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!

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.

Back Here On Earth…

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

It’s time to come back down to earth, after the madcap, pre-Christmas scramble on Capitol Hill to pass a mammoth FY2016 spending bill on time, which in congressional-speak means “before the second quarter of the fiscal year begins.”

Or maybe not. Come back down to earth, that is.

I recently watched a rerun of CNN’s “The Sixties” segment on the race into space. Being of a, ahem, certain age, I vividly remember watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s grainy first steps onto the lunar surface almost a half century ago. It’s hard not to be thrilled by space adventures — men and women of uncommon courage, fortitude, and smarts, floating in near solitude thousands of miles above the Earth, the only planet teeming with life of which we are currently aware…

Oh, sorry. This is a blog about the U.S. census. It’s just that, as luck would have it, funding for the Census Bureau falls under the same Appropriations subcommittee as — you guessed it — NASA. And last year, the helm of that panel passed to Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), whose Houston district is perilously close to the — right, again! — Johnson Space Center.

Chairman Culberson really, really loves space exploration! In an interview last month with Science magazine’s Jeffrey Mervis, the congressman seemed positively giddy over the additional $175 million he snagged to accelerate a mission to Europa. Which, for those unfamiliar with planetary jargon, is not a sexy reference to our allies across the Atlantic, but one of Jupiter’s moons. NASA didn’t ask for that much money, Mr. Mervis reported, but that didn’t deter the chairman from increasing the administration’s request almost six-fold. “The only way to confirm there’s life in the oceans of Europa is to land on the surface and sample the ice,” Rep. Culberson told Science. Can’t argue with that logic.

This is exciting stuff, people. Far more thrilling than, let’s say, figuring out how to count 330 million Americans and put each of them at a specific address on April 1, 2020. Or translating census forms into 60 languages. Or testing whether check-boxes or write-in lines yield the most accurate data on racial subgroups.

The chairman is “passionate” about the Europa mission. Finding life on a Jovian moon will be, he told Science, a “transformational moment in human civilization.” Unlike, say, pulling off a census that doesn’t undercount some population groups — people of color, young children, low income households, immigrants — at higher rates than others (non-Hispanic Whites), which would help us achieve our democracy’s promise of equal representation and fair distribution of hundreds of billions of dollars in government aid. Oh, is that snoring I hear?

Let’s be frank. Outside of our spirited universe of census fans, the decennial population count does not set too many hearts a-flutter. You cannot gather ‘round the family television, watching wide-eyed as census takers amble door-to-door, mobile devices in hand … for weeks on end. A stab at census humor won’t impress the guy next to you on the pub barstool. “Hey, here’s a great joke: Knock, knock. Who’s there? Ma’am, I’m with the U.S. Census Bureau …” You’re laughing, but no one else is. Trust me.

Meanwhile, back here on Earth, the Census Bureau is busy preparing for the 2016 Census Test in Los Angeles and Harris (TX) Counties, pursuing a contract for the 2020 Census communications campaign, analyzing results from the 2015 questionnaire content test, and finalizing rules that will determine where people — including prisoners — will be counted. After all, the agency has to take a census four years from now, using whatever resources and following whatever operational directives Congress deems appropriate. The Constitution says so.

The omnibus spending bill that funds the government in 2016 brought the Census Bureau back from the brink of fiscal disaster, after the House of Representatives cut the 2020 Census planning budget by upwards of 40 percent and the ACS budget by 20 percent. The final package reduced the requested funding level for each program by roughly 10 percent, enough money to keep primary planning activities on schedule and maintain the ACS sample size. Chairman Culberson told Science that the Census Bureau has the “support they need to complete their mission.” (I love how space enthusiasts refer to everything as a “mission”!) However, he still thinks Americans should be able to opt-out of answering the ACS, to guard against the Census Bureau “harassing American citizens or invading their privacy.” That didn’t work so well in Canada, but we Americans like to work things out ourselves.

The White House is tweaking President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget request, scheduled for release on February 9th. It’s a good thing the annual appropriations season kick-off isn’t a week earlier on Groundhog Day, because the Census Bureau can’t press the repeat button on funding when it’s ramping up for a decennial census. Planning activities in 2017 include submitting the 2020 Census question topics to Congress (by April 1st), testing the Census Questionnaire Assistance operation, overseeing development of the massive communications campaign, and starting the Local Update of Census Addresses (LUCA) program.

Expect another huge proportional bump in requested funding for the 2020 Census, and be prepared to fight for it, census Jedis.

 

Speaking of the Census…

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

Daniel Webster is running to be Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Not the Daniel Webster who served in the House and the Senate and as Secretary of State. (He died in a tragic horse accident in 1852.) No, this would be the one from Florida who sponsored, in 2012, a successful amendment to eliminate the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). At least the Senate had the good sense not to go along with the “see no evil, hear no evil” approach to policymaking. The House Freedom Caucus, which takes credit for pushing Speaker John Boehner to resign, is backing Rep. Webster for the job.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which oversees the Census Bureau’s activities, also wants to wield the chamber’s gavel. Rep. Chaffetz assumed his committee’s top post earlier this year, but he’s had a keen interest in the census ever since Utah failed to gain a fourth congressional district after the 2000 population count. That unfortunate outcome, the congressman believed, was due to the Census Bureau’s failure to count Mormon missionaries working abroad when the census was taken.

