Trump Census Budget: Too Little, Too Late

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.

A Census at Risk - Spending During Four Census Decades

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!

The Tangle of the Census Budget

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.

While the policymakers on the subcommittee wrangle, Congress itself is set to approve a FY 2017 census budget that is a historically low appropriation at this point in decade cycle.

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.

Stand by!

Deadline for Census Funding Approaches

By Phil Sparks

Over the past two months, the Census Project’s stakeholders and allies have visited scores of key congressional offices to talk to members of Congress and their aides about the upcoming 2020 Census budget crisis.

2020 Census Funding Lagging at Critical Phase

 

As the chart above shows, the planning and execution of each decennial census runs on a 10-year cycle. Funding ramps up for a field test of new census counting techniques in each year ending in 8, leading up to the decennial.

But, Congress has provided woefully inadequate funding for the 2020 Census over the past few years as compared with previous decades.

Now, Congress and the new Trump administration must find the funds to properly fund the 2020 Census. In three separate letters to Congress, organized by the Census Project, a diverse group of organizations — ranging from governors and mayors to business groups like realtors and home builders to civil rights groups like the NAACP — each urge Congress to properly fund planning for the 2020 Census.

Soon, because of the pending April 28 federal budget deadline, Congress must act!

Policymaker Challenges for the 2020 Census

By Phil Sparks

Over the past two months, stakeholders of the Census Project – including the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the International Council of Shopping Centers and the National Association of Counties – visited more than 40 congressional offices, warning them of the consequences of inadequate funding for the 2020 Census.

Our stakeholders reported back that many of the key offices they visited needed an in-depth updating on both the importance of the next decennial and how it is funded. And, many political challenges lie ahead.

For example, one knowledgeable congressional aide predicted to our stakeholders that Congress will simply “flat line” this year’s census budget at the same levels as last year, and kick the can down the road.

The Census Project believes this would be dangerous. The Census Bureau needs significant, additional funds in 2018 for the so-called End-to-End field test of new technologies designed to make the 2020 Census more efficient and less costly to the American taxpayer.

Something has got to give, and Census Project stakeholders are working hard with policymakers in Congress to understand the consequences of underfunding the next decennial census.

All I Want For Christmas…

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

Last week, I was wringing my hands as Santa’s helpers on Capitol Hill rushed to tie the bow on a final budget package for Fiscal Year 2016. Would lawmakers leave a stocking full of coal for the U.S. Census Bureau? Would the Grinch steal our hopes for an accurate 2020 Census and reliable American Community Survey (ACS)?

I had good reason to fret. Earlier this year, House appropriators slashed the Obama Administration’s budget request for the 2020 Census by 40 percent, and for the ACS by 20 percent. Itching to make a bad situation worse, the full House of Representatives cut another 10 percent ($117 million) from the $1.2 billion request for the Periodic Censuses and Programs account (for a total cut of 41 percent), which includes the 2020 Census, ACS, Economic Census, and other vital geographic and IT support activities.

The carnage that was the House Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill (H.R. 2578) would have forced the Census Bureau to postpone award of a massive communications contract; cancel a nationwide test of new, cost-saving address canvassing methods; stop work on a ‘help desk’ for census takers (who will be using electronic devices for the first time); and eliminate new methods that tell us how accurate the census is. (Does anyone else see the irony in shortchanging census planning to the point that we wouldn’t have reliable measures of undercounts and overcounts?)

Another casualty of the proposed budget squeeze would have been the ACS sample size (a decrease of 15 percent, to 3 million homes), making it necessary to extend the period for averaging data for all communities from 5 to 6 years. To make sure it destabilized the ACS even further, the House also voted to make survey response voluntary.

Senate appropriators strained to be more generous, cutting the Periodic Censuses request (without specifying how the money should be spent) by a mere 30 percent. (Okay, I shall pull my tongue out of my cheek; this is serious business.) In a refreshing repudiation of the House’s anti-ACS orthodoxy, the funding committee affirmed the importance of ACS data for informed decision-making. It then offered a measly $22 million increase, over last year’s budget, for the entire Periodics account, all but ensuring a lack of resources to maintain a viable ACS sample size and keep 2020 Census planning on track.

As the clock ticked down on the temporary spending measure that had kept the government running since October 1, I tried to conjure up visions of sugarplums. Surely lawmakers would see the need for a healthy ramp-up in funding for the bedrock of our representative democracy, and understand the dire consequences of starving census planning, only two years before the start of an end-to-end readiness test and four years before census preparations are in full swing. Fortunately, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2016 (P.L. 114-74) offered some hope of a holiday miracle, as lawmakers bumped up funding for nondefense programs by $33 billion and then cloistered themselves under the Capitol dome to divide the spoils among government agencies.

In the wee hours of last Wednesday morning, the appropriations elves snuck their big holiday package — the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2016 (H.R. 2029) — onto the Internet. And what to my wondering eyes should appear… but $1.37 billion for the Census Bureau, 10 percent less than the agency’s request of $1.5 billion, but, oh, so welcome in the face of looming fiscal disaster. The “omnibus” budget bill allocated $1.1 billion for the Periodics account, but prudently left it to the bureau’s Wise Men (and Women) to divvy up the funds among the 2020 census, ACS, and other activities. The House language making ACS response optional quietly disappeared, as well.

And so, another year of census funding angst has come to a close. Enjoy the rest of the holiday season, census fans, because in six short weeks, the President will kick off a new budget cycle with his Fiscal Year 2017 request. If you think we pushed a boulder up a hill this year, remember that the census budget ramp-up gets bigger as the “zero” year approaches, and that Congress has been known to kick the appropriations can down the road in presidential election years, leaving agencies spinning their wheels under flat-funding until a new Administration and Congress take office months after the start of the fiscal year.

But for now, Happy New Year to all, and to all a good night. See you next year!

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?