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.

The Next Census Scientific Advisory Committee Meeting is November 12th

The Census Scientific Advisory Committee will next meet (virtually) on November 12, 2020.

With 2020 Census counting operations now shut down and controversy continuing over a severely shortened data analysis and processing stage, the 2020 Census will likely be on the menu, but the Census Bureau is already in the planning stage for the 2030 Census, and there are plenty of scientific and method concerns facing the committee.

Interested viewers can connect via WebEx on Nov. 12 (1-3 p.m. Eastern).

U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Arguments on Proposal to Exclude Undocumented Immigrants from 2020 Census Apportionment Count

On October 16, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would hear oral arguments on November 30 regarding a lower court ruling that determined the Trump Administration cannot exclude undocumented immigrants from the 2020 Census apportionment count.

The Trump administration brought the case to the Supreme Court after a panel of New York federal judges ruled in September that a presidential memorandum to exclude undocumented immigrants from the apportionment count was unlawful.

The Census Project has posted numerous stories in its daily news feed about this ruling, including the following:

Senators Make Another Bipartisan Appeal for 2020 Census Counting Operation Extension

A bipartisan group of Senators are urging U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross “to continue all 2020 Census self-response and field data collection operations through October 31, 2020, as originally planned.”

A letter led by Sen. Michael Rounds (R-SD), with Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Kevin Cramer (R-ND), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) expressed concern “about the earlier deadline undercounting American citizens, specifically American Indians and Alaska Natives.”

Most native American reservations are designated as hard to count by the Census Bureau. “Many reservation residents receive their mail at post office boxes, not physical residences, and as a result, they do not receive Census surveys by mail. Hand delivery to physical addresses is required. Furthermore, many reservation residents do not have internet access or computers and find it much more difficult to complete online surveys.”

The letter also highlighted the significant negative disparity between Indian country and the rest of the U.S. in completion rates.

Read the Senators’ letter.

2020 Census Counting Operations Ending October 15 Following Supreme Court Stay

On October 13, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed a preliminary lower court injunction that had prevented the White House from ending the 2020 Census early. Counting operations will now end by October 15, with the Trump Administration still aiming to deliver apportionment data from the 2020 Census on December 31, 2020.

After requesting an extension of the legal deadlines for reporting census data on April 13 so that the Census Bureau could adapt to COVID-19 and collect data until October 31, the Administration changed course and sought to end all counting operations a month early (September 30). The district court issued a preliminary injunction on September 24 prohibiting the Administration from further implementing a rushed census plan that was forcing the Census Bureau to finish data collection by September 30 and to recommit to a shortened timeline for data analysis, review and processing. With the Census Bureau preparing to end counting operations early anyway, the district court issued a further stay and clarified its original injunction on October 1. The Administration then asked for the Supreme Court to intervene.

While the Supreme Court stay order did not include any comment, Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a lengthy dissent, noting that “meeting the deadline at the expense of the accuracy of the census is not a cost worth paying, especially when the Government has failed to show why it could not bear the lesser cost of expending more resources to meet the deadline or continuing its prior efforts to seek an extension from Congress. This Court normally does not grant extraordinary relief on such a painfully disproportionate balance of harms.

The Census Bureau now says that counting operations will end on October 15, 2020, and that they have counted 99.9 percent of American households. Unfortunately, the completion rate tells us next to nothing about the accuracy of the count. As explained by a new American Statistical Association (ASA) task force report, “the percent of completed cases does not suffice to draw conclusions about data quality. For example, included in the tally of completed enumerations are households counted through a proxy response from a neighbor, including cases in which the proxy could provide no information beyond a guess of the number of individuals living in the household. In fact, meeting enumeration goals for a truncated deadline increases the likelihood of operational shortcuts that will jeopardize the quality of the count.

Stakeholders are thus continuing to urge passage of the bipartisan 2020 Census Deadline Extension Act (S. 4571 and H.R. 8250), either alone or as part of another legislative package, to extend the statutory reporting deadlines for the 2020 Census. This would allow for the full five months of data analysis, processing and review originally planned by the Census Bureau to ferret out errors, such as undercounts and double counts, instead of the 2 ½ months now allotted for that phase.

Stakeholders are also urging the adoption of the ASA task force report’s recommendations to measure data quality.

How to Measure the Quality of the 2020 Census

A new task force report from the American Statistical Association (ASA) states that, with “the importance of the many ways in which census data are used, the American public needs to know whether census information presents an accurate picture of our nation’s population.” Since the Census Bureau’s current plans for quality assessment are “unknown,” and “the 99 percent completion rate by state publicly released to date is insufficient to measure quality,” the ASA “2020 Census Quality Indicators” report recommends detailed indicators to measures of quality, accuracy, and coverage of the 2020 Census.

