The Case for a Mandatory ACS: Count on Americans to Get It Right

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

I have to start today’s census musing with an apology of sorts. It occurred to me, as I relay Appropriations Committee proceedings with tongue firmly in cheek, that some readers might think I do not like fish. Or, to be more precise, that I do not appreciate the importance of the fishing industry and coastal zone preservation. Au contraire, mon amis: I love the fishermen (oops, sorry; channeling you-know-who for a moment there), regularly consume fish, and live in a coastal state myself. It’s just that, when one is waiting patiently for a sign — any sign — that lawmakers appreciate the fundamental importance of a successful census and reliable data to the very foundation of our democracy, and the conversation keeps turning to counts of, um, fish, one can become despondent over the possibility that the nation’s largest, most inclusive, and most complex civic activity will get the short end of the budget stick. Again.

I had to get that off my chest before the Senate Appropriations Committee takes up the Census Bureau’s Fiscal Year 2017 funding bill (Commerce, Justice, and Science, or CJS) this week. As CJS Subcommittee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) helpfully noted when Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker testified in March, the largest chunk of new money for department programs is for 2020 Census planning.

The total request for the 2020 Census is $778 million; related activities, such as the new enterprise data processing system and geographic system updates, will support that effort. The Census Bureau also needs $251 million for the decennial census’ conjoined twin, the American Community Survey (ACS), to maintain a reliable sample size and continue researching new methods that will make it easier for the public to respond — a primary congressional goal.

Chairman Shelby told the Secretary that he is worried the Census Bureau is behind schedule in meeting its milestones to prepare for the census. Vice Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) reminded everyone that past enumerations have been plagued by “techno-boondoggles” (I did not make up that word), but that an accurate census remained the top goal. We will wait with baited (a fishing term!) breath to see how much money the committee is willing to spend on the bedrock of the nation’s democracy, but I find it hard to grasp how cutting the budget at this point will move the needle in the right direction.

At the March hearing, Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) engaged the Commerce chief in the most substantive discussion about Census Bureau programs. In 2012, then-Rep. Lankford helped steer his House colleagues off the cliff into a data black hole, by championing an amendment to eliminate the ACS entirely. His distaste for the survey — whose results help guide the allocation of billions of dollars through other parts of the same appropriations bill, she said without a hint of irony — seems not to have waned; he offered, and then withdrew, an amendment to make ACS response voluntary during consideration of last year’s CJS bill.

This year, the Senator pressed Secretary Pritzker for information on Census Bureau research into making the ACS a more pleasant experience for households fortunate enough to be selected for the nation’s premier survey on the well-being of our communities. Okay, he didn’t exactly say it that way. Nevertheless, we haven’t heard much about the “2015 Summer Mandatory Messaging Test,” so perhaps it would be helpful to consider the findings before lawmakers think again about relieving put-upon Americans of their duty to answer a few queries confidentially for the common good.

Using the September 2015 ACS sample as a test-bed, the bureau evaluated the consequences of several design and messaging changes to ACS materials (e.g. envelopes, questionnaire, reminder postcard, etc.). The modifications included “softening” (by wording choice, visually, or both) or even removing the mandatory response tagline (which currently reads, “Your response is required by law.”) from some or all of the mailings, and highlighting the survey’s importance and benefits.

But before we look at the results, let’s take a quick trip down memory lane, to when lawmakers first got the itch to let Americans opt out of a civic duty that helps ensure a fair, equitable, and informed society. In 2003, at the direction of Congress, the Census Bureau tested the implications of making the ACS a voluntary survey. The outcome was not pretty: mail response rates would plunge; costs — and, ironically, the burden on the public — would rise significantly ($90+ million/year, according to the latest estimate), due to greater reliance on more costly telephone and door-to-door follow-up and the larger sample size necessary to compensate for lower response; and data reliability for smaller communities (towns! neighborhoods! rural counties!) and smaller populations (people with disabilities! veterans! ethnic subgroups!) would drop, perhaps beyond the point of acceptability.

