Saving the 2020 Census

This past week, the Washington Post published an editorial urging the Trump Administration to ensure a fair and accurate 2020 Census. “There is a reason the Founding Fathers saw fit to make the census a part of the Constitution… (it) is critical to a functional democracy,” said the Post.

Read the full editorial in the Washington Post

Grassroots Support for the Census

The federal budget for 2020 Census planning is presently flat-lined about $250 million below what the Census Bureau requested for this fiscal year. And the comprehensive American Community Survey (ACS) will be challenged by the new Congress and White House.

The past several weeks have shown dramatically that grassroots activities can get the attention of national policymakers. Census advocates can play a big role at the local level by engaging with their own members of Congress or senators in their districts or states.

The Census Project produced a Grassroots Toolkit which outlines the stakes in pressing for a fair and accurate decennial census and a comprehensive ACS. The Toolkit outlines local strategies that you can use at the community level. Join us!

Census Challenges in the News

Since the beginning of the year, Washington-based media has become more attuned to the challenges facing the U.S. Census Bureau and both its 2020 decennial and the American Community Survey. This is good news!

If the next decennial census doesn’t receive proper funding between now and Census Day 2020, the prospects for a huge undercount of the population dramatically increases.

A Washington Post article declares that underfunding means “the robustness of the 2020 Census is especially vulnerable.”

Meanwhile, a Science Magazine article is headlined “Scientists fear attack on federal statistics collection.”

Finally, a recent Education Week piece notes “education watchers are keeping close tabs on (funding for) the Census Bureau’s 2020 decennial census and for the American Community Survey.”

Let’s hope these articles are read by national policymakers!

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?

What Price Democracy?

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

The Census Bureau was off to a relatively good start this year in the mysterious and powerful world of those who hold the purse strings, known fondly to many of us as the House and Senate appropriations committees. Or so I thought.

Last week, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker took the hot seat before the Senate panel that funds the federal government’s commerce, justice and science programs. This would be the subcommittee (albeit, with several new members) that barely acknowledged the existence of a census at last year’s budget hearing. The panel is heavily populated by lawmakers from coastal states, who apparently have nightmares about uncharted weather catastrophes and depleted fishing stocks.

But the 2020 Census got their attention this year, maybe because the Obama Administration requested a 91 percent funding increase to ramp up planning in Fiscal Year 2016 for the next decennial count. Which, if I haven’t mentioned recently, will be in full swing five years from now.

Panel Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) actually led off his opening statement and questioning with census-related concerns. He noted matter-of-factly the need for a significant funding increase to double-down on 2020 Census planning, and he cautioned the secretary to closely watch preparations to avoid future cost-overruns that could leave less money available for other Commerce Dept. programs. The subcommittee’s senior Democrat (and former chairwoman), Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), briefly mentioned the technology “boondoggle” before the 2010 Census, and that was it. On to New England fisheries, support for U.S. manufacturers and that pesky “polar gap” in weather satellite coverage.

But things went downhill for the Census Bureau from there. The new chairman of the House Commerce/Justice/Science spending panel doesn’t much care for the American Community Survey (ACS), the modern version of the census long form. It’s “intrusive,” he told Secretary Pritzker when she appeared before his subcommittee this week, and the government doesn’t have a right to ask about anything other than the number of people in a household… or ancestry. Ancestry? Where did that come from?

But let’s move on. Ever since the Census Bureau wrapped up the last decennial census, appropriators have indicated that they aren’t willing to spend more on the 2020 Census than they did on the 2010 count. The lifecycle cost of the last population canvass was roughly $13 billion. The Census Bureau thinks it can meet that goal if all of the sweeping reforms it is considering work as envisioned. That’s a big “if,” what with budget shortfalls delaying, cancelling or streamlining critical research and testing of these new initiatives over the past few years. We simply don’t know yet if a markedly redesigned census can ensure an accurate count, especially in historically undercounted communities, and produce the detailed race and ethnicity data needed to implement the Voting Rights Act, as a threshold matter.

But Rep. Culberson apparently isn’t satisfied with those cost-saving efforts. “We don’t have $13 billion to spend on a census,” the chairman told Secretary Pritzker. The congressman wanted to know if the Census Bureau is ready to use Internal Revenue Service records and other government databases to help bring down census costs. The secretary gamely tried to emphasize the importance of testing, testing, testing, to see if that idea, which of course is under consideration, is a viable option. But I’m not sure the chairman has thought this through. If the Census Bureau doesn’t have enough money to thoroughly vet the use of administrative records to supplement or replace direct address canvassing and door-to-door visits, the 2020 Census could cost $1 or $2 billion more than the congressman says we can’t afford to spend. Nevertheless, Rep. Culberson again made it clear that “we won’t have the money next year” to meet the Census Bureau’s budget request.