The Census Bureau has aimed to get to 99 percent completion of enumeration in every state, but the ASA report explains that, “the percent of completed cases does not suffice to draw conclusions about data quality. For example, included in the tally of completed enumerations are households counted through a proxy response from a neighbor, including cases in which the proxy could provide no information beyond a guess of the number of individuals living in the household. In fact, meeting enumeration goals for a truncated deadline increases the likelihood of operational shortcuts that will jeopardize the quality of the count.”

Given the rushed census timeline and COVID-19, the ASA task force report recommended that the Census Bureau should make its usual quality assessment results from self-response and nonresponse follow-up “public at the census tract levels in order to ascertain the extent to which some areas may have been counted more accurately than others and determine the data’s fitness for various uses.” Thanks to increased automation, more indicators from the 2020 Census field operations will be available, such as the daily “processing and assignment of the NRFU cases.”

According to former U.S. Chief Statistician Nancy Potok, the discussed “indicators are an important first step in a discussion on data quality,” followed by the “expeditious application of them to the 2020 decennial data” by the White House, “along with transparent reporting of each quality indicator to lawmakers and the public.”

Once the recommended “quality indicators are published,” the ASA task force report suggests granting “[q]ualified external researchers… access to the data to help conduct the analyses,” continued assessment as more data becomes available, and building on 2020 Census lessons, with public input, in preparation for the 2030 Census.

Experts on the task force included Potok, the current ASA president, a former Census Bureau chief scientist, a former Census Bureau chief demographer, a former Census Bureau senior mathematical statistician, former members of Census Advisory Committees, three former Census Bureau directors, and a former president of the ASA.

The 25 Area Census Offices Farthest from Completion

Steve Pierson and Jonathan Auerbach of the American Statistical Association (ASA) compiled the 25 area census offices (ACO) with the farthest yet to go in completing household responses for the 2020 Census, as of September 29, 2020. They noted that 19 of these bottom 25 are from nine southeastern predominantly Republican states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

ACO #NameStatePercentage Complete
3110Window RockAZ75.6
2985Gwinnett CountyGA85.9
3156Colorado SpringsCO87.5
2977Seminole CountyFL89.3
2376Philadelphia – PennPA89.3
3108Maricopa WestAZ90.5
2996Greenville, NCNC90.6

House Prepares Revised HEROES Act with Updated Census Provisions

The U.S. House of Representatives may pass a revised version of the HEROES Act as soon as today, with modified language extending the census reporting deadlines for the 2020 Census and additional funding.

The House passed the original bill in May (see The Census Project’s May 2020 Update).

The new legislation tacks on another $10 million of emergency funding, for the Census Bureau’s Working Capital Fund in the Current Surveys and Programs account. This comes in addition to the $400 million from the original for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and related delays and disruptions. The bill designates the new addition “for necessary expenses incurred as a result of the coronavirus, including for payment of salaries and leave to Bureau of the Census staff resulting from the suspension of data collection for reimbursable surveys conducted for other Federal agencies:”

It also removes the prior legislative language to extend the census data reporting deadlines and replaces it with the language from the bipartisan 2020 Census Deadline Extension Act (H.R. 8250), including the requirement that “the Census may not conclude the Nonresponse Followup operation or the Self-Response operation before October 31, 2020.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has referred to the revised HEROES Act as a $2.2 trillion compromise to move toward a final coronavirus relief bill with the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said it contains “poison pills” and that the Senate will not consider it.

  • See the text of the revised HEROES Act and a section-by-section summary.

Preliminary Injunction Allows Extension of 2020 Census Data Collection

On September 24, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh of the Northern District of California issued a Preliminary Injunction prohibiting the Trump administration from further implementing the “rushed census plan” that had forced the Census Bureau to finish data collection by September 30 and to recommit to processing, tabulating, and reporting state population totals used for congressional apportionment by the current statutory deadline of December 31, 2020. The full opinion is posted  at this link.   

The Census Bureau is expected to issue a statement about how it will proceed operationally. Unless and until a Stay of the judge’s Order is granted, counting operations will continue through October and any plans to rush the delivery of apportionment data by December 31 are on hold. The federal government is appealing this Order to the Ninth Circuit, continuing the uncertainty surrounding completion of the 2020 Census. Judge Koh late today denied the Trump DOJ request to Stay her order so the case now proceeds to the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

Census stakeholders continue to urge Congress to act by approving language that would extend the 2020 Census statutory reporting deadlines. They are also urging members in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate to support bipartisan legislation, 2020 Census Deadline Extensions Act (the Schatz/Murkowski/Sullivan bill, S. 4571, and the Young/Gallego bill, H.R. 8250) that would also extend data collection activities and the statutory reporting deadlines. For interested organizations, The Census Project has posted talking points that explain the issues and provide additional information about the 2020 Census Deadline Extension Act.