The findings were so stark that Congress barely said another word about mandatory response for almost 10 years. (Our Canadian friends, however, apparently didn’t get the memo. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party pushed through a bill to make their census long form voluntary. Predictably, the renamed 2011 National Household Survey was a data disaster for less populous and geographically smaller areas. The outcry from the business community, municipal officials, and policy researchers was loud enough to prompt a swift restoration of the mandatory survey when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office last fall.)

The Census Bureau’s 2003 test and Canada’s experience provided consistent evidence of what Congress and the nation would lose if ACS response were voluntary. Never ones to be deterred by a universally panned idea, however, House Members voted three times to make ACS response optional; Senators, fortunately, refused to go along.

The Census Bureau is taking congressional concerns about the ACS’s perceived intrusiveness seriously. It has consulted with the best survey experts in the business and is researching ways to replace some survey questions with data from other government datasets (administrative records) and ask others less frequently. Then there is last year’s test of design modifications and different ways to convey that response is mandatory.

And whadda’ya know? The experimental design that strengthened the mandatory message and added a plug about the importance of the survey yielded the best outcome in terms of response rates, data reliability, and cost, even compared with the current materials. Self-response and final response rates were “significantly” higher, leading the bureau to project cost savings of $7.3 million per year and better data reliability (i.e. reduced margins of error in the data, which is, after all, derived from a sample). In fact, if the bureau continued to spend the same amount of money on the survey, it could increase the sample size by 4.7 percent, thereby reducing margins of error even more. (If the bureau reduced the sample size but maintained current data reliability, costs would drop even further.)

On the flip side, experimental designs that diminished the emphasis on mandatory response yielded, almost across the board, “significantly” lower response rates. If that were to happen, the Census Bureau would have to decrease the sample size by up to 12 percent, resulting in worse data, or increase the sample size by up to 11 percent to maintain data reliability, at an additional cost of up to $42 million. In other words, pick your poison: pay more, or risk more unusable data, all in the name of keeping the survey mandatory but not letting Americans in on the secret.

Here’s what I think. Most Americans are willing to do their part in support of a strong democracy and good governance. Tell them clearly and honestly why what you’re asking them to do is for the public good, and demonstrate that you don’t take their cooperation lightly and will not abuse the privilege, by continuously innovating and having some faith in your most important customer — the American people.

Congress, are you listening?

March Madness

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

What is it about March? We have Super Tuesday (more than one!), the Sweet Sixteen, and the Final Four. In like a lion and out like a lamb. And then there’s the Ides…

Four years from now, to this March Madness, add the start of the 2020 Census. Kansas (pop. 2,911,641)! North Carolina (pop. 10,042,802)! Kentucky (pop. 4,425,092)! Connecticut (pop. 3,590,886)! Wait — did one of these teams bust thousands of brackets already? Anyway, everyone counts, even if your cagers disappoint in the tournament.

Data geeks will point out that I referenced 2015 population estimates from the Census Bureau. Please give me a break; I cannot predict the outcome of the next population count. Although I think my home state Huskies will still be at the top of their game in 2020…

Okay, enough mixed March metaphors. For the U.S. Census Bureau in 2020, the month comes in like a lamb and out like a lion. Picture it, people. On top of endless presidential election intrigue and heart-pounding college hoop rivalries, we’ll have this: 2020 Census postcards and questionnaires in the mail! Catchy ads filling the airwaves and TV and smartphone screens! Eight million-plus Internet hits a day! Daily self-response rate tweets from competitive mayors! Census takers searching for homeless people on “street and shelter night.” (Memo to Census Bureau staff: that is still way catchier than Enumeration of Transitory Locations).

Hagase contar! America’s future depends on your vote! Damn, there goes my bracket! I feel faint just thinking about the cacophony to come in March 2020.

