother argument could gain traction at a time when Americans are growing increasingly concerned about how their personal information is being collected. But unlike Google or the Internet’s data-scrapers, the Census Bureau ensures that the information it makes public hides the identity of the respondents. And though the survey is mandatory, it’s something that Americans themselves fill out — not information that’s being collected unbeknownst to them.

But perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that the anti-ACS push happened the same week that House Republicans also voted to eliminate funding for political science research through the National Science Foundation, as Ezra Klein explained earlier. Behind both GOP initiatives is the belief that it isn’t the business of government to gather certain kinds of knowledge or information — whether it’s about the country’s individual citizens or the nature of its political systems. But in certain cases, the price of government not knowing is that many others will be left in the dark as well.

 
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