Modernizing the Census Infrastructure – The Census Project on Federal Drive

The Federal Drive radio show with Tom Temin recently interviewed Howard Fienberg, co-director of The Census Project, about the American Community Survey (ACS) and improving the Census Bureau’s data infrastructure.

Tom Temin: And it’s almost hard to imagine how they can do sampling. Because I’m thinking of a road that’s about seven or eight miles long, it goes through a couple of different zip codes, a road up in the Northeast that I’ve been visiting and riding on the past few weeks with some frequency, and this road, again it’s a suburban road near a large demographic, statistical metropolitan population area, whatever they call it, and you pass one house that is a little five room shanty from the 1920s. And then 100 yards later, there’s an entrance to a driveway where someone put up a gorgeous 15 room mansion, literally with the three-car garage. So, what do you sampling if you go on that road? How does the Census Bureau manage that and what do they need to do to enhance the sampling to make sure that they capture all the data they need to?

Howard Fienberg: A big piece of that is increasing the size of that sample, because we are talking about something that goes on every year, so it will help capture that kind of change over time, but the more households you’re able to hit in a given year, the better the quality of the data on the other side. So rapidly increasing the sample size is something that we’ve been hitting on pretty heavily. It wouldn’t actually cost that much money and the Bureau of themselves estimated that it would be about 45 million just to up the sample size by a million households. There are a lot of things that need to be done behind the scenes to bolster how the ACS is conducted. Some of that is just on the side of how they build the sample. …

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Howard Feinberg, he’s co-director of the Census Project. And the project has written to the Senate and House appropriators asking for this funding. And you mentioned that one of the things they should do is modernize the Bureau’s data infrastructure. …

Howard Fienberg: Absolutely. … any big data operation, you’re looking at overlapping data sets, a lot of duplications. We’re talking about trying to bring the bureau into 21st century data infrastructure. … the ability to draw across multiple databases and integrate them effectively without messing up your data. … It’s extremely difficult for a government agency to deal with this massive amount of data and do that effectively, while not corrupting the data. It’s a normal practice in the private sector…

Tom Temin: … the American Community Survey was delayed this year because of pandemic. How does that tie into the issue?

Howard Fienberg: It’s a big deal. As you said, we talked about the importance of the five-year estimates to be able to get reasonable and accurate data for a rural area, remote areas, certain subpopulations/ethnic groups. A delay in the release of those five-year estimates means that people are left wanting and trying to put together… proper surveys of those populations themselves in the private sector. Government is not up to date on being able to understand what’s happening in those populations, how best to serve them. Decisions that need to be made in rural areas, a lot of those are probably going to be held off. Investments are not going to be made and businesses are not going to open there or businesses are going to leave there for a lack of data.

Tom Temin: Howard Fienberg is co-director of the Census Project. Let’s hope they’re listening. Thanks so much for joining me.

New report on Looking to Census 2030

We are pleased to share a new report produced by a group of nonprofit foundations and their partners that evaluates the conduct of the 2020 Census. While The Census Project was not part of the production of this report nor is endorsing any specific proposal, we believe it important to share the authors’ comprehensive findings.

“Looking to Census 2030: Findings and Recommendations from Census 2020 Partners and Funders” is a compilation of findings and over 100 recommendations from funders, philanthropy-serving organizations, community-based organizations, and other stakeholders, including complete count committees from across the country who worked with the Democracy Funders Census Subgroup and the Census Counts Campaign housed at the Leadership Conference Education Fund. The Campaign was co-chaired by the Leadership Conference, NALEO, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.

The report’s analysis includes very specific observations, as well as suggestions for broad, and in some cases, very significant shifts in the way the Bureau has approached its mission over the past three decennials.

Read the executive summary and the full report.

The Democracy Funders Census Subgroup commissioned the report, written by Karen K. Narasaki and Tim Lim, with the hope that the U.S. Census Bureau, Department of Commerce, Congress, and the Administration seriously consider the findings and lessons learned as planning begins for Census 2030 and the Bureau continues to refine the related American Community Survey (ACS).

