Senate Appropriators Discuss Census Funding Concerns with Commerce Secretary

By Howard Fienberg, director of government affairs, Insights Association

“Not only did the Government Accountability Office add the 2020 Census to its high-risk list, but a critical computer system was recently discovered to have surpassed its budget by $309 million. As the 2020 Census approaches, such news does not instill confidence in the Department’s preparation for this constitutional requirement.”

Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) opened discussion about the Census Bureau at a recent hearing reviewing the Department of Commerce’s FY2018 budget proposal with a bunch of concerns about the decennial Census and how to fund it. Shelby chairs the Senate Appropriations CJS Subcommittee, which determines funding for the Census Bureau.

The 2020 Census “is very important to this committee,” Shelby continued, “because this is a very expensive item” with a “ballooning cost.” He asked Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to prioritize “activities to reduce overall cost.”

”How,” Shelby asked, “does the 2020 budget request keep the budget on track to ensure that the 2020 census remains at or below the cost of the 2010 census,” and “are changes planned for the upcoming year that will affect current cost projections?”

Secretary Ross started with the resignation of Census Bureau Director John Thompson. “We have appointed a temporary replacement for him and are actively seeking a new permanent director of the census. We hope to have that completed as soon as we possibly can.”

The Census Bureau has “been a great concern” for Ross, specifically “making sure we do accurately count every person where that person normally lives” and doing so “as economically as we can.” He continued:

“Census as you know undertook a very large technological change in the way the Census is taken. Their hope in that is to preserve the accuracy and yet reduce the budgetary cost. My concerns about it have been the complexity of what they’re trying to do and the number of moving parts that have to be brought together at the right time under the right cost. I’m particularly concerned that many of the key contracts are on a time and material basis and that is a very dangerous way to do contracting in that it has an implied incentive for the contracting partner to perhaps use more time than one might if it were on a fixed-cost basis.”

In response, the Commerce Department finance staff have partnered with OMB staff “to do a crash review of what has been going on and why there was suddenly this 47% surprise overrun, what are the implications for the relationships between the census department and these contractors going forward, and what may be the maximum possible cost we could encounter should we continue with the full technological effort underway, or should there be some modification.”

Ross indicated that he did not “have a high degree of confidence in the budget” request from the White House for FY18, but he promised the subcommittee “that when we come back, it will be a number we can stand behind.”

For more background, see the Insights Association 1-pagers on Census funding and the American Community Survey (ACS).

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This article was originally posted on the Insights Association’s website on June 20.

Undercounting in the 2020 Census

The historically low FY 2018 budget request by the Trump administration for the Census Bureau comes as the bureau should be ramping up in preparation for the 2020 Census and testing new counting techniques through a full field test in calendar year 2018. But, these plans have been nixed because of the proposed Trump budget and already lower-than-requested funding by Congress for FY 2017.

Now, instead of three field tests next year, only one will be implemented – in Providence, R.I. The tests in rural West Virginia and suburban Washington state have been dropped because of budget cutbacks.

This means the chances of a dramatic undercount of the population in the 2020 Census increase, especially the so-called “differential undercount” of communities of color and rural residents.

A post-decennial census report of the 2010 Census details disproportionally high undercounts of African Americans and Latinos and well as rural residents.

American Planning Association Blog Post on 2020 Census

Inadequate Funding Imperils a Fair and Accurate 2020 Census

By Jason Jordan, director of policy, American Planning Association, and Trevor Grady, government affairs associate, American Planning Association

In less than three years the 2020 U.S. Census will be conducted. While that might seem like a long time, the reality is that the next months are critical to a successful decennial count. And there are significant reasons to be concerned about the upcoming census.

Many census experts are worried that the run-up preparation for Census 2020 is being seriously underfunded. The Census Project, an advocacy coalition of which APA is part, has charted the 10-year funding cycle for past decennial censuses. In each of the past four decades, there was a marked increase in years seven and eight to fund a comprehensive field test and develop new techniques. That isn’t happening this time around.

The recently completed final FY 2017 federal spending agreement saw funding at $164 million below the level called for by the Census Bureau. The news for FY 2018 is potentially much worse.

While in past years Congress would be using this year to ramp up for the coming count, the budget proposed by the Trump administration would be essentially flat from 2017 to 2018. In a statement, the Census Project said the budget is “woefully underfunding preparations for the next census at a critical phase in the planning process.”

A Census at Risk - Spending During Four Census Decades
Chart of census spending through four decades by The Census Project. Census 2020 is at the bottom. Sources: Congressional Research Service, courtesy Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.). *2018 figure from Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as reported by the Washington Post.

Yesterday advocates and census experts convened during a briefing with congressional staff to discuss funding issues and the growing concerns about preparations for the census.