Actually, the fun will start in February. Super Bowl 50 has come and gone, but when the 54th super game rolls around, pay close attention to the commercials. If history is any guide, the Census Bureau will kick off (pun intended!) its national advertising campaign for the 2020 Census. Five million buckaroos for a 30-second ad might sound pricey, but it will be small potatoes in a vast promotional nudge to the populace: Americans, get thyselves counted!

This August, the Census Bureau will award the multi-million dollar Integrated Communications and Partnership Campaign contract — just one piece of the 2020 Census puzzle contributing to a big ramp-up in annual funding over the next few years. Last month, President Obama sent his FY2017 budget proposal to Congress. The Census Bureau needs $778 million for 2020 Census planning, $182 million more than current year funding (FY2016). The 30 percent bump seems downright reasonable compared to the 91 percent increase on the table this time last year. The bureau is taking the whole “spend less money” mantra from Congress seriously.

Next year, in addition to the ginormous communications contract, the Census Bureau must oversee development of the Census Questionnaire Assistance operation; conduct census tests in rural and remote communities (so-called Update/Enumerate areas), including an American Indian reservation, and in Puerto Rico; start outreach to state and local governments for the Local Update of Census Addresses (LUCA) program; and finalize build-out of the IT architecture for data collection, processing, and storage, as well as automated field operations — all in time for an end-to-end readiness test (formerly known as a Census Dress Rehearsal) in 2018.

Both the House and Senate Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations subcommittees have held hearings on the Commerce Department’s FY2017 budget request, which includes money for the Census Bureau. Congress is trying hard to expedite action on the 12 regular annual spending bills, in light of a compressed election-year legislative schedule and in an effort to avoid the perennial omnibus appropriations bill in the fall.

Senate Subcommittee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Vice Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) finally acknowledged that the decennial census funding “ramp-up” will squeeze resources for the panoply of programs under their jurisdiction. Sen. Shelby questioned whether the Census Bureau would be ready for the 2020 count, while Sen. Mikulski cautioned against another “techno-boondoggle” and urged an accurate, cost-effective enumeration.

Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) reminded us, once again, that his constituents do not like the American Community Survey (FY2017 budget request: $251 million); he asked Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker for the results of research on reducing the survey’s burden on the public. The Secretary gamely defended the value of ACS data and even noted Canada’s disastrous experience with a voluntary census long form (the equivalent of our ACS), but somehow missed the opportunity to crow that our northern neighbor actually reinstated mandatory response to its survey to preserve reliable data.

The Lankford-Pritzker ACS exchange aside, there was still a lot of talk at the hearing about counting — fish, that is. Red snapper (Sen. Shelby)! New England groundfish (Sen. Collins, R-ME, and Sen. Shaheen, R-NH)! Pacific salmon (Sen. Feinstein, D-CA, and Sen. Murkowski, R-AK)! Shellfish (Sen. Murphy, D-CT)! Keep an eye out for a coastal lawmaker raid on the Census Bureau piggybank, to boost NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service.

By and large, House appropriators, who arguably have the most to gain or lose from an accurate census, also ignored the Census Bureau’s vital programs. The exception was CJS Subcommittee Acting Ranking Member Mike Honda (D-CA), who asked Secretary Pritzker about the long-term consequences of cutting the 2020 Census budget. The Commerce chief emphasized that significant lifecycle cost savings depended on spending money now for IT and operational development and research into the use of administrative records to reduce costly field work.

As the FY2017 appropriations bills emerge in the coming months and wind their way through “mark-ups” and floor debates, keep a wary eye out for the ubiquitous “voluntary ACS response” amendment. Limited-government lawmakers — many of whom have found a home in the House Freedom Caucus — don’t seem inclined to abandon their assault on knowledge-based policymaking. And as March gives way to April, let’s hope lawmakers shower the Census Bureau with adequate resources to keep the ball rolling towards an affordable and inclusive census.

Back Here On Earth…

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

It’s time to come back down to earth, after the madcap, pre-Christmas scramble on Capitol Hill to pass a mammoth FY2016 spending bill on time, which in congressional-speak means “before the second quarter of the fiscal year begins.”