The Democracy Funders Census Subgroup is a collaborative of about a dozen national and regional foundations that came together in 2015 and raised over $117 million to support efforts to achieve a fair and accurate 2020 Census, with a focus especially on communities historically undercounted and most at risk of being undercounted in 2020. These communities include Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Arab Americans, immigrants, low-income households, people with disabilities, young children under the age of 5, people who have limited English proficiency, and LGBTQ+ individuals. Questions should go to Karen K. Narasaki at Karen@NarasakiJustice.com.

Final Post-Enumeration Survey (PES) Field Operations Begin Soon to Measure Housing Coverage Accuracy

The next stage in the Census Bureau’s evaluation and measurement of the accuracy of the 2020 Census in covering housing units will begin on November 29, 2021, as part of the final data collection operations in the field for the Post-Enumeration Survey (PES).

The PES Final Housing Unit Followup Operation will independently survey a sample of the population, include housing units in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. It will run through March 2022.

This operation, originally scheduled to end in June 2021, but delayed by the pandemic, will run through March 2022. First results are intended to be released “in the first quarter of 2022,” according to the Bureau, with more data to be released next summer.

See the Census Bureau’s PES site.

Honest Census Communications Act – S. 133 and H.R. 5815

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA-18) reintroduced the Honest Census Communications Act (S. 133 and H.R. 5815), legislation that would prohibit anyone from communicating or causing to be communicated “any census-related information by any means, including by means of any covered communication, or to produce any census-related information with the intent that the census-related information be communicated”:

  1. “knowing the census-related information to be materially false”; and
  2. “with the intent to impede or prevent an other person from participating in any census.”

S. 133 and H.R. 5815 would apply to the decennial headcount, the American Community Survey (ACS), the Economic Census and other similar Census Bureau surveys.

Violators would be punished with up to $11,181 in civil penalties, “imprisoned for not more than 5 years, or both.”

“Census-related information” means any information, including:

  • “The time, place, or manner of holding any census”; or
  • “The qualifications for, or restrictions on, participation in any census.”

“Covered communication” means any:

  • “Written communication”;
  • “electronic or digital communication, including a communication through a website, application, online forum, social media platform, streaming service, or other means of communications using the internet or a similar communications network”; or
  • “telephonic communication, including any phone call, text message, or other communication sent, received, or transmitted using a wireless or wireline phone or a cellular or other phone network.”

Census disinformation was “everywhere” in 2020, said Schatz, and the Act would “help stop false information from spreading and protect the constitutionally mandated census from any attempts to disrupt it.”

House bill cosponsor Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) said she supported the legislation because of concern about “bad actors who purposefully push false information about the Census to discourage participation and skew the results.”

Eshoo said that the Act “ensures that any attempt to intentionally spread lies about the once-in-a-decade count is met with severe consequences befitting this crime.”

Senate Approves Robert Santos As Next Census Bureau Director

On November 4, 2021, the United States Senate voted 58-35 to approve the nomination of Mr. Robert Santos to be next Census Bureau director. With the Senate’s confirmation, Mr. Santos becomes the first Latino and the first person of color to serve as a permanent, Senate-confirmed Census Bureau Director.

The saga of his Senate confirmation began on October 7 when Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Gary Peters (D-MI) asked the Senate to take up and pass the Santos nomination (through December 31, 2026) under “unanimous consent” (UC). Senator Peters’ UC request was denied when Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) objected (See Census Project October 2021 update for additional details). Senator Scott’s action set the stage for the November 4 debate and roll call vote. Ten Republicans (Blunt (R-MO); Capito (R-WVA); Collins (R-ME), Cornyn (R-TX), Graham (R-SC), Grassley (R-IA), Murkowski (R-AK); Portman (R-OH); Romney (R-UT); and Toomey (R-PA) joined 48 Democrats to approve his confirmation. Seven members of the Senate missed the vote.

