Census Bureau Management Trouble

In any large and complex undertaking, sometimes the smallest decisions can be the most important. The planning, funding and taking of the 2020 Census certainly falls into that category.

Required by the U.S. Constitution, the census is the largest peacetime activity undertaken by our country every ten years. In 2020 the census will employ 500,000 temporary census takers to go door-to-door to portions of the nation’s 130 million households to finish-up the count of those not participating by internet.

The 2020 Census represents a steep challenge for the Census Bureau’s top management. That’s why the Bureau’s job of deputy director is so important. Currently, the position is held on a temporary basis by a career professional – as has always been the case. Traditionally, the deputy director is the nuts-and-bolts person who administers the Bureau on a day-to-day basis AND oversees the decennial census.

But, the Trump Administration is seriously considering replacing the current career professional with a political appointee, Professor Thomas Brunell of the University of Texas at Dallas, with no known management experience and a deeply partisan background in GOP re-districting efforts.

Professional associations like the Population Association of America, representing America’s demographers, and others have weighed-in against the potential appointment.

The Census Bureau Must Preserve the Backbone of Our Democracy

This blog was originally posted on ADL on January 3.

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By Melissa Garlick, Civil Rights National Counsel, Anti-Defamation League

The founders of our nation chose population as the basis for sharing political power – not wealth or land.  The decennial census, required by the U.S. Constitution, provides the basis for that population count – and for apportioning the number of U.S. House of Representatives among the states, the number of Electoral College votes each state has, and to draw congressional, state legislative, and even city council district lines.  The population figures obtained by over 600,000 door-to-door counters also affects the distribution of funding for infrastructure and community services.  The longstanding mission of the census is “to serve as the leading source of quality data about the nation’s people and economy.”  It is the basis for America’s most basic civic principle: the right of the people to elect their representatives.

The census should never be politicized, or used for partisan purposes.

Yet, last week, ProPublica revealed that the Department of Justice (DOJ) had made the unprecedented request that the Census Bureau add a question on citizenship to the 2020 census “short form.”  This effort should be alarming to all who care about the integrity and basic institutions of our democracy.  In a December 2017 letter, DOJ wrongly claimed that the basis of the request was that such data is “critical to the Department’s enforcement of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and its important protections against racial discrimination in voting.” But, in reality, the census has not collected citizenship data since 1960 – before the enactment of the Voting Rights Act.

Especially in the context of an administration that has demonstrated special hostility to all forms of immigration, adding a citizenship question and/or legal status question would severely undermine the accuracy of the data in every community and every state.  It would chill participation of immigrant communities out of fear that the census information would be used for immigration enforcement purposes – or promote false or incomplete answers.

There are already substantial logistical and language access obstacles to overcome to ensure an accurate census.  Historically, the census has undercounted children, people of color, rural residents, and low-income households at higher rates.  Some researchers have already found that census participation is connected to a jurisdiction’s demographics.  New research confirms that residents are expressing concern about the confidentiality of information they provide to the Census Bureau out of fear that the data will be shared with other federal agencies – including immigration enforcement agencies.  Particularly in this climate of fear among immigrant and marginalized communities and against a backdrop of harsh, heightened anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, proposed new questions around legal status will only further exacerbate immigrants’ fears to participate in our democracy.  The impact of inaccurate census data would be felt acutely in states with growing communities of color and immigrant communities for at least the next decade.

Additionally, this request comes almost a year after the Census Bureau has already finalized topics for the 2020 census.  The rushed timing and lack of public communication by the federal government in proposing this change to the census further raises questions and skepticism as to motives, heightening fears and reducing public confidence in the democratic process.

An accurate census count is at the very root of ensuring basic notions of equality and democratic representation.  The census must be protected against politicized questions, and any other efforts to undermine trust and confidence in its count.  The Census Bureau should start with rejecting DOJ’s late, unnecessary request to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

Five reasons a robust decennial census benefits all Americans

This blog was originally posted on Urban Wire on December 18. 

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By Diana Elliott, Senior Research Associate, Urban Institute 

The past year has brought a flurry of news stories about the 2020 decennial census that reflect uncertainty about its success. Stories suggest several concerns, including persistent underfunding, the director’s unexpected resignation, challenges implementing technological innovations under budget constraints, and the potential appointment of a controversial leader.

This year and the next are critical for the planning and success of the decennial census, as field operations gear up nationwide for an effort so large that it increases the country’s labor force participation every decade. Recent events—including funding shortfalls, schedule delays, cancellation of key tests, and methodological concerns—have caused many to worry about the 2020 census, including the commerce secretary and the Government Accountability Office, which added the census to its “High Risk List” of government-wide programs in jeopardy.

The lack of appreciation for the importance of a robust and well-executed decennial census is also troubling. Declining response rates are one of the major drivers of escalating costs for conducting the decennial census. While some people are legitimately hard to count—because they live in remote areas, are transitory, or have language barriers, for example—others do not complete the questionnaire. If we all had a deeper appreciation for the census, it might face fewer challenges.

Here are five reasons a well-funded, robust, and apolitical decennial census is an important American asset, not just for researchers, but for all Americans.

1. It is a foundational tenet of our democracy.

The decennial census is mandated in article 1, section 2 of the US Constitution to ensure that “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers.” The founders of our country knew that a fair democracy was based on an accurate population count.

The decennial census is one of our country’s longest-standing legacies. It has been conducted every 10 years since 1790, and the rigor of its data has been a cornerstone for fair representation throughout the nation’s history.