Or maybe not. Come back down to earth, that is.

I recently watched a rerun of CNN’s “The Sixties” segment on the race into space. Being of a, ahem, certain age, I vividly remember watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s grainy first steps onto the lunar surface almost a half century ago. It’s hard not to be thrilled by space adventures — men and women of uncommon courage, fortitude, and smarts, floating in near solitude thousands of miles above the Earth, the only planet teeming with life of which we are currently aware…

Oh, sorry. This is a blog about the U.S. census. It’s just that, as luck would have it, funding for the Census Bureau falls under the same Appropriations subcommittee as — you guessed it — NASA. And last year, the helm of that panel passed to Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), whose Houston district is perilously close to the — right, again! — Johnson Space Center.

Chairman Culberson really, really loves space exploration! In an interview last month with Science magazine’s Jeffrey Mervis, the congressman seemed positively giddy over the additional $175 million he snagged to accelerate a mission to Europa. Which, for those unfamiliar with planetary jargon, is not a sexy reference to our allies across the Atlantic, but one of Jupiter’s moons. NASA didn’t ask for that much money, Mr. Mervis reported, but that didn’t deter the chairman from increasing the administration’s request almost six-fold. “The only way to confirm there’s life in the oceans of Europa is to land on the surface and sample the ice,” Rep. Culberson told Science. Can’t argue with that logic.

This is exciting stuff, people. Far more thrilling than, let’s say, figuring out how to count 330 million Americans and put each of them at a specific address on April 1, 2020. Or translating census forms into 60 languages. Or testing whether check-boxes or write-in lines yield the most accurate data on racial subgroups.

The chairman is “passionate” about the Europa mission. Finding life on a Jovian moon will be, he told Science, a “transformational moment in human civilization.” Unlike, say, pulling off a census that doesn’t undercount some population groups — people of color, young children, low income households, immigrants — at higher rates than others (non-Hispanic Whites), which would help us achieve our democracy’s promise of equal representation and fair distribution of hundreds of billions of dollars in government aid. Oh, is that snoring I hear?

Let’s be frank. Outside of our spirited universe of census fans, the decennial population count does not set too many hearts a-flutter. You cannot gather ‘round the family television, watching wide-eyed as census takers amble door-to-door, mobile devices in hand … for weeks on end. A stab at census humor won’t impress the guy next to you on the pub barstool. “Hey, here’s a great joke: Knock, knock. Who’s there? Ma’am, I’m with the U.S. Census Bureau …” You’re laughing, but no one else is. Trust me.

Meanwhile, back here on Earth, the Census Bureau is busy preparing for the 2016 Census Test in Los Angeles and Harris (TX) Counties, pursuing a contract for the 2020 Census communications campaign, analyzing results from the 2015 questionnaire content test, and finalizing rules that will determine where people — including prisoners — will be counted. After all, the agency has to take a census four years from now, using whatever resources and following whatever operational directives Congress deems appropriate. The Constitution says so.

The omnibus spending bill that funds the government in 2016 brought the Census Bureau back from the brink of fiscal disaster, after the House of Representatives cut the 2020 Census planning budget by upwards of 40 percent and the ACS budget by 20 percent. The final package reduced the requested funding level for each program by roughly 10 percent, enough money to keep primary planning activities on schedule and maintain the ACS sample size. Chairman Culberson told Science that the Census Bureau has the “support they need to complete their mission.” (I love how space enthusiasts refer to everything as a “mission”!) However, he still thinks Americans should be able to opt-out of answering the ACS, to guard against the Census Bureau “harassing American citizens or invading their privacy.” That didn’t work so well in Canada, but we Americans like to work things out ourselves.