STANDARD DEVIATIONS: Census Bureau Adds an Application to Help Child Advocates: An Easier Way to Get Child Poverty Data for School Districts

By: Dr. William P. O’Hare, President O’Hare Data and Demographic Services LLC

Standard Deviations blog posts represent the views of the author/organization, but not necessarily those of the Census Project.

On October 19, 2021, the U.S. Census Bureau unveiled a new application on its website that allows data users to more easily get child poverty data for school districts. The new application not only makes the statistical information easily available, but it also provides data visualization tools to enhance understanding of trends and patterns in the data. The new application is available on the Census Bureau’s website (https://www.census.gov/library/visualizations/interactive/saipe-school-district-profiles.html).

The data provided in this application are from the Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE) that the Census Bureau has been producing for more than 25 years. The SAIPE data provides more timely, precise, and stable estimates than the American Community Survey data alone and is used by the U.S. Department of Education to distribute Federal Funds under the Title I program.

The data available in the new application are for each of the 13,000+ school districts in the country. In addition, each year SAIPE produces a data tool available on the SAIPE website (https://www.census.gov/data-tools/demo/saipe/#/?map_geoSelector=aa_c), which includes poverty data for:

  • All ages (for states and counties)
  • Ages 0 to 17 (for states and counties)
  • Ages 5 to 17 (children in families) (for states, counties, and school districts)
  • Ages 0 to 4 (for states only)

Data are available for individual school districts, counties, and states.

The application provides two kinds of comparative analysis. First, data are presented over time, so one can tell if child poverty is generally increasing or decreasing. Second, the poverty data for each school district are presented along with comparative data for the state and the U.S. so one can tell how child poverty for the school district of interest compares to child poverty in other areas. 

The new application addressed two expanding objectives at the Census Bureau. First the Census Bureau has been stressing transparency. To some extent this means making it easier for data user to find and understand the data produced by the Census Bureau. In particular this means helping people who are not researchers or data experts find and use the data available from the Census Bureau…This new application does both of those things. 

The second goal this new application addresses is enhanced attention to data on children. At the Census Scientific Advisory Committee meeting on September 23, the Census Bureau announced the formation of a cross-directorate team at the Census Bureau to examine issues related to the accuracy of data on children in general and young children in particular. (CAK Census Bureau Announces New Team Focused on Improving the Count of Young Children – Count All Kids). While the new application does not address accuracy issues per se, it does help child advocates and stakeholders find and use data available from the Census Bureau.

This new application should be very helpful for child advocates and for education advocates at the state and local level. The child poverty data is right on target for what local advocates often need, and the new method for making it available helps those with limited data access or statistical analysis skills. So, kudos to the Census Bureau for this new application.

  • Dr. O’Hare, a member of The Census Project Advisory Committee, is a social demographer who has spent forty years using data to increase public understanding of disadvantaged groups. For the past 25 years, he has been involved in the KIDS COUNT project at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Bill has a Bachelor of Science, Master of Arts, and a Ph.D. from Michigan State University.

Senate Low-balls Census in Proposed FY 2022 CJS Appropriations Bill

In lieu of passing the remaining Fiscal Year 2022 appropriations bills out of the Appropriations subcommittees and full committee, the Senate Appropriations Committee posted bills and reports on October 18, 2021.

The Senate Appropriations version of the Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) appropriations bill, which funds the Census Bureau, would provide $1.432 billion for the Census Bureau (a 23 percent increase over Fiscal Year (FY) 21) — a disappointing $10 million less than the $1.442 billion provided by the House mark and the Biden Administration’s request and $568 million shy of the level recommended by the Census Project.

The Senate recommended $309,865,000 for the Current Surveys and Programs account and $1,122,537,000 for the Periodic Censuses and Programs account (increases of $21,462,000 and $304,296,000 above FY 2021, respectively.

The Census Bureau is currently operating under a Continuing Resolution funding most federal government functions until December 3 (covered in the September 2021 Census Project Update).

