Can We Talk?

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

No, I’m not going to pay homage to the late, great Joan Rivers today, but hopefully I now have your attention.

Truth is, I am having a mid-decade crisis and need to share. (This should not be confused with a mid-life crisis. Been there; done that.)

Congress has emerged from its summer slumber and will try to keep the government running past Sept. 30, when the current fiscal year ends, before heading home soon to campaign again.

Meanwhile, I am looking into my census crystal ball and contemplating the outcome of the 2020 population count. I’m anxious about what I see. I know it’s early to sound the alarm, but the pieces of the puzzle are not fitting together neatly in my vision of the future. Best not to bear the anguish alone, no?

Why the angst? First of all, Congress isn’t paying much attention to 2020 Census planning. Granted, it isn’t paying much attention to anything at all, save the midterm elections. But even if lawmakers get their act together when a new Congress reconvenes next winter, opportunities to plan and carry out four major field tests that will inform the design framework for the 2020 Census, will be slip-sliding away like much of the country during the predicted repeat polar vortex.

Congress, in fact, is so disinterested in the census that House members turned “raid the Census Bureau piggy-bank” into a virtual sport last spring, stopping their bipartisan target practice only after Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) lamented that there wouldn’t be a census in 2020 if lawmakers kept at it. Rep. Wolf, by the way, is retiring from the “do nothing” Congress to, presumably, do something else. But I digress.

Senate appropriators have been putting relatively more money into census research and testing, with the caveat that the Census Bureau’s spending limit for the next enumeration is the same (or less) than the 2010 Census budget (roughly $13 billion), without adjusting for inflation. They have been pushing the bureau to move forward quickly with new initiatives. For example, the committee noted (S.Rept. 113-181) that the bureau could save a lot of money by using existing government databases to update the master address list and to reduce costly visits to unresponsive households. But it fretted that the bureau hasn’t figured out whether and how it can get its hands on these administrative records. No one seems concerned yet about the quality of the data for census purposes. Instead, the bureau should work “expeditiously” to get administrative records from federal, state, local, and Tribal agencies, appropriators said.

And that takes up-front money for research and testing. On tap for next spring is a field test that will help determine if administrative records can substitute for door-to-door visits to households that didn’t respond by mail or Internet. Let’s think about that possibility for a minute.

The census wants to know who lives in a home on a specific date: April 1, 2020. It asks how everyone in the household is related to each other. It collects detailed information on race and ethnicity; revised questions aim to increase the granularity of those data. Field tests will better illuminate the self-response universe, but let’s stipulate—based on experience—that the nonresponders are more likely to be in low income urban and rural households, people of color, and immigrants with limited English proficiency. (Remember, one-quarter of all households did not respond by mail in 2010; there was no Internet option.) Young children and young minority men are most likely to be overlooked, even in households that are otherwise counted. Will administrative records tell us who usually lived where on Census Day? How people in so-called complex households are related to each other? Whether a person is Mexican American or Vietnamese American or Afro-Latino? (And, at the risk of waving a red flag over the bayou, government databases aren’t likely to cover the undocumented population. Just saying.)

Stakeholders will want to see solid evidence that administrative records can match the quality and detail of data collected through in-person interviews, before the Census Bureau commits to such a sweeping design change. I’m not saying I oppose the use of administrative records in the census. The Census Bureau must find bold ways to keep costs in check, even as the population grows and diversifies. I’m saying, test thoroughly and proceed with caution. Congress needs to make that happen with adequate funding now.

The president requested $963.4 million for the account that covers 2020 Census planning and the American Community Survey (ACS). The Senate Appropriations Committee coughed up $896.7 million, a seven percent cut. Which, of course, is generous compared to the House-passed funding level of $725.4 million for the same account. In a nutshell, the $238 million House cut (20 percent) wiped out the “ramp up” for 2020 Census planning. (To be fair, the House Appropriations Committee recommended a funding level of $858.5 million for Periodic Censuses and Programs.)

And now we’re headed down the up-ramp. Any day now, Congress will pass a temporary spending bill that funds most of the government at current year (FY2014) levels through December 11. So far, the House has added a 0.06 percent across-the-board cut (H.J. Res. 124). The first major FY2015 2020 Census field test—to assess the use of state, local, and commercial databases to update the master address file and allow for targeted, pre-census address verification only—has started, but most spending for that activity happens in October and November. The Census Bureau is already gearing up for two critical tests with an April 1, 2015 “Census Day,” one of which involves the aforementioned use of previously collected government data to count nonresponding households.

If the lame-duck Congress extends the Continuing Resolution into the second fiscal quarter or (worse), if the next Congress sticks with the current funding levels for the entire year (a real possibility if control of the Senate changes hands), without carving out an exception for 2020 Census funding, the spring tests could be toast.

Then what? Continue limping along through the systems and operational development phase, preparing for a census that incorporates complex new procedures that haven’t been fully vetted and may not meet stakeholder expectations? Pray that doesn’t crash when eight million people a day log on to answer the questionnaire? Fall back on tried-and true-methods developed for a time gone by, and costing billions of dollars more, hoping future Congresses and the next Administration care enough about an accurate, comprehensive census to pay for it?

I hope I’m wrong. I hope I wake up in 2020, and the census gods are smiling. That people are lounging in the park in the early spring warmth, answering census questions on their smartwatches in English, Korean or Spanish. Enumeration nirvana! But I’m tired of holding my breath every year. Stakeholders, it’s time either to pray or mobilize. A little of both probably wouldn’t hurt.