And that tells me just about everything I need to know. Because if Congress can’t spend $13 billion over the course of a decade to carry out its very first obligation under the U.S. Constitution and to ensure fair political representation for all communities, no matter how difficult to count, then we might have to kiss our storied democracy good-bye and book a seat on that one-way mission to Mars. After all, the Johnson Space Center is pretty darn close to Chairman Culberson’s Houston district. I’m thinking some of that census money will end up fueling a mission to outer space.

It’s a Horse Race

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

And… they’re off!

First out of the gate: President Obama, who unveiled his Fiscal Year 2016 budget request for the federal government last week. The commander-in-chief took office a mere year before the start of the last census and promptly asked Congress for an extra $1 billion to shore up hiring and promotion for the decennial count, after plans to automate door-to-door interviewing in the 2010 census went down the drain. Lawmakers, ever mindful that they really really really should pay attention to the census in the home stretch, ponied up.

It’s sort of a perennial decennial habit of the legislative branch. Congress Rip-Van-Winkles through much of each decade, finding better uses for money that the Census Bureau says it needs to get a head start on the nation’s largest peacetime activity. This time around, the bureau is trying hard to save a lot of money (as much as $5 billion over the census lifecycle) by investing early in research, testing and development of new methods and technologies. Lawmakers, especially in the House, haven’t quite grasped the “pay now or pay later” concept. Or the “test drive before you buy” principle.

Anyway, the Obama Administration is pressing ahead, requesting $1.5 billion for the Census Bureau in FY 2016, including $663 million (+$317M over FY 2015) for the 2020 Census and $257 million (+$15M) for the American Community Survey (ACS). Lawmakers no doubt will cast a skeptical eye on the 91 percent increase for 2020 Census planning. The next census isn’t even on their radar screen, and fiscal austerity is a badge of honor for many legislators. It’s like asking your boss to double your salary, while trying to convince her that burning the midnight oil now to revamp the company website, marketing materials and customer service protocols will bring in huge profits down the road. Gotta be brave to make that case.

But, time for our annual cataloguing of what the Census Bureau plans to do with all that extra 2020 Census money. For starters, it has to get moving on the technology front. Remember, you heard it here first: the “cyber-census” is coming. That is, if Congress forks over enough funding to build production systems in 2016 (and 2017) to execute the 2020 Census design, in preparation for a big operations-readiness test in 2018. Major tests this spring (as well as the one last fall)—of high-tech, streamlined field work; use of “big data” to update the address list and government records to count unresponsive households; targeted digital advertising; and flexible Internet response options—will determine which sweeping new initiatives are worth pursuing. The fall 2015 National Content Test will inform final questionnaire changes—including the closely watched decision on whether to combine the race and Hispanic origin questions—which the agency must nail down by 2017.

The Census Bureau also will be playing catch-up next year. Congress cut $124 million from its budget request for the current year (FY 2015); the agency shaved $100 million of that amount from census planning and another $15 million from the ACS. For 2020, that means development of partnership activities, language translations, research on how the public views data privacy (think that one is getting any easier?), and other vital components of a successful census are again on the back burner. For the ACS, the so-called 3-year estimates are toast. That’s right: no more data averaged over 3-years (for example, 2012-2014, originally scheduled for release this fall) for places with populations of 20,000 or more. Going forward, jurisdictions under 65,000 population, which includes more than three-quarters of all counties, will have to rely solely on the 5-year estimates (e.g. 2010-2014). A lot can happen economically, socially and demographically in five years, possibly making this dataset less precise for many uses. The Office of Management and Budget has to approve the Census Bureau’s final 2015 spending plan, and chatter I’ve heard among data users suggests they may not give up these estimates without a fight. Budget-cutters in Congress, many of whom represent areas that will lose a valuable data source, might want to think twice before wielding the ax again in 2016.

I know I sound a little like Paul Revere: “The census is coming; the census is coming.” But, people, it is. If Congress doesn’t adopt the sense of urgency the census requires now, it will find its hoped-for reforms fading fast in the home stretch. And anyway, I needed a final horse analogy.

Silver Bullets and Red Flags

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

Today, I am going to talk turkey.

No, not the Thanksgiving kind. I had my fill and besides, I am still focused like a laser on the 2020 census. Which, if I haven’t mentioned recently, is only five years away.

That means it’s time to get down to the nuts and bolts. Today’s fascinating topic: multiple response options.

Ladies and gentlemen, the cyber-census is here. Internet response! Email and text message reminders to answer the census! Smartphone apps to fill out your questionnaire! Twitter will be abuzz with daily response rates. It all seems so… so… 21st century! Well, at least more up-to-date than relying solely on paper forms sent and received via U.S. mail. And really, it’s a tad embarrassing that Girl Scouts will get to sell their cookies on the web before our nation’s largest peacetime activity goes high-tech, don’t you think?

Congress is on board with the new approach. Visions of saved dollars are dancing in lawmakers’ heads. So much so that Congress thinks the Census Bureau has it all figured out. Flip the switches and watch the Internet light up with a population count. Why bother with research and field tests and focus groups, when it seems like everyone is plugged in these days. Those activities cost money, and Congress doesn’t seem inclined to pony up a lot of dough to make sure we can do this right.