The White House is tweaking President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget request, scheduled for release on February 9th. It’s a good thing the annual appropriations season kick-off isn’t a week earlier on Groundhog Day, because the Census Bureau can’t press the repeat button on funding when it’s ramping up for a decennial census. Planning activities in 2017 include submitting the 2020 Census question topics to Congress (by April 1st), testing the Census Questionnaire Assistance operation, overseeing development of the massive communications campaign, and starting the Local Update of Census Addresses (LUCA) program.

Expect another huge proportional bump in requested funding for the 2020 Census, and be prepared to fight for it, census Jedis.

 

All I Want For Christmas…

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

Last week, I was wringing my hands as Santa’s helpers on Capitol Hill rushed to tie the bow on a final budget package for Fiscal Year 2016. Would lawmakers leave a stocking full of coal for the U.S. Census Bureau? Would the Grinch steal our hopes for an accurate 2020 Census and reliable American Community Survey (ACS)?

I had good reason to fret. Earlier this year, House appropriators slashed the Obama Administration’s budget request for the 2020 Census by 40 percent, and for the ACS by 20 percent. Itching to make a bad situation worse, the full House of Representatives cut another 10 percent ($117 million) from the $1.2 billion request for the Periodic Censuses and Programs account (for a total cut of 41 percent), which includes the 2020 Census, ACS, Economic Census, and other vital geographic and IT support activities.

The carnage that was the House Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill (H.R. 2578) would have forced the Census Bureau to postpone award of a massive communications contract; cancel a nationwide test of new, cost-saving address canvassing methods; stop work on a ‘help desk’ for census takers (who will be using electronic devices for the first time); and eliminate new methods that tell us how accurate the census is. (Does anyone else see the irony in shortchanging census planning to the point that we wouldn’t have reliable measures of undercounts and overcounts?)

Another casualty of the proposed budget squeeze would have been the ACS sample size (a decrease of 15 percent, to 3 million homes), making it necessary to extend the period for averaging data for all communities from 5 to 6 years. To make sure it destabilized the ACS even further, the House also voted to make survey response voluntary.

Senate appropriators strained to be more generous, cutting the Periodic Censuses request (without specifying how the money should be spent) by a mere 30 percent. (Okay, I shall pull my tongue out of my cheek; this is serious business.) In a refreshing repudiation of the House’s anti-ACS orthodoxy, the funding committee affirmed the importance of ACS data for informed decision-making. It then offered a measly $22 million increase, over last year’s budget, for the entire Periodics account, all but ensuring a lack of resources to maintain a viable ACS sample size and keep 2020 Census planning on track.

As the clock ticked down on the temporary spending measure that had kept the government running since October 1, I tried to conjure up visions of sugarplums. Surely lawmakers would see the need for a healthy ramp-up in funding for the bedrock of our representative democracy, and understand the dire consequences of starving census planning, only two years before the start of an end-to-end readiness test and four years before census preparations are in full swing. Fortunately, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2016 (P.L. 114-74) offered some hope of a holiday miracle, as lawmakers bumped up funding for nondefense programs by $33 billion and then cloistered themselves under the Capitol dome to divide the spoils among government agencies.

In the wee hours of last Wednesday morning, the appropriations elves snuck their big holiday package — the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2016 (H.R. 2029) — onto the Internet. And what to my wondering eyes should appear… but $1.37 billion for the Census Bureau, 10 percent less than the agency’s request of $1.5 billion, but, oh, so welcome in the face of looming fiscal disaster. The “omnibus” budget bill allocated $1.1 billion for the Periodics account, but prudently left it to the bureau’s Wise Men (and Women) to divvy up the funds among the 2020 census, ACS, and other activities. The House language making ACS response optional quietly disappeared, as well.

And so, another year of census funding angst has come to a close. Enjoy the rest of the holiday season, census fans, because in six short weeks, the President will kick off a new budget cycle with his Fiscal Year 2017 request. If you think we pushed a boulder up a hill this year, remember that the census budget ramp-up gets bigger as the “zero” year approaches, and that Congress has been known to kick the appropriations can down the road in presidential election years, leaving agencies spinning their wheels under flat-funding until a new Administration and Congress take office months after the start of the fiscal year.

