Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Counting Flush Toilets to Advance Democracy

About 3 million households are randomly selected and asked question 8b in the American Community Survey (ACS) every year:

“Does this house, apartment, or mobile home have a flush toilet?”

The Census Bureau collects the survey data and reports the statistical summaries.  However, a few Congressmen recently cited this question as an example of how ACS invades our privacy and violates our constitutional rights.  The House of Representatives passed a bill last week to eliminate funding for the ACS although the Census Bureau cannot publish my or your personal response to the question until 72 years later.  Strong laws are already present to protect our personal privacy.

Questions about flush toilets first appeared in the 1940 census.  There were originally 5 choices about the availability of shared or private use of indoor flush toilets, indoor non-flush toilets, outdoor toilets, or no toilet at all.  Progress over time reduced them to today’s one question.

Will we miss the flush toilet and ACS data?  You bet.

Plumbing data are still essential components for the development of public assistance for housing and fair market values; public health officials use the data as an indicator of areas in danger of ground water contamination and waterborne diseases. One of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals is to reduce by half the proportion of the world’s population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation including flush toilets by 2015.  We have made tremendous progress in the last 72 years, but much of the rest of the world is not as fortunate as we are in using flush toilets.

For those of us who have experienced squatting on a plank above an 8-foot hole to provide biological relief, a flush toilet is an important part of the life, liberty and happiness that we have been pursuing.

Eliminating the ACS “would cause massive disruptions in the federal government,” according to Andrew Reamer, a research professor at the George Washington University Institute of Public Policy.  The Washington Post describes the House action “among the most shortsighted measures we have seen in this Congress.”  In terms of cost savings, “eliminating the ACS is like declining to buy stethoscopes in order to reduce health-care expenses.”  The New York Times calls it “know-nothingness at a new level.”

Availability of flush toilets is only one of the important indicators derived from the ACS.  In addition to helping to determine how hundreds of billions of dollars in public funds are distributed each year, ACS provides vital socio-economic indicators that collectively describe the current state of the American people and society and measure progress by comparing with past results including demographics, education, disabilities, employment and family – who we are and where we have been as a people.

Among the questions asked in the first U.S. census in 1790 were the number of slaves and all other free persons in a household.  These questions are no longer asked because we have outgrown their relevance.  One day the question on flush toilets will also become obsolete; it will be replaced by other questions as we continue to evolve and grow as a democratic nation.

Making wise use of data and continuing to inform the citizenry promote good governance and have enhanced the American democratic process for more than two centuries.  Eliminating rigorous, scientific collection of national data of economic, social, and demographic significance such as the ACS can only degrade the public's understanding of complex, dynamic trends in our society.   Without such reliable data, the formulation of public policy would then be based on speculation, conjecture and ignorance which is not in our nation's best interest.