March Madness

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

What is it about March? We have Super Tuesday (more than one!), the Sweet Sixteen, and the Final Four. In like a lion and out like a lamb. And then there’s the Ides…

Four years from now, to this March Madness, add the start of the 2020 Census. Kansas (pop. 2,911,641)! North Carolina (pop. 10,042,802)! Kentucky (pop. 4,425,092)! Connecticut (pop. 3,590,886)! Wait — did one of these teams bust thousands of brackets already? Anyway, everyone counts, even if your cagers disappoint in the tournament.

Data geeks will point out that I referenced 2015 population estimates from the Census Bureau. Please give me a break; I cannot predict the outcome of the next population count. Although I think my home state Huskies will still be at the top of their game in 2020…

Okay, enough mixed March metaphors. For the U.S. Census Bureau in 2020, the month comes in like a lamb and out like a lion. Picture it, people. On top of endless presidential election intrigue and heart-pounding college hoop rivalries, we’ll have this: 2020 Census postcards and questionnaires in the mail! Catchy ads filling the airwaves and TV and smartphone screens! Eight million-plus Internet hits a day! Daily self-response rate tweets from competitive mayors! Census takers searching for homeless people on “street and shelter night.” (Memo to Census Bureau staff: that is still way catchier than Enumeration of Transitory Locations).

Hagase contar! America’s future depends on your vote! Damn, there goes my bracket! I feel faint just thinking about the cacophony to come in March 2020.

Actually, the fun will start in February. Super Bowl 50 has come and gone, but when the 54th super game rolls around, pay close attention to the commercials. If history is any guide, the Census Bureau will kick off (pun intended!) its national advertising campaign for the 2020 Census. Five million buckaroos for a 30-second ad might sound pricey, but it will be small potatoes in a vast promotional nudge to the populace: Americans, get thyselves counted!

This August, the Census Bureau will award the multi-million dollar Integrated Communications and Partnership Campaign contract — just one piece of the 2020 Census puzzle contributing to a big ramp-up in annual funding over the next few years. Last month, President Obama sent his FY2017 budget proposal to Congress. The Census Bureau needs $778 million for 2020 Census planning, $182 million more than current year funding (FY2016). The 30 percent bump seems downright reasonable compared to the 91 percent increase on the table this time last year. The bureau is taking the whole “spend less money” mantra from Congress seriously.

Next year, in addition to the ginormous communications contract, the Census Bureau must oversee development of the Census Questionnaire Assistance operation; conduct census tests in rural and remote communities (so-called Update/Enumerate areas), including an American Indian reservation, and in Puerto Rico; start outreach to state and local governments for the Local Update of Census Addresses (LUCA) program; and finalize build-out of the IT architecture for data collection, processing, and storage, as well as automated field operations — all in time for an end-to-end readiness test (formerly known as a Census Dress Rehearsal) in 2018.

Both the House and Senate Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations subcommittees have held hearings on the Commerce Department’s FY2017 budget request, which includes money for the Census Bureau. Congress is trying hard to expedite action on the 12 regular annual spending bills, in light of a compressed election-year legislative schedule and in an effort to avoid the perennial omnibus appropriations bill in the fall.

Senate Subcommittee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Vice Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) finally acknowledged that the decennial census funding “ramp-up” will squeeze resources for the panoply of programs under their jurisdiction. Sen. Shelby questioned whether the Census Bureau would be ready for the 2020 count, while Sen. Mikulski cautioned against another “techno-boondoggle” and urged an accurate, cost-effective enumeration.

Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) reminded us, once again, that his constituents do not like the American Community Survey (FY2017 budget request: $251 million); he asked Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker for the results of research on reducing the survey’s burden on the public. The Secretary gamely defended the value of ACS data and even noted Canada’s disastrous experience with a voluntary census long form (the equivalent of our ACS), but somehow missed the opportunity to crow that our northern neighbor actually reinstated mandatory response to its survey to preserve reliable data.

The Lankford-Pritzker ACS exchange aside, there was still a lot of talk at the hearing about counting — fish, that is. Red snapper (Sen. Shelby)! New England groundfish (Sen. Collins, R-ME, and Sen. Shaheen, R-NH)! Pacific salmon (Sen. Feinstein, D-CA, and Sen. Murkowski, R-AK)! Shellfish (Sen. Murphy, D-CT)! Keep an eye out for a coastal lawmaker raid on the Census Bureau piggybank, to boost NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service.