Truly, the thought of the 2020 Census running as smoothly as the click of a mouse (or tap of a finger) is bliss. (We will not dwell here on the initial failures of healthcare.gov, which crashed under the weight of a few million inquiries, but had a few months breathing room for the first enrollment period while experts fixed the bugs. Because, really, the Census Bureau anticipates up to 8 million hits a day on the 2020 Census website, and the window of opportunity for self-response is a mere several weeks. What could possibly go wrong?)

Congress is so convinced that a cyber-census is a silver bullet to check rising costs, it doesn’t see the wisdom of fully investigating this radical departure from previous counting methods. In their first crack at the FY 2015 Commerce Department funding bill last spring, House members—anointed by the Constitution as the primary beneficiaries of an accurate census—knocked out the entire requested budget increase for 2020 Census research and testing.

I hate to be a glass-half-empty person, but I’m thinking that Congress doesn’t do long-term planning well. Maybe it could start with a report the Census Bureau itself issued last month: Computer and Internet Use in the United States: 2013. About three-quarters of American households have an Internet connection. But that is for the population as a whole. Only 60 percent of black households and 66 percent of Hispanic households have Internet access. The figure drops to under 60 percent for the over-65 crowd. Less than half of households with incomes under $25,000 have home Internet access. The digital divide also affects households led by individuals without a college education and with limited English language proficiency, and those in nonmetropolitan areas.

And then there’s the small matter of cyber-security. People are a little freaked out by the drip, drip, drip of news about data breaches at major U.S. companies— Target, JPMorgan Chase and Home Depot, to name a few—and the hacking of government agency systems (the White House and State Department are the latest apparent victims) and Hollywood conglomerates (Sony). Call me paranoid, but experience tells me that it could take only a whiff of a problem to throw the best census operational plans off track. (As Exhibit A, I give you the 1990 Census, when the U.S. Postal Service returned several million questionnaires to the Census Bureau as “undeliverable” because housing units, primarily in rural areas, received their mail at a P.O. Box, not the street address on the census form. The extensive media coverage—this, when we still received our news slowly, from TV, radio and newspapers—shook public confidence and sent the bureau into full damage control mode.) Picture the consequences in 2020 of even a handful of census phishing scams or, heaven forbid, a cyber-attack on the Census Bureau’s massive digital database, with news pinging around the Internet at lightening speed.

So where Congress sees a silver bullet, I see red flags. Yes, of course there should be an Internet response option for the 2020 Census. Otherwise, we might as well send the marshals out on horseback again. But can the Census Bureau save enough money to keep 2020 costs at or below the 2010 Census budget, as lawmakers have directed, and still produce an accurate count, especially in communities with historically higher undercount rates? I think Congress has its eye on the goalpost without thinking through the plays it will take to get there and score.

This is how I see it. First, at the risk of sending you to bed with nightmares, I will gently remind everyone of the tech failure that added $2 billion to the 2010 Census cost and dashed hopes of sending census takers door-to-door with nifty handheld electronic devices to count reluctant households. If there is a better reason to invest in careful planning, I can’t think of one right now.

And I’m worried about the quarter or more of households that won’t respond in the initial phase of the count. Let’s not pull any punches: most of the people who are more likely to be missed in the census are less likely to have the means to respond electronically. Furthermore, the characteristics of households with lower rates of computer usage (including handheld devices) and Internet access parallel those of households with “low self-response scores” in the Census Bureau’s newly updated planning database. That means many households that don’t respond via the Internet won’t mail back a paper questionnaire either, especially if the strategies for boosting self-response aren’t thoroughly vetted. (In the 2014 Census Site Test, only 3 percent of households that were asked about their preferred method of advance notification chose the email or text option over mailed materials. I’m guessing Americans are wary of electronic messages from unknown sources, as they should be.)

And here’s where the budget comes into play again. Congress wants the Census Bureau to wave a magic wand and plan a census that costs a lot less, without giving the bureau enough resources to make it all work or conducting the informed oversight needed to make sure that it will. What happens to the households that don’t self-respond? Tracking them down is the costliest part of the census, and the bureau is exploring ways to streamline that operation, with fewer boots on the ground and fewer knocks on each recalcitrant door. Congress is pressing the agency to rely more on data the government has already collected through programs such as Social Security, food stamps and Medicaid. The FY 2015 census tests will start to shine a light on whether administrative records can replace much of the pre-census neighborhood address canvassing and some of the door-to-door visits. But with Congress capping the 2020 Census budget in advance—something it has never done in modern census history—the Census Bureau might have no choice but to fill in the blanks with data that are neither acceptably accurate nor sufficiently comprehensive.

That’s a topic for another day. But I see lawmakers chasing a lot of silver bullets when they should be biting the bullet, to make sure the ammunition hits its target. In the meantime, I’ll keep waving the red flags. Maybe Congress will notice before it’s too late.

And with that, we wish our readers and census groupies everywhere a happy, peaceful holiday season. Thanks for being a part of our coalition. See you next year!