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.

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.

2020 Census Funding Increase Needed Urgently

By Jason Jordan, director of policy, American Planning Association

The Census Bureau is the cornerstone of the federal statistical system and the critical data resource for a vast array of local decision making in the public and private sectors. It is a irreplaceable resource. And, it’s in jeopardy.

That was the message delivered by former Census Bureau chief John Thompson in his address at APA’s 2017 Daniel Burnham Forum.

Thompson noted the challenges faced during the 2010 count and he pointed to congressional funding decisions this year and next as vital to a successful 2020 Census. He called on planners and others who depend on a range of census data and products to make a vigorous case for the Census on Capitol Hill.

In an appearance before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross echoed Thompson’s views. Secretary Ross told the committee that the Census is “the bedrock upon which we construct our system of democratic representation.” His testimony highlighted new estimates that the 2020 Census would need $15.6 billion, an increase of $3.3 billion from 2015 estimates.

Funding challenges related to the 2020 count pose problems for other essential Census Bureau projects and products. The same week that Secretary Ross noted the “urgent need” for decennial count funding, the Census Bureau announced that the Economic Census would be delayed by at least six months. The Economic Census provides key data about economic activity and employment. The delay will likely have negative effects later on both companies and local governments who rely on the data.

Similar problems could be in store for other Census activities, including the American Community Survey, as the Census Bureau shifts already strained resources to cover 2020 preparation shortfalls.

Census isn’t alone among federal data agencies when it comes to facing long term funding challenges. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has seen it’s budget fall by 10 percent since 2005. And, in an era when communities and companies are grabbling with major changes associated with ride sharing, safety, and the emergence of autonomous vehicles, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics has suffered a 21 percent decline.

At a time when the federal government should be modernizing its data and statistical systems to keep pace with growing demands and a changing “big data” and “smart cities” landscape, these vital agencies look likely to fall further behind.

At the same time Congress underfunds statistical agencies, a congressionally mandated, bipartisan task force has released a new report on “evidence-based policymaking” urging a variety of governmental reforms but also lamenting “insufficient resources and limited flexibility.” Leaders on both sides of the aisle hailed the report but what impact it has on the more challenging work of crafting appropriations bills remains to be seen.

Over the next few months, Congress will wrap up work on current fiscal year spending bills and begin work on next year’s budget framework. National Community Planning Month is the perfect time to urge Congress to provide the funds necessary to ensure that communities have the information and data needed to plan well.

This article was originally posted on the American Planning Association’s website on October 19.

Don’t Underfund the Census, AEI and CBPP Researchers Agree

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. 

Bringing the Dollars Home

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.

2020 Census Funding: This Chart Says It All

A Census at Risk - Spending During Four Census Decades
Chart of census spending through four decades by The Census Project. Census 2020 is at the bottom. Sources: Congressional Research Service, Courtesy Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney, D-NY. Final FY2017 appropriation as passed.  FY2018 level reflects the impact of the short term Continuing Resolution as signed by the President on September 8, 2017 with funding through December 8, 2017.

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).

Slide2

(Data corrected in October 2017)

House Subcommittee Adds Just $10 million to FY 2018 Census Budget

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.

FY2018-CensusSummaryTable -06 28 17