Budget Deja Vu: Guard The Piggybank!

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

Were you getting ready to burrow underground for a while, census fans? (Didn’t the groundhog see his shadow?) Not so fast! President Obama’s Census Bureau budget request [PDF] for Fiscal Year 2013 (FY2013) compels us to shake off early-in-the-decade cobwebs and convince lawmakers that a modest increase in funding for the agency will not break the federal bank.

In fact, it just might save the Treasury significant money in the foreseeable future, as successful testing of electronic response options for ongoing surveys could reduce costly door-to-door data collection in the 2020 Census, and continuous updating of the national address list and digital map could eliminate universal pre-census address canvassing, which also comes with a high price tag. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The president proposed a total budget of $970 million for the Census Bureau, a 3 percent rise over the Fiscal Year 2012 funding level of $942 million. Truth be told, Congress pretended to give the Census Bureau $942 million last year, but in the light of day, it appropriated only $887 million, directing the agency to use $55 million from the now well-known, much-maligned Working Capital Fund (WCF) to make up the difference.

The top program priorities in 2013 will be the Economic Census and continued planning for the 2020 Census. Next year (which starts October 1, 2012) marks the peak of a six-year planning and implementation cycle for the 2012 Economic Census ($112 million), as the Census Bureau gathers information from 3 million business enterprises across the country (using 4.6 million forms, in case you’re into numbers). It’s worth remembering that this quinquennial measure of the nation’s economic health almost came to a screeching halt last year when House appropriators reduced (whacked!) the bureau’s budget request by a quarter. Lawmakers came to their senses after economists kindly pointed out that the nation needs data from this census to produce key indicators such as Gross Domestic Product.

As 2010 Census activities wind down with final evaluations and data products, planning for the next decennial enumeration is on its cyclical upswing. We aren’t talking big money yet, but the 2020 Census budget request ($131.4 million) is nearly double the FY2012 funding level ($66.7 million), a bump appropriators might find hard to swallow unless there’s a good reason. Fortunately, there are several.

It seems like a no-brainer but Congress has been known to ignore the obvious, so it’s worth repeating. The Census Bureau must invest resources early in the decade to ensure cost-effective, successful implementation of census operations down the road. The pace of technological change and rapid evolution of communication modes make ongoing research and testing essential. Similarly, keeping up with changes in the nation’s housing stock and roads could save hundreds of millions of dollars (now that’s real money!) during census preparations in 2018-19, allowing the bureau to confine final address checking to areas in frequent transition. And steps the agency takes now to improve large acquisition and contract management for the census could help it avoid billion dollar (literally) mistakes later.

Overall, the president’s funding request for the Census Bureau appears to be reasonable and responsible, taking advantage of cost savings whenever possible and investing prudently in programs that will yield, both directly and indirectly, savings for the agency and the nation in the future. For example, American households can answer the American Community Survey electronically starting in January 2013, saving an estimated several million dollars a year. The Census Bureau will try again to update its Supplemental Poverty Measure, an important policy building block that the bureau couldn’t pay for in FY2012.

Let’s hope legislators can resist the urge to dip into the WCF piggybank again, as funding caps continue to shrink. I’m not holding my breath though. (Have I mentioned recently that Senate appropriators helpfully encouraged the Census Bureau to spend less on the 2020 Census than it did on the 2000 count, without adjusting for inflation? I’m still chewing on this.) Census officials haven’t ignored congressional hand wringing over the lack of transparency in WCF practices; the agency is seeking outside expertise to help it improve performance measures and business models.

When you think about it, the bones of the census funding story haven’t changed, but it seems like it’s getting harder to get lawmakers to listen. So dust off those winter blues, census gurus, and start reminding your elected representatives that they can’t do their jobs without the rich store of data the Census Bureau produces. The bureau’s budget is a drop in the bucket when compared to the value of the public and private sector decisions that ride on its work, day in and day out.