January 2021 Begins with Major Census News: Director Resigns; Efforts to Produce Count of Illegal Immigrants Halted; and New Commerce Secretary Nominated

On January 18, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham announced his retirement effective January 20, 2021, a little more than 11 months before his current term expires. NPR confirmed that Deputy Director Ron Jarmin would serve as the Acting Census Bureau Director—a position he held for almost two years prior to Director Dillingham’s confirmation.

Director Dillingham’s announcement came only days after the media reported that the Department of Commerce Inspector General (IG) was investigating whistleblowers’ complaints regarding a “technical report” the Director had ordered Census Bureau employees to produce about the number of documented and undocumented immigrants in the United States. Career Census Bureau employees expressed concern about the pressure they were under to produce this report without being given sufficient time to conduct quality data checks and ensure the report’s accuracy. In a blog accompanying his retirement announcement, Dillingham defended his actions stating that “the request for data was relevant and responsive to an officially announced and much publicized directive from the President pursuant to Executive Order 13880, issued on July 11, 2019.” More importantly, the Director’s blog also confirmed his decision to cease all work on the report shortly after receiving a formal request for information from the Commerce IG on January 12, 2021.

In addition to Director Dillingham’s departure, all other Census Bureau political appointees, including Nathaniel Cogley, Deputy Director of Policy, and Benjamin Overholt, Deputy Director for Data, resigned their positions also effective January 20.

On January 8, President-Elect Biden nominated Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo to serve as the next Secretary of the Department of Commerce. The Census Bureau is a part of the Commerce Department. Raimondo’s position requires confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

A new Census Bureau Director will most likely not be nominated until well after the new Commerce Secretary is confirmed.  

Former U.S. Census Directors Comment on History of Transparency in Producing and Releasing Apportionment Data from a Census

Four former directors of the U.S. Census Bureau today urged following “the constitutionally prescribed release of the 2020 Apportionment consistent with trusted and historical public practices.”

“The apportionment of U.S. political representation has been directed by census data since our nation’s founding, as directed by Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution…”, Vincent Barabba (1973-76 & 1979-81), Kenneth Prewitt (1998-2001), Robert Groves (2009–2012), and John Thompson (2013-2017) noted. A law passed in 1941 requires using the “method of equal proportions” as the “mathematical formula” to translate population totals into allocations of seats in the House of Representatives.

The former census directors attested to the normally transparent nature of the delivery of this data: “Since the 1980 census, the Census Bureau itself has delivered state population results to the nation through an announced, open, public forum. The transparency and openness have assured the nation that the process is free from any political interference or manipulation, and that the Census Bureau has insured the count is of the highest quality possible.”

Since the COVID-19 crisis delayed the 2020 Census count and processing, review and analysis of the data, the normally scheduled release of apportionment data has also been necessarily delayed.

“It is appropriate that the Census Bureau take the time necessary to ensure the count is as complete and accurate as possible and therefore share all quality indicators about the Apportionment count simultaneous with their release,” commented Barabba, Prewitt, Groves and Thompson.

Census Project co-director Howard Fienberg said, “Stakeholders across the country can rely on the Census Project to monitor and share news of any progress on the Apportionment count and any other data products from the 2020 decennial.”

According to Census Project co-director Mary Jo Hoeksema, “The next six months forecast to be very critical to Census stakeholders as the results of the 2020 count are progressively released. The Census Project is fully engaged to share our collective expertise assessing what is ahead.”

The former directors pointed to a Georgetown University Beeck Center website exploring “the history of the open, public release on Apportionment counts,” USapportionment.org.


U.S. Census Bureau Receives Final Fiscal Year 2021 Funding Level

On December 21, the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate passed two measures combining all 12 Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 appropriations bills and a COVID relief measure. President Trump is expected to sign the measures into law.