But for now, Happy New Year to all, and to all a good night. See you next year!

Back to the Census Future

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

I have snapped out of my daydream of a Trump-like path to the 2020 Census, where everything is easy and will end up just fine because, you know, we’ll get great (not stupid!) people and take an amazing census. A headline blaring from the front page of the The New York Times woke me up.

Cut In Budget May Hamper 2000 Census

Oh, wait. Wrong year; wrong census. That was 1995! Yes, it’s census déjà vu all over again. No wonder I can’t sleep at night.

Twenty years later, Congress once again has failed to grasp the concept of ‘invest now, save later.’ This would be the same Congress that wants government to run more like a business: to think and act proactively; to take bold action to contain costs without sacrificing quality.

Except some lawmakers seem to think that the Census Bureau can wave a magic wand and change the game plan it’s followed since 1970. Generate administrative records to replace more costly door-to-door visits! Produce materials in more than 50 languages! Conjure up a nimble communications plan to convince every household in the world’s melting pot to participate! Build a secure IT infrastructure that can handle 8 million hits a day and process 140+ million cases! Cue the light saber, because that’s what we’ll need when the money isn’t there.

Earlier this year, the House of Representatives decided it believes in fairy godmothers. The Appropriations Committee capped Fiscal Year 2016 spending on 2020 Census planning at $400 million, less than two-thirds of the President’s $663 million request. Even that was too much for the full House, which cut another $117 million from the Periodic Censuses and Programs account, with a significant chunk presumably eating away further at 2020 Census funding.

Senate appropriators were marginally more generous, increasing the Periodics account by $22 million over Fiscal Year 2015. That would be for the entire account, which also includes the 2017 Economic Census, American Community Survey, and vital activities that support the census, such as the geographic framework and enterprise-wide data processing system. I’m not good at math, but I don’t think that leaves much of a ramp-up for the 2020 Census,

There is some good news, though. The FY2016 budget process broke down completely after that, with the White House and congressional Democrats objecting to the spending caps (sequestration) put in place by a grand budget deal two years ago. (You know you’re living in a parallel universe when Congress’ inability to fund the federal government on time is something to cheer about.) Congress bought time with a temporary spending bill (Continuing Resolution) that runs through December 11th.

Last week, lawmakers and the President finally brokered a deal that boosts overall spending on non-defense discretionary programs in FY2016 by $33 billion. Appropriators must now divvy up that windfall among the twelve annual funding bills (including the Commerce, Justice, and Science measure that covers the Census Bureau) and agree on final budgets for agencies and programs.

Meanwhile, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a joint subcommittee hearing this week on the progress of 2020 Census planning, with a focus on IT systems. Lawmakers are spooked by the ghost of the Census Bureau’s costly failure to equip census takers with mobile devices in the 2010 Census, and they want assurances that a vastly larger plan to automate the 2020 Census won’t fall flat.

But I am equally worried by what I didn’t hear at Tuesday’s session: how will sweeping reforms to the census process address the historic, disproportionate undercount of people of color, young children, limited English proficient and low-income households (both rural and urban)? No one asked a question that would illuminate the answer, although a few Members highlighted the need for adequate funding to prepare for the census.

The Census Bureau has a lot of work to do — and a lot of questions to answer —between now and late summer of 2017, when the 2018 End-to-End Readiness Test (with an April 1, 2018 “Census Day”) begins. Without sufficient funding, it will focus its efforts on building a basic framework for 2020 — IT systems, the mailing package and questionnaire, office locations, reasonable address list improvements. Elements that get to the heart of a fair count — targeted advertising; language assistance; partnerships with trusted voices in hard to count communities; thorough evaluation of administrative records; even development of statistical tools to measure accuracy — will continue to get short shrift.

There will be a lot of competition for that extra money in the Omnibus FY2016 spending bill.

Congress has a second chance to show that it cares not just about a cost-effective census, but an accurate one. Let’s hope it uses that opportunity wisely.