Among the details in the Senate committee report:

  • Budget reorganization: The committee “does not accept” the Administration proposal to restructure Census Bureau funding accounts.
  • Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP): The report specifies that the bill would provide “no less than the fiscal year 2021 enacted level for SIPP.”
  • Differential privacy: “The Committee encourages the Census Bureau to work closely with its advisory committees, stakeholders representing public interests, and the data user community to ensure the availability of useful data products, especially for population groups in rural and remote areas, while protecting the confidentiality of personal Census data. The Bureau should continue to consult regularly with data users on disclosure avoidance methods under consideration for all 2020 Census data products, as well as for other Bureau data programs, including the American Community Survey.”
  • Cybersecurity: The Census Bureau is directed to coordinate with the Homeland Security Department and other government agencies and stakeholders “to prepare for, prevent, and disrupt cyber intrusions and disinformation campaigns that have the potential to impact survey participation or compromise data collected by the Census Bureau.”
  • Partnerships: The committee directs the Bureau to continue to partner “with public libraries and other community technology centers to maximize the response to the American Community Survey and other surveys and assessments as appropriate. The Bureau is encouraged to work with libraries and library organizations, in coordination with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, regarding training for library staff and webinars or conference presentations to library audiences about Census surveys and assessments.”
  • American Community Survey (ACS): The report states the committee’s continued support for the ACS, including “as a testbed for innovative survey and data processing techniques that can be used across the Bureau,” and notes that it “is often the primary or only source of data available to State, local, and Federal agencies that need adequate information on a wide range of topics. The data provided is especially important to small towns and rural areas across the country, and the Bureau should ensure that rural areas are covered with the same accuracy as urban areas to the maximum extent practicable.” The Census Bureau is expected “to continue providing updates to the Committee on efforts to evaluate and, where possible, to reduce the number of questions included in the ACS, as well as the steps being taken to ensure that the ACS is conducted as efficiently and unobtrusively as possible.”

The Census Project pinpointed the ACS in particular in our budget proposal as in great need of investment after more than a decade of neglect. Our stakeholders view it as essential to remedy any weaknesses in the 2020 decennial count, and agree with the Senate that it is the primary source of social and economic data through the decade, especially for rural areas and small geographies. We will continue our education efforts on why greater investment in the ACS is essential if it truly will serve as a “testbed of innovative survey and data processing techniques.”

Uncertainty Regarding Federal and Census Funding As FY 2021 Concludes

The current fiscal year (FY) 2021 ends on September 30. Given the lack of progress in passing FY 2022 appropriations bills, Congress and the White House must agree upon the terms of a short-term spending bill, known as a Continuing Resolution (CR). On September 21, the U.S. House of Representatives passed, by a vote of 220-211, H.R. 5305, the FY2022 Extending Funding and Emergency Assistance Act, which would fund the federal government through December 3, 2021.

Typically, except for a few “anomalies,” CRs hold spending for federal agencies at the previous year’s level. For this initial FY 2022 CR, the White House submitted a list of anomaly requests, including an anomaly for the Census Bureau. Specifically, the anomaly would have provided the Census Bureau with sufficient funds to deliver 2020 Census data products, begin planning for the 2030 Census, maintain peak operations of the Economic Census, and support innovations as part of the Data Ingest and Collection for the Enterprise (DICE) program. The Census Project led a letter urging Congress to include the Census Bureau anomaly in the FY 2022 CR.

Given pressures to limit the number of spending anomalies, the CR passed by the House did not authorize one for the Census Bureau. Unofficially, the Census Bureau said that because of recent spending and saving strategies, the agency will be able to sustain all current activities for the duration of this CR. However, if it becomes necessary to enact another CR to keep the government open beyond the end of the year, the Census Bureau will need a funding anomaly to support decennial census activities, the 2022 Economic Census, and the DICE program.

On September 27, the U.S. Senate will begin debating H.R. 5305, but it is not currently expected to pass given Republican opposition to a provision that would suspend the federal debt limit. If the CR cannot pass the Senate, the federal government will shut down at midnight on September 30. Only activities deemed “essential” will remain operational. While the Census Bureau is not considered an “essential” agency, it would be able to sustain some of its decennial operations using carryover funding from prior appropriations for an unspecified period. This strategy is consistent with Census Bureau operations during the government shutdowns in 2018 and 2019.

