Housing conditions and needs throughout the country would be difficult to gauge if key questions are dropped from the 1990 census because of Office of Management and Budget objections, Washington area government officials and housing industry leaders have told Congress.
Information obtained through these questions is "critical" to local governments when officials try to meet "the need for housing, community facilities, social services and transportation," according to Ruth Keeton, a member of the Howard County Council. "Eliminating data does not eradicate the need."
Keeton was one of several witnesses who testified before the Joint Economic Committee of Congress last week. The hearings were scheduled after the Census Bureau notified federal agencies, local governments and other major users of census information that OMB wants to eliminate about 30, or nearly half, of the questions on the 1990 forms. The agency is proposing to eliminate questions about housing quality, value and costs, rent, population mobility, energy, unemployment and fertility, the bureau said.
The census, required by the Constitution and conducted every 10 years, is the fundamental source of detailed information about the U.S. population. OMB reviews the census questionnaire and all other federal forms under its mandate to reduce government paper work.
The budget agency asked the Census Bureau to produce better reasons for including the 30 questions but has not decided what recommendations it will make, Wendy Lee Gramm, head of OMB's office of information and regulatory affairs, said at the hearing. During a July 24 meeting of census and budget officials, the census bureau did not provide "even minimum justification for the questions" cited by OMB, she told the committee.
OMB spokesman Edwin L. Dale Jr. said the bureau gave OMB "a box load of information" this week to support the need for the disputed questions. The agency does not plan to announce a final decision until after a 90-day public comment period ends in mid-September, Dale said.
Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee's census and population subcommittee, took part in the hearings and questioned the budget agency's reasons for targeting the housing queries and other questions.
"We will have a politically and ideologically motivated census" if OMB eliminates the questions, he said. If the budget agency was concerned, he asked, "Why did it not set its limitations while the questions were being developed?" OMB was the head of an interagency task force that worked on census questions.
Some of the housing questions flagged by OMB have been on the census forms for years. Several provide information the Department of Housing and Urban Development uses to award federal grants and to give aid to poor people and communities, other witnesses said.
The President's Commission on Housing said in 1982 that affordability is "today's primary lower-income housing problem," according to Michael S. Carliner, staff vice president for economics and housing policy for the National Association of Home Builders. "Yet the OMB proposal would eliminate all affordability measures from the census, including rent, value and the cost of utilities, fuels, insurance and mortgage payments."
Data used to set "fair market rents" for communities across the nation would be unavailable if the questions are eliminated, Keeton said. HUD's major subsidy program for low-income families provides the difference between 30 percent of poor families' income and the fair market rent