By Arloc Sherman, Senior Fellow, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
The American Enterprise Institute’s Andrew Biggs and I are together urging Congress to adequately fund the Census Bureau as it prepares for the 2020 census. Although our organizations frequently disagree on policy matters, Andrew and I strongly agree that policymakers and businesses can’t make good decisions without good data, as we explained in a joint letter to key senators and House members.
The funding bills approved in the House and by the Senate Appropriations Committee don’t provide enough funds for the Bureau to gear up for the mammoth census operation. As I’ve written before, both bills provide a fraction of the spending increase that Congress has traditionally made available to the Bureau at this stage of census preparations in past decades.
In shortchanging the Bureau, Congress is following the lead of the Trump Administration, which sharply reduced its 2018 Census budget request relative to what Obama Administration budget documents projected the Bureau would need (see page 62 of this document.)
The stakes are high.
Census data — and the myriad surveys that build directly upon those data such as the American Community Survey (ACS) — help businesses and communities decide where to build stores, factories, roads, bridges, homes, and schools, and help policymakers, researchers, and voters assess national and local needs.
Census and ACS data help direct where the federal government sends billions of dollars in grants and assistance each year.
Shortchanging census preparations now could add to the eventual cost of the census. That’s because the Bureau is planning to save taxpayer dollars using innovative approaches such as online data collection, and databases that can save census takers from knocking on doors of vacant homes. Cutting funds for these innovations could add billions of dollars to taxpayer costs in 2020, the Bureau has estimated.
Our letter reflects our shared concern that the Bureau lacks the funding to conduct an accurate census. As we wrote:
No policy or philosophical outlook is well-served by a lack of accurate data. The alternative to accurate, detailed data on American households is policy-by-anecdote, in which lawmakers respond to perceived needs without data needed to determine how large or widespread a problem might be, where its impacts are most concentrated, and how it may be best addressed. Such a process would spend federal funds neither effectively nor wisely.
For these reasons, we urge you to provide adequate funding for the Census Bureau and the 2020 census.
This article originally appeared on the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities website and is reprinted with permission.
As we noted in previous blog posts, a recent 50-state report by Professor Andrew Reamer of George Washington University details how federal dollars flowing to state and local governments are guided by census data.
Now local media is picking up the story. A good example is an article in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer listing programs ranging from Medicaid and Medicare to school lunch programs to Head Start, that all depend on census numbers to document the needs of Ohio residents.
A Census doesn’t happen all at once. While the Census year itself is the most expensive, the Census Bureau has to ramp up for the big count with a decade-long cycle of spending. We can model that cycle by looking at spending each year relative to each decade’s year 1.
For example, the 1990 Census Cycle began in 1981 with $235.1 million (table A). 1982 saw a drop in spending (1981 had included funds to process and publish 1980 Census results). 1983 to 1986 saw budgets more or less similar to 1982. Beginning in 1987, Census budgets rose significantly in preparation for address canvassing in 1988. The next two years saw steep increases as more Census operations kicked in, ultimately culminating in 1990, with a spend of $1.5 billion, fully 6.49 times the 1981 level (table B).
Last week, the first step toward the FY 2018 budget for the U.S. Census Bureau was taken by the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies as they “marked-up” their version of next year’s federal budget for the Census Bureau. The subcommittee added just $10 million to the Census Bureau’s FY 2018 budget.
According to census expert Terri Ann Lowenthal:
The FY 2017 budget request projected $1.53b for the Periodic Censuses account in FY 2018, a difference of $279m from the FY 2018 request. The Census Director has since acknowledged escalating costs for developing the massive IT system (CEDCaP) that will collect and process census responses. Furthermore, the proposed cuts to Current Surveys & Programs will degrade the reliability and timeliness of vital economic and demographic statistics. Therefore, the Census Bureau will need at least $303m more than the request ($279m + $24m), or at least $1.8 billion, in FY 2018, and possibly more, to maintain the quality of its programs and continue on a path to a fair and accurate 2020 Census.
The table below, also prepared by Lowenthal, traces the FY 2017 and FY 2018 appropriations process for the Census Bureau, including the 2020 Census.
After last week’s Census Project blog post stated that the FY 2018 Trump administration budget request for the Census Bureau contained just a $51 million increase for the Census Bureau, several sharp-eyed project stakeholders sent us email saying we were too generous to the new administration.
They said that the FY 2018 proposal for the Census Bureau was tens of millions of dollars lower. According to the administration’s own congressional testimony last Thursday, our Census Project stakeholders were right and we were wrong!
In testimony before the House Appropriations Committee’s Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommittee, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said that the budget request from the Trump Administration was a skimpy $1.5 billion, or just a $27 million increase for the Census Bureau next year.
Something now must give. Congress has to save the 2020 Census. Otherwise, Census Bureau options could include: savaging other important survey programs like the American Community Survey (ACS) and the Economic Census to salvage at least part of the 2018 End-To- End field test; cutting back important components of the test; or reducing test sites. None of these options are good ones.
Earlier this week the Trump administration released its FY 2018 census budget proposal to Congress. It wasn’t much better than the so-called “skinny budget” proposal released in April.
President Trump proposes just a $51 million increase in Census Bureau funding for FY 2018. But, next year’s census planning calls for a huge 700,000-household test in three states of the decennial count’s new census-taking techniques relying on the internet and IT to cut costs and provide for a fair and accurate census. It can’t be done by skimping on decennial planning funds.
The chart below shows how decennial planning money was allocated each year over the past 40 years. In each previous decennial census, a large ramp-up occurred in the “8” year of the decennial cycle.
If President Trump’s budget is enacted, the nation could be facing an historic census disaster. It’s up to Congress to save the 2020 Census!
At an oversight hearing of the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies this week, it was clear that there are two conflicting views of preparations for the 2020 Census. Republicans on this central committee, which controls the purse strings in the House, are concerned about overruns in 2020 Census budget planning. Meanwhile, Democrats on the committee are concerned about underfunding the next decennial census.
Chairman John Culberson (R-TX) sharply criticized Census Bureau Director John Thompson for announcing that the price tag for the overall 2020 Census had increased by more than $300 million because the IT components of the plan had been underpriced.
Committee member and Representative Matt Cartwright (D-PA) said continued underfunding of 2020 Census planning was “penny wise and pound foolish.” In fact, he partially blamed the cost overruns on the lack of previous funding in the census budget to get the job done at a reasonable price. He warned that similar, future budget cuts could lead to the same result.
The Census Project believes the upcoming FY 2018 census budget represents the last, best chance for congressional policymakers and the Trump administration to get things right for the critical 2018 End-to-End field test of all components for the new, innovative 2020 Census.