By and large, House appropriators, who arguably have the most to gain or lose from an accurate census, also ignored the Census Bureau’s vital programs. The exception was CJS Subcommittee Acting Ranking Member Mike Honda (D-CA), who asked Secretary Pritzker about the long-term consequences of cutting the 2020 Census budget. The Commerce chief emphasized that significant lifecycle cost savings depended on spending money now for IT and operational development and research into the use of administrative records to reduce costly field work.

As the FY2017 appropriations bills emerge in the coming months and wind their way through “mark-ups” and floor debates, keep a wary eye out for the ubiquitous “voluntary ACS response” amendment. Limited-government lawmakers — many of whom have found a home in the House Freedom Caucus — don’t seem inclined to abandon their assault on knowledge-based policymaking. And as March gives way to April, let’s hope lawmakers shower the Census Bureau with adequate resources to keep the ball rolling towards an affordable and inclusive census.

Time Flies

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

When the House Appropriations Committee slashed the Census Bureau’s FY2012 budget request by 21 percent in July, a spokesperson for the chairman defended the steep cut by noting that the next census is nine years away (Huffington Post, 7/15/11). This astute observation reminds me of Hurricane Irene.

Readers, please bear with me. There is an important census point in here somewhere, I promise. A month ago, the storm was headed straight for my home state of Connecticut. Red Cross poster child that I am, I scurried around the house on a Saturday as landfall approached, filling buckets with water, lining up candles, bringing plants in from the porch, pulling out my three flashlights.

I checked the batteries. Darn, they all had expired last year, as had the extra ones in my attic stash. Now, I tend to be a Type A, “the sky is falling” kind of person. How had I ended up with a pile of batteries at the end of their useful life?

Like many of you (I’m sure), I had purchased super-saver packs of batteries eons ago, noting with satisfaction the ridiculously distant expiration dates. The kind of time gap that makes you smug about your foresight, storing emergency batteries for almost a decade to come. I mean, 2010 was so… far away. Those little copper-tops even made the move with us from Washington, D.C., to Connecticut, where I’ve used my flashlights just once in four years, during a raging Nor’easter.

But now a hurricane was headed straight at us. And that previously distant use-by date had somehow flown by unnoticed. Now it was too late: There was not a “D” battery to be found in all of New England. Sure, most of my expired batteries still worked, but for how long?

On Sunday, with Irene howling outside my townhouse, I awoke to find the lights still on. That I had dodged a bullet was more a result of luck than anything else. I wouldn’t have to rely on 10-year-old batteries, praying they would hold out for the five days much of my city was in the dark.

You see where I’m going with this, right? Nine years can slip by faster than you can secure the jib and batten down the hatches as the perfect storm rolls in. We can blithely dismiss the 2020 census as way too far in the future. There are higher priority programs to fund. There are too many issues that deserve our attention and demand our energy. Lawmakers can’t think beyond the next election.

But that same legislative body will turn around in 2017 and wonder why the 2020 plan looks suspiciously like the mail-and-knock design that has formed the core of census-taking since 1960. Without adequate time and resources to research emerging methods and test new operations, we will be stuck with outdated ideas that might accomplish some of the work, but won’t prepare us fully for the challenge and will cost the nation a pretty penny. Did I mention that some stores reportedly were charging $20 for one of those “D” babies during Hurricane Irene?

So it’s time to buckle down, census fans. Let your elected representatives know that research and testing are important steps on the road to 2020. That we can’t wait until 2017, or even 2014, to make modest but essential investments in planning to count a growing population for 30 percent of the cost of the last census, if wisdom Senate appropriators imparted in their FY2012 Commerce Department funding report [.pdf] is any guide. The havoc of a hurricane might pale in comparison to the inevitable chaos of counting 340 million people with outmoded methods and technologies.

Are you with me, storm chasers?

Back to the Census Future?

[Ed. note: Welcome back to the Census Project Blog, which will resume occasional posting on several critical census issues over the coming months.]

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

Federal statistics: They don’t get no respect!

Last week, Senate appropriators, mindful of the cutthroat competition to slash federal programs more than the next guy, thoughtfully suggested that the U.S. Census Bureau could design, plan and execute the 2020 census for the amount it spent on the 2000 count. Yes, you read that correctly. While keeping costs in line with the just-completed 2010 enumeration would be good, the appropriations panel wrote in its explanation of the Fiscal Year 2012 Commerce Department spending bill (S. Rpt. 112-78), paring the price tag to match 2000, without adjusting for inflation, would win a gold star.