2. It determines how to allocate spending for many federally funded programs.

In 2015, states received nearly $590 billion from 16 large federally funded programs, the allocation of which was determined by 2010 census counts. Programs covering health (Medicaid), infrastructure (Highway Planning and Construction), education (Head Start), and food security (National School Lunch Program) were among the allocations.

Research shows that certain groups—including people of color, renters, and young children—are more likely to be undercounted. Residents of every state have a vested interest in ensuring that their counts, including those typically undercounted, are as accurate as possible to receive a fair allocation of federal resources and to ensure civil rights.

3. It determines legislative districts and ensures accurate representation in Congress.

The decennial census is the basis for political redistricting and the apportionment of representatives across the 50 states. It also helps jurisdictions comply with the Voting Rights Act, which ensures that all voters have access to language assistance, if needed, when they cast votes in an election. Data collected in the decennial census ensure that democratic representation is fairly allocated.

4. It is the foundation for important data products and projections for the rest of the decade.

Census counts are the base population for national and state population projections, which are created for years between decennial censuses. Such projections constitute our country’s official population counts. Census counts are a key component of the weighting process for the American Community Survey (ACS) and ensure that those who participate in the survey adequately represent the American public. A rigorous decennial census matters for the total count of the population in 2020 and the accuracy of the data for the following decade, too.

5. It is a key information source for all groups and stakeholders.

Although only legislatively mandated questions are included on the decennial census (and ACS), the data collected are crucial not only for research institutions, but also for the business community, state and local governments, and historians and archivists. For example, commercial databases benchmark to population counts from the decennial census. Such data are then used by the business community to make better strategy, marketing, and development decisions. Without accurate census counts, decisionmakers would be hamstrung in their planning and development.

In our democracy, there are various ways to show up and be counted. When we cast a ballot in an election, our choice of leadership is counted. When we engage with leadership and political institutions, our voices and opinions are heard. When we complete our decennial census—whether by mail, online, or with an enumerator at our door—who we are is counted.

Demographics and our place of residence are the facts that undergird an accurate representation of our country and a fair allocation of resources. In an era when facts and data are threatened, maintaining the integrity of the decennial census should be front of mind for all Americans.

New Report on 2020 Census/Rural America

In a new report issued this week, demographer Bill O’Hare says “little has been written about the special challenges that will make some rural areas and populations difficult to enumerate accurately.”

Dr. O’Hare’s report notes five particular regions or populations in rural America that will be particularly hard to count in the 2020 Census:

  • Blacks in the South
  • Hispanics in the rural Southwest
  • American Indians living on reservations and Alaska Natives
  • Residents of deep Appalachia
  • Migrant and seasonal farmworkers

O’Hare’s report says a majority of Hard-To-Count (HTC) counties (79 percent) in the U.S. are rural areas. Overall, 16 percent of all the most rural counties fall into the HTC category.

“The heavy reliance on the internet in the 2020 Census may pose a special concern for rural residents,” O’Hare concludes. “Data show that good internet access is less likely to be available in rural areas and a test (in West Virginia) that might reveal difficulties has recently been cancelled.”

The Cannibalization of the Census Bureau

A local newspaper in Hagerstown, Maryland, published a surprising article that suggests the U.S. Census Bureau may be diverting funds from important surveys like the American Community Survey (ACS) in order to provide ongoing funding for activities supporting the 2020 Census, because Congress flat-lined FY 2018 decennial census funding that expires today.

This activity is, of course, permitted by an anomaly contained in the present Continuing Resolution and passed by Congress to keep the federal government running. But, the effect on the ACS is now clear.

Politicization of the 2020 Census?

Numerous stories appeared in the media last week about the possible appointment of Professor Thomas Brunell, a GOP redistricting expert with no known management experience, to be deputy director of the Census Bureau.

Professor Brunell would be a political appointment replacing a career employee in the chief day-to-day operations job at the bureau. Several articles spell out the consequences of such an appointment by the Trump administration:



Critical Census Budget Action Needed

The Continuing Resolution (CR) which froze both the overall federal budget and the Census Bureau budget at FY 2017 levels expires in early December. This could require another short-term CR if Congress can’t agree on a FY 2018 budget compromise. Or, Congress could immediately enact a final FY 2018 budget.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross have proposed an additional $187 million for the Census Bureau for FY 2018, to mostly pay for much-needed IT systems development. And, the administration now says it will request an additional $3.3 billion in lifecycle costs between now and the decennial count to pay for the full costs of the 2020 Census!

The Census Project believes the administration’s FY 2018 request for the 2020 Census is still too low. But, the project does support the additional funds that have been requested.

A letter from about 100 Census Project stakeholders to congressional policymakers describes the new administration funding request for FY 2018 as “an important down payment towards the additional $3.3 billion the administration says it needs over the next three years to conduct a fair, accurate and successful 2020 Census.”

“No funds are included in the revised FY 2018 Census Bureau budget for timely development of the full advertising campaign, launch of the Partnership Program, restoring cancelled field tests in rural areas, or to adapt operations to remedy the impact of disasters in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and California that increase the risk of an incomplete census count in those communities,” the letter continued. “The new request does not include sufficient funding for historic numbers of partnership specialists, who help state and local officials and trusted community leaders support census operations through focused outreach and promotion to their constituencies. These operations help reduce costs by boosting self-response and increase accuracy by targeting messages to historically hard-to-count communities. We strongly urge additional funding for these important activities in the final omnibus funding measure for Fiscal 2018.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney has introduced legislation (H.R. 4013) to provide the Census Bureau with $1.9 billion in FY 2018 — an increase of $251 million above the administration’s adjusted request, or $438 million more funding this fiscal year.

Congress is now at a critical crossroad in terms of funding the 2020 Census.