The U.S. Census Bureau has decided not to drop questions from its annual American Community Survey (ACS) about marital history and what people studied in college after researchers complained about the pending loss of important data.
Last fall, the agency had proposed removing the questions in a bid to streamline the 72-question survey, begun in 2005 as a replacement for the so-called long form of the decennial census. The questions had scored low in a review that evaluated whether they were mandated by Congress, their cost, the burden to respondents, and their overall utility.
In a Federal Register notice posted today, the Census Bureau says it received 1361 comments urging it to retain three questions (#21, #22, and #23) relating to marital history and status and 625 comments asking it to preserve the question (#12) about a resident’s undergraduate college major. Demographers and social scientists say states already do a poor job of providing marriage data and that federal registries are “a disgrace.” The National Science Foundation had spent years lobbying for the Census Bureau to include the college-major question, arguing that it is essential for monitoring trends in the scientific workforce.
Agency officials apparently took those comments to heart. Regarding question 12, the bureau said today that “[g]iven the importance of this small population group to the economy, the federal statistical system and the nation, bolstered by the new knowledge of historical precedent brought to light by commenters to the Federal Register notice, the Census Bureau therefore plans to retain this question on the 2016 ACS.”
Similarly, it backed away from dropping the marriage questions, writing that “in deference to the very large number of comments received on the Census Bureau proposal to eliminate those questions, the Census Bureau plans to retain those questions on the 2016 ACS.”
The ACS has long been a target for political conservatives, who say its questions are intrusive. Several federal legislators also think that private companies could do the survey for much less money. In 2012, the Census Bureau agreed to review the ACS with the goal of “provid[ing] the most useful information with the least amount of burden” without lowering the quality of the survey.
Some observers predicted that the agency would ultimately recommend retaining the targeted questions but that it needed to show Congress that it had exercised due diligence. Today’s notice is actually its intent to act, subject to the approval of the White House Office of Management and Budget.