Mid Life-Cycle Crisis

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

We’re halfway through the decade, which means that 99.9 percent of Americans are not spending their waking hours worrying about the nation’s next constitutionally mandated population canvass. (A similar percentage applies to esteemed members of the national legislature, most of whom couldn’t put planning for the census lower on their list of priorities if they tried. Rep. Ted Poe, however, apparently is losing a lot sleep over the census-related American Community Survey, which he is sure will be the death of liberty and the republic.)

Let’s face it: Congress doesn’t do long-term planning well. The 2020 Census is far beyond the horizon for most lawmakers. Although, strangely, the same subcommittee that funds the Census Bureau doesn’t seem to have trouble grasping, let’s say, the long haul required to put a manned spacecraft on Mars. Maybe that’s because the Johnson Space Center is in the neighborhood of the panel’s chairman, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX). There are tangible benefits to cranking up NASA’s budget, like jobs and contracting opportunities. I thought the Census Bureau was on to something when it announced that one of its two 2016 census field tests will be in Harris County, TX (the other site is Los Angeles County). But that didn’t stop the chairman from slashing the President’s FY2016 budget request of $663 million for 2020 Census planning by more than 30 percent, and then standing by while the full House cut another $117 million from the Periodic Censuses and Programs account, lest anyone think the census really mattered.

The Senate Appropriations Committee took a stab at a more rationale approach. It lauded the value of ACS data for decision-making. It acknowledged the early planning efforts for the 2020 count as “conscientious.” But then, whack!, down came the budget knife, potentially taking 15 percent of the ACS sample and timely development of 2020 Census IT systems, operational infrastructure, and promotion activities with it. The committee allocated a meager funding bump of $22 million for the entire Periodics account, despite the President’s proposed $320 million ramp-up just for 2020 Census planning. Committee Democrats called the funding level “irresponsible.” (The full Senate has not considered the Commerce Appropriations bill.)

Census managers seem remarkably calm about the whole funding crisis. They speak in soothing, measured voices and sound like civilian versions of military commanders planning a major tactical campaign. (Which they are, by the way. Trust me: there will be a war room at the Census Bureau in 2020.) Presentations at the 2020 Census Quarterly Management Review on July 10th were replete with impressive descriptions of the arduous, intricate planning required for a decennial census. The jargon is mind-boggling to a layperson, replete with phrases like “resource loaded” and “baselining the operational plan” and a “slide deck library” for each operation and “workload optimization.” Put it all together, and you’ve got the workings of the nation’s largest peacetime mobilization.

Maybe it’s just too much for Congress to wrap its head around. Maybe they’d rather wing it, Trump style. (Speaking of The Donald, let us pause to contemplate that the next president will preside over the 2020 count.) Given the lack of meaningful congressional oversight so far, and resistance to paying for a robust planning process, we might have to take a few cues from the Trump playbook to get through this decennial obstacle course.

Forget the complexity of operations that have to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle — or two or three jigsaw puzzles layered on top of each other. Just “deal with it.” Don’t worry: we’re going to get GREAT people who know what they’re doing! Concerned about the dearth of detailed race and ethnicity data in administrative records that might replace door-to-door visits to unresponsive households, the absence of which could hamper enforcement of civil rights laws? Too bad, people, because we’re tired of being politically correct.

What about census accuracy? If you’re plowing ahead Trump style, the numbers might be squishy. Case in point: the candidate claimed that 15,000 people attended his rally in a Phoenix convention center that holds 2,000, with fire marshals permitting up to 4,000. But, hey, who’s counting? (Pun intended.) Anyway, people in every state are incredible, and we love them (and they love us!), so we’re sure we’ll find all of them.

Why fork over money for the painstaking research and testing required to evaluate how the digital divide will affect Internet response rates, the ability of targeted address canvassing to spot housing changes in rural and dense inner-city communities, the workability of the operational control system across different electronic platforms, the materials needed to reach Americans whose primary language is not English? Trust me: we’ll get GREAT people who know what they’re doing! Believe me; this is going to be the GREATEST census this country has ever seen!

It’s going to be amazing. Heck, maybe we can get Mexico to pay for it.

4 thoughts on “Mid Life-Cycle Crisis

  1. Wow…this situation is starting to get very, very scary! Can hardy wait for 2012 when these numbers (as bad as they may be) are used to boot some of these specially knowing all people out of office.

    1. That would be 2022, Steve! But time flies when you’re having fun. Thanks for reading the blog.

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