Ideally, Congress will pass and send to the White House a CR that the President can sign into law while negotiating the final FY 2022 appropriations bills. The Census Project continues to urge Congress to provide the Census Bureau with $2 billion in FY 2022—a figure endorsed by numerous national, state, and local organizations and over 30 members of the U.S. Senate.

Final Evaluation of 2020 Census Quality from Statisticians’ Task Force

Today, the American Statistical Association’s 2020 Census Quality Indicators Task Force issued a final evaluation of the 2020 Census state-level apportionment numbers. It examined 10 process statistics relating to the collection and post-data collection operations of the 2020 Census, including Master Address File (MAF) development, self-response, nonresponse follow-up (NRFU), data compilation and processing, and group quarters enumeration.

The task force concluded that:

  1. “Indicators released to date by the bureau do not permit a thorough assessment of the 2020 Census data quality.”
  2. “Despite concerns that census numbers could be jeopardized by political interference, the task force found no evidence of anything other than an independent and professional enumeration process by the Census Bureau. The bureau appropriately delayed release of data products to ensure careful review and processing of the data according to bureau quality standards.”
  3. “Across the limited set of state-level process statistics evaluated by the task force, it found no major anomalies that would indicate census numbers are not fit for use for purposes of apportionment.”
  4. “The task force’s ability to more thoroughly evaluate the quality, accuracy, and coverage of the 2020 Census has been hampered by limits on available information and research.”
  5. “The set of process statistics evaluated by the task force is relevant for evaluating the quality of census numbers for apportionment, but not redistricting or distribution of federal funds. These and other assessments require scrutiny at more detailed levels of geography and subgroups of the population.”

While commending the Census Bureau for working with the National Academies “and other experts to conduct a more thorough assessment of 2020 Census data quality,” the ASA task force recommended that the 2030 Census must “incorporate explicit attention to evaluating and reporting on data quality.” That will require investment of resources in advance “to enable the use of process statistics for evaluating data quality before apportionment counts are released for future censuses.” Census quality assessment measures usually come “long after the release of census data products, but this is no longer sufficient since process statistics and other data can be available much sooner.”

The ASA task force was formed in September 2020 in response to concerns about the quality of the 2020 Census data, after many data collection challenges in 2020.

White House Requests Anomaly for Census Bureau in FY 2022 Continuing Resolution

The Biden Administration has requested a funding “anomaly” for the Census Bureau. As noted by Shalanda Young, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), on September 7, “with the end of the fiscal year rapidly approaching, it’s clear that Congress will need to pass a short-term continuing resolution (CR).”

(There has been no action on Fiscal Year 2022 funding for the Census Bureau since House committee passage of the Commerce Justice Science (CJS) appropriations legislation in July.)

The White House’s proposed funding anomalies, described as “technical assistance to Congress on a short-term CR” and meaning funding at levels different from current fiscal year appropriations, include one for the Census Bureau:

Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Census Bureau – Periodic Censuses and Programs Sec. ___. Notwithstanding section 101, amounts are provided for “Department of Commerce—Bureau of the Census—Periodic Censuses and Programs” at a rate for operations of $1,132,537,000.

Language is needed to provide the Department of Commerce, Periodic Censuses and Programs account with a rate for operations of $1.1 billion to cover key operations of the 2020 and 2030 Decennial Censuses, the Economic Census, and the Data Ingest and Collection for the Enterprise program. Funding enacted for this account in FY 2021 relied on significant unobligated balances, which are now depleted. Without the anomaly, Decennial Census operations, preparations for the 2022 Economic Census, and development of the Data Ingest and Collection for the Enterprise program will be negatively impacted.

While this proposal mirrors the Administration’s request for FY 2022, stakeholders of The Census Project are seeking a higher level of funding, just as they did recently with the Senate.