The Pew Research Center's excellent FactTank blog reported Tuesday that the Census Bureau is considering dropping a number of questions from its American Community Survey. The ACS has been a perennial target of Republican lawmakers, who say that its questions on everything from household income to commute times constitute an invasion of privacy.
Perhaps hoping to stave off some of these concerns, the bureau is reviewing a number of questions, including the one that has been subject to the most ridicule from the right: Housing questions 8a-8c, which cover the plumbing facilities in a household, including the presence (or lack thereof) of a "flush toilet." Setting aside privacy issues for the moment, can such a question possibly have relevancy in the year 2014? Or to put it more bluntly: Who doesn't have a flushing toilet?
As it turns out, a lot of people. According to the latest American Community Survey, nearly 630,000 occupied households lack complete plumbing facilities, which means that they are without one or more of the following: a toilet, a tub or shower, or running water. The Census Bureau says that the average household contains 2.6 individuals, which means that today, in 2014, in the wealthiest nation on Earth, upwards of 1.6 million people are living without full indoor plumbing.
As the map below shows, there is considerable geographic variation. Counties containing Indian reservations have astonishingly high percentages of households without plumbing -- 14 percent of households in Shannon County, S.D., don't have full plumbing. In Apache County, Ariz., the rate is more than 17 percent. Sparsely-populated census areas in Alaska also have very high percentages.
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Counties along the Rio Grande in Texas have high rates of unplumbed households, as do a smattering of counties in Appalachia, particularly in eastern Kentucky and western Virginia. The southwestern portion of Alabama is another hot spot.
Looking beyond the present day, it's worth remembering that indoor plumbing is a fairly new development for many communities. In 1950 fully one quarter of U.S. households did not have a flush toilet -- this means that the era of outhouses is well within living memory for many Americans. The town I live in, Oella, Md., was reliant on outhouses until 1984. And it's smack in the middle of the Acela corridor, between Baltimore and Washington.
So the American Community Survey's questions on the issue aren't simply a laughing matter or an abstract exercise in privacy invasion -- it's about a real problem that still affects millions of people. Among other things, the government uses this data to allocate Section 8 and other federal housing subsidies; to assess the quality of housing stock in a given area; to determine the number of older Americans living in sub-standard housing who may be eligible for assistance; and to identify the Indian reservations that need the most housing assistance.
All told, a Brookings Institution study estimated that American Community Survey data is used to guide over $416 billion in annual federal spending. Without that data, the government would be forced to spend that money blindly.