The bill containing the FY 2021 Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) appropriations bill, H.R. 133, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, includes $1.106 billion for the U.S. Census Bureau. The funding is allocated through two major categories (accounts):

  • PERIODIC CENSUSES AND PROGRAMS – $818,241,000 in direct appropriations.

In addition to this “new” funding, the Appropriations Committees explained that the Census Bureau can spend a total of $1,664,709,000, which is reached by combining prior year funds (a “carry over”) and its FY 2021 direct appropriation. Of this amount, $934,430,000 is for 2020 Census activities. In addition, the agreement authorizes the Bureau to tap $91,000,000 in the contingency reserve fund, if necessary, to complete the 2020 Census.  

The bill authorizes the transfer of up to $208,000,000 to the Census Working Capital Fund to renovate the Census Bureau’s headquarters, as the agency prepares to accommodate an eventual relocation of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

The final FY 2021 amount roughly meets the funding request of Census Project stakeholders (just over $1.681 billion), as well as the CJS bills as passed by the House (also just over $1.681 billion) and Senate (just under $1.8 billion).

A statement accompanying the bill further explains lawmakers’ intent with respect to the funds allocated and priorities for the Census Bureau’s work:

  • Quarterly Status Reports-The Census Bureau is directed to continue its quarterly status reports to the Committees until the tabulations of populations required under 13 U.S.C. 14l(c) are reported to the States.

  • 2020 Census Operations Evaluation-Within one year of enactment of this Act, the Census Bureau shall submit an initial report to the Committee evaluating the 2020 Census operations, the ability to reach hard-to-count populations, initial assessments of data quality, as well as the costs and the adequacy of resource allocation throughout the Decennial Census cycle. As part of this evaluation, the Bureau should include elements such as modified operations, and the use of secretarial and risk-based contingency funds.

  • 2020 Census Data Availability-The Bureau is encouraged to work closely with stakeholders representing public interests, the Census Advisory Committees, and the data user community to ensure the availability of accurate data products for use by the public. The Bureau should continue seeking regular feedback from data users on disclosure avoidance and to evaluate privacy protection methods being considered for other Bureau data programs.

  • Ensuring the Integrity and Security of Surveys and Data-The agreement clarifies House report language and directs the Census Bureau to coordinate with the Department of Homeland Security, and other relevant agencies, 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. The Bureau should also coordinate with State and local stakeholders and private industry, as appropriate. The agreement expects the Census Bureau to prioritize these efforts and to update the Committee on its efforts.

  • Utilizing Libraries and Community Partners for Census Surveys-The Census Bureau is encouraged to continue its partnership 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.

  • Website Modernization-The agreement supports the Census Bureau’s efforts to implement the requirements of the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA) (Public Law 115-336) which will enable the Bureau to improve digital service delivery and data dissemination. The Bureau is further encouraged to implement requirements that effectively modernize the Bureau’s public-facing digital services and to leverage cloud services for its website to help achieve cost savings, efficiencies, and compliance with the IDEA website modernization requirements.

  • American Community Survey (ACS)-The agreement supports the ACS and directs the Bureau to continue using the ACS as a testbed for innovative survey and data processing techniques that can be used across the Bureau. In executing the ACS, the Bureau should ensure that rural areas are covered with the same accuracy as urban areas to the maximum extent practicable.

Census stakeholders are disappointed that the measure does not include a provision extending the statutory reporting deadlines for apportionment and redistricting data. Efforts are underway to convince Congress to extend the deadlines as soon as the 117th Congress convenes next month. Advocates argue that Congress must offer certainty to the Census Bureau’s career experts as they work to finish data processing, tabulate the apportionment counts, and then prepare the redistricting files for the states.

Congressional Tri-Caucus Urges Census Reporting Deadline Extension Before Year’s End

The chairs of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, Congressional Black Caucus, and Congressional Hispanic Caucus wrote to House leadership this week, urging them to “continue to push for an extension of the deadline for delivering apportionment and redistricting data to April and July 2021, respectively,” as they “finalize negotiations on end of year legislation.”

