THE other day, I was wondering whether empirical evidence supports the suggestion that social services provided by government would otherwise be provided through the private sector or civil society. Researching this, I stumbled across a useful 2005 study by two economists, Jonathan Gruber and Daniel M. Hungerman. They looked at charitable church spending during the 1930s, and found that during the period from 1933-1939, church charity declined by 30%. "Government relief spending [that is, the New Deal] can explain virtually all of the decline," they wrote. The economists used the Census of Religious Bodies, a survey run by the US Census Bureau from 1906-1936, to figure out how their data about denominational spending—the information they had gathered directly from historians at various churches—compared to the nation's overall denominational composition.
That's a wonky little example of one of the many uses of census data, and not as arcane as it might appear. The argument that government spending "crowds out" organisations like churches is one of the reasons that conservatives are always calling for spending cuts, and one of the reasons that they defend cuts to social services. So it's interesting that the House has a problem with the American Community Survey (ACS), an annual survey that asks 3m American households about their age, income, family composition and so forth.
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