Postscript: O Canada! In 2010, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party majority in Parliament decided to let Canadians opt-out of the quinquennial (still love that word!) census long form, the equivalent of our American Community Survey (ACS). When the voluntary 2011 National Household Survey failed to produce reliable data for a quarter of all places and some key socio-economic indicators (such as household income), data users — from business leaders, to municipal governments, to researchers — were wringing their hands.

Earlier this year, Conservatives blocked a bill sponsored by Liberal Party MP Ted Hsu to restore the mandatory long form. But now-Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party vowed to restore the mandatory long form, if elected. And wouldn’t you know, within days of taking office, Trudeau did just that, with two Cabinet Ministers making the announcement today. The Toronto Globe and Mail even reported that the former Conservative Party MP who pushed the voluntary long form now says he “would have done it differently” and asked more thoughtful questions in trying to determine how best to protect privacy and ensure data security. Are you listening, U.S. Congress?

Speaking of the Census…

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

Daniel Webster is running to be Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Not the Daniel Webster who served in the House and the Senate and as Secretary of State. (He died in a tragic horse accident in 1852.) No, this would be the one from Florida who sponsored, in 2012, a successful amendment to eliminate the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). At least the Senate had the good sense not to go along with the “see no evil, hear no evil” approach to policymaking. The House Freedom Caucus, which takes credit for pushing Speaker John Boehner to resign, is backing Rep. Webster for the job.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which oversees the Census Bureau’s activities, also wants to wield the chamber’s gavel. Rep. Chaffetz assumed his committee’s top post earlier this year, but he’s had a keen interest in the census ever since Utah failed to gain a fourth congressional district after the 2000 population count. That unfortunate outcome, the congressman believed, was due to the Census Bureau’s failure to count Mormon missionaries working abroad when the census was taken.

Rep. Chaffetz co-authored a bill in 2009 (with fellow Utah Rep. Rob Bishop) to require the inclusion of all Americans living abroad in the census. (The Census Bureau includes overseas members of the armed forces and federal employees in the state population totals used for congressional apportionment; the count is done using agency administrative records.) The bill didn’t make it out of committee, possibly because a 2004 congressionally mandated test of an overseas count was cut short after the Government Accountability Office determined that it would be impossible to get an accurate count of private American citizens abroad and that the cost was prohibitive.

Rep. Chaffetz also proposed replacing census takers with postal workers for the 2010 Census. He told the Salt Lake Tribune that there could be a “postal holiday” so that letter carriers could go door-to-door counting people who didn’t mail back their questionnaires. I think lots of households and businesses might start to rebel after a few weeks with no mail. Because, you know, the follow-up operation to track down unresponsive households takes more than a day.

And then there’s Rep. Darrel Issa (R-CA), who chaired the Oversight committee before Rep. Chaffetz assumed the top spot. The congressman said he’s thinking about throwing his hat in the ring for Speaker. I know that Rep. Issa cares a lot about an accurate census because in 2008, he sponsored a House resolution “demanding [that the] 2010 Census count every living person in the United States,” according to a June 11, 2008, press release. Fifty lawmakers, all of them Republicans, cosponsored Issa’s resolution (H.Res. 1262, 110th Congress), which the House dutifully passed in September 2008.

I’m sure the Census Bureau was planning to do everything it could to produce an accurate population count, even if members of Congress weren’t so demanding. But I’m relieved that Rep. Issa clarified the “living person” part.

Depending on how the thrilling Speaker’s race turns out, Congress could be demanding that the Census Bureau send postal workers to count Americans living (or living Americans!) in Chile in 2020. Or something like that.

The original Rep. Daniel Webster, by the way, was on the ballot for President in 1852, for the Know Nothing Party. (Yes, there was such a political party, formally known as the American Party, which nominated that well-known president, Millard Filmore.) We could all become modern-day Know Nothings if the current Speaker-hopeful Webster prevails in his quest to axe the ACS.

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.