The White House still insists that it aims to deliver totals by the December 31, 2020 statutory deadline, even though “on November 19th, the Census Bureau announced that they have experienced processing anomalies during post enumeration processing” and “the Commerce Department has been notified that it will not be possible to produce apportionment totals by January 26th at earliest.”

An extension “is necessary for the Census Bureau to implement complex data processing activities thoroughly and to complete the most accurate 2020 Census possible. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the 2020 Census completely, and the Census Bureau must dedicate enough time to ensure that we have a complete and accurate census.”

Emphasizing the importance, the letter concluded that, absent “bipartisan legislative action to preemptively extend the 2020 Census, Congress may be forced to assess and possibly reject the accuracy of the results of the 2020 Census in the new year.”

Congress is currently debating both a COVID-19 relief package and an omnibus Fiscal Year 2021 funding bill as the end of the year quickly approaches.

Census Bureau Releases 2020 Demographic Analysis: First Quality Indicator of the 2020 Census

On December 15, the Census Bureau released its 2020 Demographic Analysis, which provides a range of estimates for the nation’s population as of April 1, 2020. Instead of collecting responses from households like the 2020 Census, Demographic Analysis uses current and historical vital statistics records and other data (specifically birth and death records, data on international migration, and Medicare records) to estimate the size of the U.S. population.

By releasing these estimates ahead of the first results from the 2020 Census, Demographic Analysis offers an independent measure of the population for comparison with the official census counts. The estimates are also one of two methods used to measure coverage in the decennial census and to provide insight into what population groups may have been undercounted or overcounted.

In addition to the estimates of the total population for the nation, 2020 Demographic Analysis also provides national-level estimates of the U.S. population by age, sex, and broad race and Hispanic origin groups. The complete tables can be found at the 2020 Demographic Analysis home page.

Short-Term Continuing Resolution Gives Another Week to Fund the Census Bureau for FY 2021

Congress has approved a bill to extend the continuing funding of the federal government, including the Census Bureau, for another week.

The extension (H.R. 8900) passed the House on December 9 by a 343-67 vote and the Senate on December 11 by voice vote. President Trump has said he will sign it.

The Census Project voiced support for the recently released Senate CJS Appropriations bill and its proposed $1.79 billion in funding for the Census Bureau. We look forward to final agreement on an appropriations omnibus package within the next week to put the 2020 Census and American Community Survey (ACS) on sound footing for the current Fiscal Year 2021.

County Official in Georgia Urges Extension of Census Reporting Deadlines

The chairman of the Henry County Commission in Georgia, June Wood, is urging the Georgia congressional delegation to “step in and pass legislation to extend” the 2020 Census data reporting deadlines “before the end of this term to protect Georgia and the rest of the country.”

Wood warned that census officials are not able “to verify and report results in this rushed timeline,” thanks to COVID-19. “The accuracy of these results is crucial to Georgia’s economy, as billions of dollars in federal funding is allocated based on Census results. In 2016 alone, Georgia received over $23.8 billion in census-based funding. If there is even a 1% undercount this year in Georgia, the state will lose over $75 million combined in just healthcare, education and job program funding.”

Georgia members of Congress should help extend census reporting deadline. By June Wood. The Georgia Recorder. December 11, 2020

Primer on Evaluating Census Accuracy and Coverage

“It is perhaps more important today than ever before for stakeholders to understand the key approaches and methods for measuring the accuracy of the census.”

A new report by Bill O’Hare, Cara Brumfield and Jae June Lee — “Evaluating the Accuracy of the Decennial Census,” published by the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality—discusses how to evaluate “the accuracy of the census—the extent to which published statistics (and the underlying, internal Census Bureau data) align with reality.” Census accuracy “is just one component—albeit an incredibly important one—of the overall quality of the census,” but also encompasses more factors, “such as how timely the publication of census data is and the extent to which census data are available and useful to the broader public.” Since most stakeholders are not statisticians or demographers, the report authors outline “some of the fundamental measures and methods for evaluating census accuracy and their relative strengths and weaknesses.”

