Speak Your Piece: Sanitizing the Census

The Census Bureau wants to cut the “flush-toilet” question from its largest survey, saying the query is an “unnecessary burden on the American Public.” But changing the definition of inadequate plumbing won’t make it go away.

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With the recent foreclosure crisis and the rise of housing affordability problems, concerns around substandard and dilapidated homes may have waned or been pushed in to the background. Indeed, long-term efforts to improve housing conditions have resulted in dramatic reductions in the most egregious housing deficiencies. In 1970, more than 3.5 million homes in the United States were without complete plumbing facilities. In 2013, the number of homes lacking adequate plumbing declined to roughly 570,000, or less than 1 percent of the nation’s housing stock. An estimated 70 percent of these “plumbing-inadequate” homes lack a functioning flush toilet.

How do we know this?  The Census Bureau asks U.S. households a series of questions about their housing as part of its American Community Survey, or ACS. The ACS provides relatively limited data on basic structural and quality characteristics of our homes, such as adequate plumbing and kitchen facilities. The Census survey classifies a home as having adequate plumbing facilities if it contains three basic characteristics: 1) “hot and cold piped water,” 2) a “flush toilet,” and 3) a “bathtub or shower.”  Citing an “unnecessary burden on the American public,” the Census Bureau is proposing to discontinue the “flush-toilet” criterion when determining if a housing unit has adequate plumbing.

A large number of homes without working toilets are located in rural and small-town areas. In some rural communities, especially on Native American lands, the incidence of homes lacking basic plumbing can exceed 20 times the national rate. In Apache County, Arizona, part of the Navajo Nation, an estimated 17 percent of homes lack adequate plumbing. The state of Alaska has some of the highest rates of homes without toilets. Overall, 8 percent of rural homes in Alaska lack proper plumbing, and in some Alaska counties, nearly 40 percent of homes are without indoor plumbing. Inadequate plumbing in Alaska is likely influenced in part by its climate and permafrost that inhibits water and wastewater access.

U.S. Homes lacking Plumbing, 1970 – 2010

 

Counting Toilets – Burden, Intrusion, or Just Uncomfortable? 

In its rationale for removing the toilet related question, the Census Bureau asserts that in very few instances does the absence of a toilet alone determine the existence of substandard housing. However, nearly all homes with inadequate plumbing also lack toilets, as this characteristic is a central element of most housing deficiency. The Census Bureau’s proposal to discontinue the toilet question would almost certainly result in a reduction of U.S. homes considered to lack basic plumbing. Using the Census’ more detailed Public Use Microdata (or PUMS), an estimated 32,000 homes are classified as lacking plumbing solely on the characteristic of no working toilet. The proposed questionnaire change would result in an estimated 8 percent undercount of homes lacking adequate plumbing.  While 32,000 homes is a relatively small number compared to the larger housing stock, this omission undercounts and minimizes the problem of households lacking the most basic of housing necessities. Ultimately, the Census Bureau’s proposal is counterproductive in efforts to identify and inform strategies that help remedy such basic housing problems. While we may not want to acknowledge it, there are still hundreds of thousands of households in this county living in conditions typically associated with developing nations.  

Since its inception, the American Community Survey has been characterized as intrusive by certain elements and factions. In this particular issue, there are probably some Americans who are just uncomfortable reporting functions of their lives that involve a bathroom. But the primary assertion by the Census Bureau that answering questions on the functionality of a flush toilet in one’s home is an “unnecessary burden on the American public” begs a relatively simple question. If checking a box on a form indicating that you have a toilet is a burden, what is the burden for the more than 1 million Americans living in a home without a functioning bathroom?

Lance George is the director of research and information at the Housing Assistance Council in Washington, D.C.

 

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