8 thoughts on “Can We Talk?

  1. At the outset I very much appreciate the foresighted effort of Ms.Terri Lowenthal in putting the important issues relating to Census 2020 of USA in the public domain for comments. She has chosen the right time as the preparations are to begin in 2015. Having worked at five Indian Censuses from 1961 to 2001 in various capacities ending with the position of Deputy Registrar General (Census & Tabulation) being responsible for planning and conduct of Census and having overseeing the Censuses of different countries including USA I had observed the politicians heading the governments don’t understand the importance of Census while allocating necessary funds. They forget that whole planning of the government depend upon the data collected at the Census. They will never tolerate any short coming or lapse in the census. Us congress an senate has under the basic thing that it is not possible for the Census takers to compromise with the quality of data collection by cut shorting the procedures. How can the US Census Bureau completely depend upon the existing data bases to update the master list of addresses? Bureau does utilize the same but have to verify and further update. This frame has to be complete and updated as per reference date of Census which will be April 1, 2020 for the coming Census of US. I find that in US a considerable amount is spent out Census Budget for collection of data of 25 percent of Households who don’t mail back the questionnaire. This high percentage is due variety of reasons, one being non proficiency of people in English. However there is a scope to reduce this percentage of non-responsive households either by amending the prevailing Law or through other means. If the US Congress wants to have quality data the Census authorities are to be given free hand in planning the Census as they have acquired sufficient experience with the passage of time. They can’t compromise with the basis norms and procedures. With any cuts or not proving required amount of funds to US Bureau of Census they will not be able to perform their duties of providing true picture of the country which is a must for accurate planning in different spheres.

  2. Politics are often playing with the Decennial Census due to its ten year gap and inability of politicians to see past the next election. For example the Census “piggy-bank” is also raided inside the administration. Recently the Commerce Department announced that BEA (Bureau of Economic Analysis) is moving to the Census Suitland Campus taking up unused space. Great short term decision that saves renewing the BEA lease and makes somebody’s performance plan look good and of course fosters greater cooperation etc. Only problem is that that unused space is there by design and will be needed when the Census ramps up for 2020. So in 2018 or so Census will have to go and lease space (increasing costs) for its extra Decennial staff. That cost will be under different politicians and administration so who cares. These are the kind of games that are played with the Census.

    1. Interesting observation, Jean. Unfortunately, decision-making in Washington generally does not lend itself to strategic support of a long-term cyclical program like the decennial census. Thank you for reading the blog!

  3. I think you’re missing out on a major reason why Congress is dragging its feet on the Census issue: There are very powerful forces in Washington that want to politicize the Census. They are not interested in obtaining accurate statistical data, because that data will show that key economic policies, that have been promoted by the same factions who want to hobble the Census, have resulted in enriching a small minority of Americans, while at the same time impoverishing many millions of people who were previously members of the middle class.

    Who remembers the hysterical herp-n-derp that emanated from talk radio and Fox News during the last decennial count? The talking heads bloviated endlessly about how anything other than a population count was ‘unconstitutional, an invasion of privacy, a violation of 5th amendment rights’, etc. Tea-Party princess, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) , stated that she would not fill out her Census form, and went on to claim that Census data would be used to set up internment camps. Are these people really interested in protecting the privacy of Americas? Do they really believe that Census data will be used to set up interment camps or death panels, or are these just pretenses?

    For those who think I’m being paranoid as to the motivations of the anti-Census crowd, consider a little incident that took place during the Reagan Administration. Reagan drastically cut federal funding for childhood immunization programs. The argument being that childhood diseases were all but eradicated, and that private medicine could do a better, more efficient, job of provided the immunizations needed. At the time the Census Bureau conducted a national health survey. Soon after money was cut for childhood immunization programs, the Census health survey showed a significant spike in childhood diseases. So what was the reaction of the Reagan Administration? They refunded the national health survey conducted by the Census.

    There have always been attempts by politicians to misuse or hobble Census information. It’s happened in the past, and it’s happening now, on a much bigger scale than every before.

    1. Mark, I do my best to avoid the “politics” of the situation (we are a nonpartisan, nonprofit project). We appreciate hearing other perspectives on congressional oversight of the census and Census Bureau’s work.

  4. It surprises me that in a country like US, which is proud of being the oldest democracy in the world, the Census Department is struggling hard to get support of Congressmen and Senators. I had pointed out earlier also that it is the US Congress and Senate who require reliable information about the people whom these represent. Can anybody think of proper planning and making programs for socio-economic development and e-governance in absence of reliable data?
    In India where Census is a Central Subject all the state governments fully realize the importance of this national activity and extend their full cooperation and support to make it a success. It is the biggest cooperative activity between Central and States Governments. Even Mahatma Gandhi realizing its importance had appealed to the people to cooperate with the Census activities and had exempted it from his non-cooperative movement during the British Rule.
    Congressmen and Senators who have doubts about losing the confidentiality and misuse of Individual data collected at the Census , can rest assured that this will never happen. In this regard I would like to inform that Individual or household data collected at the Census is always kept confidential and it only the totals and the aggregates are published and made available.
    I would urge the US government, Congressmen and Senators to realize the impotence of Census taking and extend all cooperation to meet its requirements, so that reliable data required by one and all could be made available.

    S P Sharma,
    Deputy Registrar General (Census &Tabulation)-Rtd
    & former UN Consultant, Afghanistan and North Korea

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