Senate Reveals FY 2021 Appropriations Funding for Census Bureau

On November 10, 2020, the Senate Appropriations Committee released all 12 of its appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2021, including the Commerce Justice Science (CJS) bill, which would fund the Census Bureau at nearly $1.8 billion overall. This would include $285 million for the Current Surveys and Programs account and more than $1.514 billion for the Periodic Census and Programs account (but $3.556 million of that amount would be given to the Commerce Department’s Office of the Inspector General, for investigation and audits of the 2020 Census).

The Senate committee’s recommendation is more than a $5.758 billion decrease in funding from FY 2020. Obviously, compared to a decennial census year, the amount looks small, but the Senate Appropriations Committee has proposed more funding than was requested originally in the FY 2021 President’s Budget (nearly $1.672 billion), and more than in either The Census Project’s FY 2021 budget request (just over $1.681 billion), or by the House-passed FY 2021 CJS bill on July 31 (also just over $1.681 billion).

Report language explains that they listened to arguments from The Census Project and stakeholders “that with the unanticipated delay in field operations, it would not be prudent to assume that prior year funds provided for executing the Decennial Census will be available to offset the total needed for fiscal year 2021. Therefore, the Committee provides the full amount identified for fiscal year 2021 in the Independent Cost Estimate for Decennial Census operations.”

Senate appropriators noted that they have “consistently advocated for the Bureau to execute a cost effective and accurate Decennial Census.” With the Census Bureau in the crucial data review, analysis and processing stage of the 2020 Census, the committee report encourages “the Bureau focus on successfully completing any remaining operations.”

However, the appropriations bill makes no mention of extending the census data reporting deadlines to provide additional time for that review, analysis and processing stage.

The committee report provides helpful direction on a number of issues important to  census stakeholders, including:

  • The American Community Survey (ACS): The report urges the Census Bureau “to continue using the ACS as a testbed for innovative survey and data processing techniques,” and then opines on the importance of the rolling survey, which “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.” Because ACS data “is especially important to small towns and rural areas across the country,” the report directs the Census Bureau to “ensure that rural areas are covered with the same accuracy as urban areas to the maximum extent practicable.” Recognizing the problem of respondent burden, the report “expects the Bureau 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.”
  • Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP): As explained in the report language, the Senate Appropriations Committee rejected the White House’s “proposed cut to SIPP” in the Current Surveys and Programs account, as recommended by The Census Project, “and provides no less than the fiscal year 2020 enacted level for this survey.”
  • Evaluating the 2020 Census: The report requires the Bureau to report within a year “evaluating the effectiveness of its 2020 Census operations, the ability to enumerate hard-to-count populations, the overall data quality, as well as the costs and the adequacy of resource allocation throughout the Decennial Census cycle. As part of this evaluation, the Bureau should include elements such as modified operations, the use of secretarial and risk-based contingency funds, and any effects on the quality or accuracy of data derived from the 2020 Census that may be attributable to such modifications.”
  • Making decennial data available: The report encourages the Census Bureau “to work closely with stakeholders representing public interests, the Census Advisory Committees, and the data user community to ensure the availability of accurate data products for use by the public.”
  • Continued study of differential privacy: “The Bureau should continue seeking regular feedback from data users on disclosure avoidance and to evaluate privacy protection methods being considered for other Bureau data programs.”
  • Cybersecurity: The report “directs the Census Bureau to coordinate with the Department of Homeland Security, and other relevant agencies,” as well as state and local government stakeholders and the private sector “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.“
  • Local tech partnerships: The committee report urges the Bureau to continue to partner “public libraries and other community technology centers to maximize” survey response.”
  • Improving the Census Bureau’s digital interfaces: The report is supportive of the Census Bureau modernizing “its internal and external digital services consistent with the requirements of the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act [IDEA] (Public Law 115–336)… to improve digital service delivery and data dissemination.” The committee specifically called for the Bureau to use “cloud services its website to help achieve cost savings, efficiencies, and compliance.”
  • Renovations at Census Bureau HQ: The committee report rejects “the proposed transfer of” $208 million in prior year 2020 Census funding “to the Census Working Capital Fund to renovate the Suitland, Maryland, headquarters building and other Census facilities” because “the count is still ongoing.” The committee also raised concerns about “the costs of the proposed renovation,” which is intended to allow the Bureau of Labor Statistics to move in.

