In the early part of this decade, former Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) inserted language into a Senate appropriations bill report requiring that the 2020 Census’ overall, 10-year budget be no more than the costs of the previous 2010 Census. The bill report language became law. For better or worse, this led the U.S. Census Bureau to rely heavily on untested IT/internet options for the 2020 Census to cut costs.
By the middle of this decade, House Republicans were routinely inserting bill language into their versions of the annual census appropriations bill decrying the respondent “burden” to those who participated in the American Community Survey (ACS). Thankfully, the Senate never acceded to the House GOP’s bill language. Therefore, these attacks against the ACS never became law!
Now the Senate Appropriations Committee is proactively challenging the annual House bill report on the ACS. Thanks to information supplied by Census Project stakeholders, the Senate version of this year’s bill contains language stating the particular value of the ACS’s information to rural communities (which are Republican-dominated). The Senate language effectively negates the House action for FY 2018.
It’s for these reasons that the Census Project carefully reviews committee report language each year. Words matter!
This post has been updated to correctly refer to Sen. Mikulski.
During his confirmation hearing several months ago, Commerce Secretary and former businessman Wilbur Ross said that he appreciated the data gathered by the decennial census and the companion American Community Survey and used it frequently in his own business.
Among the major stakeholders in the Census Project are the National Association of Realtors, the National Association of Home Builders and the International Council of Shopping Centers.
Last Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee voted to increase funding for the U.S. Census Bureau by only $37 million for FY 2018. That’s only a $10 million bump up from the original Trump administration budget request for the next fiscal year.
In its preliminary budget estimates for FY 2018 issued last fall, the Census Bureau said it would need an additional $300+ million for FY 2018 to fund an extensive End-To-End field test of 700,000 targeted households in rural West Virginia, urban Providence, Rhode Island, and suburban Washington state. The field test was intended to test a new IT-focused census and to test internet census-counting techniques for the first time in an extensive setting.
To say the least, this puts the 2020 Census in danger of a botched count.
In response, House Democrats on the Appropriations Committee offered an amendment to the spending bill increasing the FY 2018 census budget by more than $300 million to fully fund the 2018 field tests. The amendment was rejected by the committee on a party-line vote with all GOP members voting against the proposal.
Ironically the committee report which accompanies the approved committee FY 2018 budget (and which was written by the House Republicans) calls upon “the Census Bureau to reconsider its proposal to cancel two of the three test sites scheduled for 2018.” Committee member and U.S. Representative Grace Meng (D-NY) noted the report calls for something that the Appropriations Committee had just cut, funds necessary to implement its own budget!
Last week, the first step toward the FY 2018 budget for the U.S. Census Bureau was taken by the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies as they “marked-up” their version of next year’s federal budget for the Census Bureau. The subcommittee added just $10 million to the Census Bureau’s FY 2018 budget.
According to census expert Terri Ann Lowenthal:
The FY 2017 budget request projected $1.53b for the Periodic Censuses account in FY 2018, a difference of $279m from the FY 2018 request. The Census Director has since acknowledged escalating costs for developing the massive IT system (CEDCaP) that will collect and process census responses. Furthermore, the proposed cuts to Current Surveys & Programs will degrade the reliability and timeliness of vital economic and demographic statistics. Therefore, the Census Bureau will need at least $303m more than the request ($279m + $24m), or at least $1.8 billion, in FY 2018, and possibly more, to maintain the quality of its programs and continue on a path to a fair and accurate 2020 Census.
The table below, also prepared by Lowenthal, traces the FY 2017 and FY 2018 appropriations process for the Census Bureau, including the 2020 Census.
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?”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.