Shortfalls in resources for 2020 preparations would also likely have negative implications for other census tools, such as the American Community Survey, because those programs would face a squeeze with resources potentially diverted to deal with mounting costs for decennial preparation. ACS could also face damaging amendments when Congress considers new appropriations legislation.

At this pivotal time, the Census Bureau is also without key leadership.

Earlier this month, Census Bureau Director John Thompson unexpectedly stepped down. His decision to leave the agency was in part a result of Trump administration’s lack of support in the budget. The resignation helped highlight the potential crisis. APA joined partner organizations concerned about vital federal data in calling for the Trump administration to swiftly appoint a well-qualified new leader for the Census Bureau.

Yesterday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was set to testify before a House Appropriations Subcommittee. Census issues are sure to be a big part of the discussion. Now is an important time for planners to engage with legislators about the critical value of census data and the need to ensure both solid leadership at the Census Bureau and full funding for both an accurate 2020 count and essential data tools for local decision making like ACS.

APA has made the defense of federal data a major priority for advocacy and will continue working with partners to support funding for vital data programs. Federally funded data underpin good local and regional plans, so it’s essential that we push Congress now to support the Census Bureau.

This article was originally posted on the American Planning Association’s website on May 26.

Census Project Wrong, Trump Right!

After last week’s Census Project blog post stated that the FY 2018 Trump administration budget request for the Census Bureau contained just a $51 million increase for the Census Bureau, several sharp-eyed project stakeholders sent us email saying we were too generous to the new administration.

They said that the FY 2018 proposal for the Census Bureau was tens of millions of dollars lower. According to the administration’s own congressional testimony last Thursday, our Census Project stakeholders were right and we were wrong!

In testimony before the House Appropriations Committee’s Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommittee, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said that the budget request from the Trump Administration was a skimpy $1.5 billion, or just a $27 million increase for the Census Bureau next year.

Something now must give. Congress has to save the 2020 Census. Otherwise, Census Bureau options could include: savaging other important survey programs like the American Community Survey (ACS) and the Economic Census to salvage at least part of the 2018 End-To- End field test; cutting back important components of the test; or reducing test sites. None of these options are good ones.

Trump Census Budget: Too Little, Too Late

Earlier this week the Trump administration released its FY 2018 census budget proposal to Congress. It wasn’t much better than the so-called “skinny budget” proposal released in April.

President Trump proposes just a $51 million increase in Census Bureau funding for FY 2018. But, next year’s census planning calls for a huge 700,000-household test in three states of the decennial count’s new census-taking techniques relying on the internet and IT to cut costs and provide for a fair and accurate census. It can’t be done by skimping on decennial planning funds.

The chart below shows how decennial planning money was allocated each year over the past 40 years. In each previous decennial census, a large ramp-up occurred in the “8” year of the decennial cycle.

A Census at Risk - Spending During Four Census Decades

If President Trump’s budget is enacted, the nation could be facing an historic census disaster. It’s up to Congress to save the 2020 Census!

Census Director Resigns, Trouble Ahead

By Phil Sparks

You would not have thought that the same week Washington-based media was focused on the firing of FBI Director Comey, the abrupt resignation of Census Bureau Director John Thompson would have garnered much press attention – but it did!

In editorials and news articles, the media decried the Thompson resignation, rightfully so.

Director Thompson’s sudden resignation leaves the Census Bureau leaderless just as Congress has dramatically underfunded the FY 2017 census budget, and as the Trump administration only proposes increasing the bureau’s FY 2018 budget by $30 million.

Let’s hope reality sets in with the Trump administration. As the Washington Post editorial concludes, “the 2020 Census will begin in April of that year – right in the middle of the primary season. The bureau’s troubles pre-date Mr. Trump’s ascension but the census is happening on his watch. If it fails, he will own it.”

The Tangle of the Census Budget

At an oversight hearing of the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies this week, it was clear that there are two conflicting views of preparations for the 2020 Census. Republicans on this central committee, which controls the purse strings in the House, are concerned about overruns in 2020 Census budget planning. Meanwhile, Democrats on the committee are concerned about underfunding the next decennial census.

Chairman John Culberson (R-TX) sharply criticized Census Bureau Director John Thompson for announcing that the price tag for the overall 2020 Census had increased by more than $300 million because the IT components of the plan had been underpriced.

Committee member and Representative Matt Cartwright (D-PA) said continued underfunding of 2020 Census planning was “penny wise and pound foolish.” In fact, he partially blamed the cost overruns on the lack of previous funding in the census budget to get the job done at a reasonable price. He warned that similar, future budget cuts could lead to the same result.

While the policymakers on the subcommittee wrangle, Congress itself is set to approve a FY 2017 census budget that is a historically low appropriation at this point in decade cycle.

The Census Project believes the upcoming FY 2018 census budget represents the last, best chance for congressional policymakers and the Trump administration to get things right for the critical 2018 End-to-End field test of all components for the new, innovative 2020 Census.

Stand by!