The House and Senate are expected to negotiate and approve an omnibus appropriations deal to fund the government in FY 2021 before the current Continuing Resolution expires on December 11.

The Silver Lining of the 2020 Census

By Kenneth Prewitt

In 1998, when I first found my way to census headquarters in Suitland – as its new and naïve Director – I was soon impressed by the Bureau’s relentless attention to errors and mistakes in its data products, and the satisfaction when new techniques for correcting these errors were designed and implemented.  I also learned, to my surprise, that while the 2000 census schedule had four months of field operations, five months were dedicated to in-house quality control for the stripped-down apportionment count, then additional months for the more detailed data file needed for redistricting, and even more months for gradually more specialized data products.  I thought I had a reasonable understanding of the census, had even published a few pieces in SSRC and Russell-Sage books, but was wholly unprepared for the magnitude of the Bureau’s quality control operations.

How could that be?  Because the decennial census has phases which, though not secret, are generally invisible to the public — the master address file is one and then the quality checks that follow enumeration is another. The public is made fully aware of the field enumeration phase – through paid advertising, mailed forms, phone calls, complete count committees, school programs, etc. But the Bureau has never promoted the role of the non-enumeration phases in the census process. It should, and especially brag about its many statistically inventive ways that find and fix mistakes, most of which are made by the public itself – the ten-year old who is married with children, the household that returned duplicate forms.

This promotion will be important before the next census.  The 2020 census had to contend with an abnormal level of political interference that produced a steady stream of law suits and uncertainties about major issues – whether a citizenship question would be added to the census form itself, whether undocumented residents would be included in the apportionment count (an issue not yet resolved), and, as political appointees were added by the White House there was conflict over who was actually calling the shots.  Disruption of 2020 plans and schedules were frequent and unpredictable.  And in recent weeks there has been the forced rush to completion, which has substantially cut into the quality control operations. All of this was extensively covered by the press.  The public was confused, left to wonder if the census is more political than scientific. And if so, should it be trusted?

Of course, the census has always and always will be political.  However, it has always and always will be scientific, the latter dependent on quality indicators.  What I see as a silver lining in 2020 is that what had been largely invisible is now very visible.  As the field operations wind down, the centrality of quality indicators in the census process is being prominently highlighted.  Going forward, this centrality will be protected by census stakeholders, will be demanded by census data users, will be improved by academics, will be discussed and debated in the press, will be legally protected and will find its way into legislation.  In time, the results of the quality checks will be viewed as no less important than enumeration itself.  We will not again have a census where the public takes no notice of errors and their correction, where quality indicators appear to be an afterthought, or where insufficient time translates into insufficient application.  The Bureau will make publicly clear that a census without ample time and staff to execute quality checks is a flawed census.  Although no census is perfect, the difference between one where quality controls are fully applied and one where they are not is the difference between fit for purpose, or not.  Publicizing this is a step toward re-building the public trust damaged in 2020.

  • Professor Ken Prewitt is the Former Director of the Census Bureau for the 2000 Census, past Executive VP for the Rockefeller Foundation, and currently Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs at Columbia University. He is also a member of The Census Project’s Advisory Committee.

This article is an excerpted version of a more detailed treatment in Public Seminar.