By Terri Ann Lowenthal
I had to cut short my fishing trip last week to buy a new laptop. I am telling you this odd news for a reason, census fans. So please stick with me for a minute.
I am a technological Luddite. The thought of a new gadget or software program gives me heart palpitations. So yes, I had a meltdown in the Apple store, as I struggled to understand how to migrate the information from my old device to the new one. (“Migration:” Isn’t that a demographic trend that the U.S. Census Bureau measures?) I just need my Word documents and emails, I practically sobbed to the infinitely patient, but too-technically-savvy-for-me, sales person. And no interruptions in my work flow, because the Senate Appropriations Committee is taking up the Census Bureau’s FY 2016 funding bill. But I digress.
Back home, I started to regain my composure as the nice man from Microsoft remotely installed word processing software on my shiny new toy. And then I got to thinking about how fast the world is changing, and how hard it is to keep up with advances in social media and technology and new ways of snagging the services and goods we need. My age is getting the best of me, for sure.
But I also started thinking about some things in this world that are timeless. Take the U.S. census, for example. Sure, the way we go about it and the information we collect reflect, in the truest sense of the word, the transformation of society. But the goal remains fundamental to preserving our representative democracy: a fair and accurate count of everyone living in the U.S. (and where they live) on Census Day, every 10 years. We haven’t missed one yet, although heaven knows the census has missed millions of us over time. In fact, complaining about a census undercount is as old as President George Washington himself.
Speaking of George, it was the Founding Fathers who had the bright idea to vest the legislature with responsibility for overseeing the census. I wonder if James Madison and Thomas Jefferson are rolling over in their graves right about now. Because Congress (or, at least some of its members) apparently has decided that it can’t pay for a census that counts everyone in 2020. The proof, regrettably, is in the budget numbers.
In late May, the House of Representatives slashed President Obama’s FY 2016 budget request for the 2020 Census by more than one-third, approving the FY 2016 Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill (H.R. 2578) by a mostly party-line vote (242-183). Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee decided it also doesn’t want to spend the money to plan a proper census. Its version of the bill increases the account covering the 2020 Census by just $22 million over current year funding. To put that paltry sum in perspective, the president requested a ramp-up of $317 million for the 2020 Census alone. (The Periodic Censuses and Programs account also includes the American Community Survey and 2017 Economic Census, as well as key activities that support these cyclical programs, such as building the address list and digital mapping system.) You do the math. Because I can’t find enough money for the Census Bureau to pull off the census Congress wants. (Although we could cancel the entire ACS and Economic Census to save money. Please don’t fall off your chairs.)
Congress has said it wants to spend less on the 2020 Census than it did on the 2010 count (roughly $13 billion). It has instructed the Census Bureau to figure out how to offer and boost Internet response, use data gathered through other government programs to reduce the paper-pencil-brick-and-mortar-footprint, and contain costs. In response, the Census Bureau has embarked on an ambitious program of research, testing and development to bring these “modern” methods to fruition, without sacrificing accuracy.
And therein lies the literary rub: it costs money upfront to make sure these new operations work well and reach all segments of a culturally and geographically diverse population. What happens when the Census Bureau doesn’t have the money to figure it all out?
It could abandon most new initiatives, on the reasonable premise that it is too risky to deploy sweeping operational reforms without thorough evaluation and testing. Going back to the 2010 Census design will cost billions more. Which Congress has said it will not allocate. Do we abandon a robust communications campaign, in-language materials, local partnerships? Start counting and stop when the money runs out? Roughly one-quarter of all households don’t respond to the census upfront, if recent history is any guide. The most costly operation is tracking down the remaining, so-called “hard to count” residents, who disproportionately are people of color or live in low-income or limited English proficient households.
The bureau could “stay the course” and hope that fundamental reforms will work, without really knowing if those methods will count all segments of the population — especially historically undercounted groups — well. Trying to save money by replacing door-to-door visits with data from other government programs could leave out the very people who already are less connected to civic life, such as younger, unemployed singles and immigrants.
I can’t figure out what kind of census Congress thinks it will get without investing enough money in planning and preparation. The Senate Appropriations Committee graciously explained in its report on the funding bill that the Census Bureau had made a “conscientious decision” to start 2020 Census planning much earlier in the decade than in census cycles past. Nevertheless, the majority report said, the bill allocates 34 percent more money than at the same point in the 2010 Census cycle, and the committee expects a return for its investment in the form of cost savings. There is no mention of accuracy, or of efforts to achieve an inclusive census in hard-to-count communities. The timeless goal of ensuring a solid foundation for our democracy has taken a back seat to pressing fiscal concerns.
Committee Vice Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) was having none of it, calling the committee funding level “inadequate and irresponsible.” She proposed a $360 million boost for the Census Bureau; her amendment (which proposed funding increases for several agencies in the massive bill) failed on a party-line vote.
There wasn’t much discussion about the census during the committee’s meeting on the FY 2016 Commerce bill, which allocates $1.13 billion overall for the Census Bureau, compared to the president’s request of $1.5 billion and $992 million approved by the House. But senators spent a lot of time debating the merits of industrial hemp and federal enforcement of anti-marijuana laws in states that allow people to smoke pot for medical and, um, other purposes. I guess that was the high point of an otherwise dismal morning for the 2020 Census.