06/05/2012 11:43 am ET Updated Aug 05, 2012

The Government Doesn't Really Care About Your Toilet

The House of Representatives voted last month to eliminate the American Community Survey. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has jumped on the bandwagon to push the cuts through the Senate. The ACS is a yearly version of the U.S. Census which gathers housing and economic information from a sample of households across the nation. According to the Congressional Republican backers of the bill, ACS is not only a waste of money, it causes too much government intrusion into our lives. Supposedly, these elected officials and their constituents are worried about why the government wants to know whether their houses have flush toilets and whether household residents need help with self-care. The anti-government sentiment that the ACS is an intrusion into respondents' personal lives is irrational.

ACS and the Census Bureau are not concerned specifically whether YOU have a flush toilet in your house or whether your mother who lives with you needs help bathing and dressing. However, the Census Bureau and hundreds of local governments and private companies who use the data are interested in how many people in your community, your state and even across the nation share the same traits. The ACS survey examines communities, not individuals -- as explained in the name itself.

Maybe our government-run school systems are at fault for not teaching deductive reasoning or rational thought. Really! It should not be that hard for us to deduce that the government -- including the municipal water district, the department of streets and sewers, or the public health department -- wants to know whether a neighborhood has flush toilets because it might be making plans for improvements to the water, sewage, or street systems.

In the same vein, it cannot be that difficult to understand that knowing how many households in a community have four-year-olds living in them will help the local schools make plans for kindergarten enrollment. For those Americans who don't care about education or schools (and tragically there seem to be many), they might simply consider that ACS data is used to determine what kind of trash collection is needed in a neighborhood or how many police officers are needed. We all make trash, and we all want to feel safe.

Seemingly private information that the Census Bureau and ACS collect about whether residents have difficulties or limitations related to self-care, going outside the home, employment, mobility, and functioning are not used to impinge upon personal freedoms. Like toilets, the federal government is not concerned with individuals' functioning. However, the feds, the states, counties, and city governments are concerned with how many individuals in a particular community might need assistance with daily activities such as bathing, dressing, and going outside of the home. Why? Because even though we Americans demand and are entitled to self-determination, sometimes local governments need to make sure their more vulnerable residents are not being abused, exploited, or neglected. If the neighborhood has many disabled or frail older people living alone, wouldn't it behoove a rational society to check in on them now and then and make sure they are safe too?

If you don't believe that governmental agencies should be looking after the people in our communities, then will you step up to do the job? Whose responsibility is it to take care of vulnerable people living in the community who need help with basic needs such as shopping, preparing food, eating, bathing, and dressing? While many of us live in proximity to extended family members, growing numbers of us do not. (Guess what? If you want to know how many of us live in intergenerational households or with disabled family members, you can find that information from the ACS or 2010 Census data). Family members have traditionally taken care of their own, but the ACS can tell us whether times may have changed.

Sen. Rand Paul wants to limit government and get us to take more responsibility for ourselves. If you live in a neighborhood with many vulnerable older people, will you or the local churches or synagogues step into the caregiving role? Faith communities can and should use ACS and 2010 Census data to determine how to meet the needs of the people living in their neighborhoods.

Instead of worrying about the definition of a family, faith communities can step in and provide support for many people who do not have families. Doesn't a "traditional family" include more than a mom and a dad and a couple kids but instead include grandparents or a widowed aunt living in the home? How many churches support intergenerational families who need help with an aging relative? ACS data opens doors for local communities to take care of themselves. Isn't that what all the fuss is about?