The 2000 census cost almost $7 billion. My economist friends tell me the Senate directive would only give the Census Bureau the equivalent of $4 billion in 2000 dollars, 43 percent less than the Census 2000 budget, to enumerate 60 million more people and 22 million more housing units than it did 20 years earlier. (The 2010 count, which battled the symptoms of a punishing recession and post-9/11 world, cost $13 billion in current dollars.)

People (all 309 million of you!), I know you are thinking one of two things. Have Senators lost their minds? Or, won’t all the new-fangled technology allow the Census Bureau to count people for a fraction of the cost? Let’s examine both propositions.

First, the state of mind of our distinguished elected representatives. To be fair, the budget process has become so convoluted and devoid of any logical progression that even the most levelheaded lawmakers can be excused for their nostalgia. But $4 billion? That was the price tag for the 1990 census. You know, the one with the highest recorded disproportionate undercount of Black Americans. The one with the lower-than-projected mail response rate, maybe thanks to a data processing machine-friendly questionnaire that looked (and read) like an SAT test. The first census to be measurably less accurate than the one before it. 1990 was the last census to advertise with 2:00 a.m. public service announcements; to ignore the vital role of community-based organizations in promoting participation; to build address lists without substantial input from local officials.

The Senate Appropriations Committee was actually off to a reasonably good start when it allocated $943 million for Census Bureau operations in the fiscal year that starts October 1. The amount is 8 percent ($81 million) below the president’s request but $89 million more than House appropriators deemed sufficient for the nation’s premier statistical agency. (A spokeswoman for House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers rebuked the Census Bureau for “just complet[ing] a costly census that was riddled with questionable management decisions,” saying the committee was saving money for “higher priority programs” (Huffington Post, 7/15/11). Meanwhile, the same committee applauded the bureau’s request to promote and market ongoing surveys, “given the successful use of these programs in the 2010 decennial census” (H. Rpt. 112-169). Go figure.)

Senators clearly heard the uproar from an impressive range of data users when the Census Bureau said it would cancel next year’s economic census if Congress doesn’t come up with more money than the House was considering. They directed the agency to maintain the quinquennial survey of business and industry while focusing reductions on “periodic censuses and agency-wide administrative cost savings.” Never mind that the economic census is a periodic activity or that the census director announced a money-saving move to close six of 12 regional census offices months ago. In other words, rob Peter to pay Paul, because you aren’t getting enough funding for both. Like I said, no respect.

Which leads us to our second question: Won’t the Internet or other technology-based options for answering the census and gathering data in the field bring down costs substantially? Undoubtedly, modernizing the enumeration will help the Census Bureau keep costs under control. The bureau is testing Internet response in the ongoing American Community Survey, with promising results so far. The Washington Post reported (4/5/11) that 20 percent of Canadians responded by Internet in that nation’s last census; statistical experts hope twice that many will use the Web in this year’s Canadian count to achieve a cost-savings.

But the Census Bureau will have to spend some money now to save money later. Census Director Robert Groves told a Senate oversight panel last spring that the agency “know[s] it must innovate if we are to remain useful and relevant to the country. [T]his innovation is not likely to be funded by added resources; we must become more efficient.” The bureau requested a reasonable $67 million in FY2012 to start a three-year research and testing initiative to modernize and streamline the 2020 census.

Yet the Senate is telling the agency to cut back on census activities other than the economic census. That pretty much leaves wrap-up of the 2010 count or research on improving methods for 2020 on the chopping block. The bureau could halt efforts to measure the accuracy of the 2010 census and end the program that allows challenges to a city’s housing and population numbers (which adds few changes to the results, but tell that to the mayors!). I am having trouble following the logic here, given that Senate funders want the Census Bureau to dramatically reduce the cost of planning the nation’s largest peacetime activity while exercising a “unique opportunity” to “streamlin[e] operations, eliminate[e] wasteful processes … and tak[e] better advantage of technology.” The Census Bureau last year proposed an initiative to update the nation’s address list throughout the decade, potentially saving the hundreds of millions of dollars it would cost to confirm 100 percent of addresses right before the next census starts. Congress won’t cough up the modest amount of money requested for the new program.

I think I’m getting one of my famous census headaches. Maybe I’ll channel Rip Van Winkle and wake up in time for the 2030 count.