Rep. Chaffetz co-authored a bill in 2009 (with fellow Utah Rep. Rob Bishop) to require the inclusion of all Americans living abroad in the census. (The Census Bureau includes overseas members of the armed forces and federal employees in the state population totals used for congressional apportionment; the count is done using agency administrative records.) The bill didn’t make it out of committee, possibly because a 2004 congressionally mandated test of an overseas count was cut short after the Government Accountability Office determined that it would be impossible to get an accurate count of private American citizens abroad and that the cost was prohibitive.

Rep. Chaffetz also proposed replacing census takers with postal workers for the 2010 Census. He told the Salt Lake Tribune that there could be a “postal holiday” so that letter carriers could go door-to-door counting people who didn’t mail back their questionnaires. I think lots of households and businesses might start to rebel after a few weeks with no mail. Because, you know, the follow-up operation to track down unresponsive households takes more than a day.

And then there’s Rep. Darrel Issa (R-CA), who chaired the Oversight committee before Rep. Chaffetz assumed the top spot. The congressman said he’s thinking about throwing his hat in the ring for Speaker. I know that Rep. Issa cares a lot about an accurate census because in 2008, he sponsored a House resolution “demanding [that the] 2010 Census count every living person in the United States,” according to a June 11, 2008, press release. Fifty lawmakers, all of them Republicans, cosponsored Issa’s resolution (H.Res. 1262, 110th Congress), which the House dutifully passed in September 2008.

I’m sure the Census Bureau was planning to do everything it could to produce an accurate population count, even if members of Congress weren’t so demanding. But I’m relieved that Rep. Issa clarified the “living person” part.

Depending on how the thrilling Speaker’s race turns out, Congress could be demanding that the Census Bureau send postal workers to count Americans living (or living Americans!) in Chile in 2020. Or something like that.

The original Rep. Daniel Webster, by the way, was on the ballot for President in 1852, for the Know Nothing Party. (Yes, there was such a political party, formally known as the American Party, which nominated that well-known president, Millard Filmore.) We could all become modern-day Know Nothings if the current Speaker-hopeful Webster prevails in his quest to axe the ACS.

Down the Drain

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

Dear American Community Survey (ACS) data users:

Have you recovered yet from the loss of the 3-year estimates, which offered reliable data for places with populations of 20,000 or more, often capturing trends that one-year estimates for larger places (65,000 population and above) can’t document as well? (Just to refresh your memories, we can chalk up the elimination of that dataset to budget cuts in the current fiscal year.)

I hope so. Now, get yourself another stiff drink, because the path Congress is following for next year’s budget (Fiscal Year 2016) could set the survey back even further.

Let’s start with the House of Representatives. Last month, Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) rallied his colleagues to turn the nation’s premier survey into an optional exercise, lest the government ask too much of its citizens in furtherance of democracy. By “rallied,” I mean his amendment to make ACS response voluntary passed the chamber at 10:37 p.m. with only the appropriations subcommittee chairman and ranking member on hand to listen or muster an “aye” or “no” (otherwise known as a voice vote).

The congressman’s proposal was no surprise. Over the past month, he’d taken to news outlets in his Houston district to rail against “government overreach at its worst.” The ACS question on flush toilets in the home really rankled him, so he will be tickled to know that the question is going down the drain next year.

This is the third time the House approved a “voluntary response” amendment to the Census Bureau’s annual funding bill. Let’s hope it’s not the charm. Because based on Canada’s recent experience with a voluntary census “long form” (the equivalent of our ACS), the result would be plummeting response rates, significantly higher costs, and loss of reliable data for small and less populous areas, as well as small population groups. Canada couldn’t produce data for a quarter of its places after the 2011 National Household Survey.

But maybe senators will save the day! In fact, the Senate Appropriations Committee seems to rather like the ACS. In its report on the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) funding bill (H.R. 2578), the panel was full of praise for the nation’s premier survey. That show of support apparently was enough to deter Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) from pressing ahead with his amendment to let Americans opt-out of the ACS (he “offered and withdrew” it), saying only that he hoped House and Senate negotiators would resolve the issue down the road. In other words, he hasn’t given up the fight.

A shout-out to CJS Subcommittee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) is in order, for seeing the light on the importance of the ACS. But don’t raise a toast to the Senate just yet. Because appropriators weren’t in the mood to put their money where their mouths are.

Yes, data for “small towns and rural areas” are important! Yes, the ACS is “often the primary or only source of data for States, localities, and Federal agencies” on many policy topics! But, we regret to inform you that we just don’t have the money to sustain the ACS sample size, which is necessary to produce high-quality estimates for neighborhoods, small counties, American Indian reservations, race and ethnicity subgroups, veterans, people with disabilities.

Okay, the committee didn’t actually say that. But cutting the Periodic Censuses and Programs account budget request by 30 percent is bound to weaken the survey significantly, at least for the foreseeable future, while the bureau scrambles to research ways to bring down data collection costs. Those 5-year estimates, which average enough data to produce reliable estimates for small areas? They just might turn into 6-year estimates, making the measurements less timely and stable. The committee’s senior Democrat, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), summed up the proposed funding level in one word: irresponsible.

House appropriators, on the other hand, were perfectly happy to let us know how much they dislike that “burdensome” survey. In fact, majority members were downright “disappointed” that the Census Bureau dropped only one question (medical or business office on property) from the survey so far, as part of an in-depth content review; they directed the agency to find other nonessential questions to ax post haste.

Then, they drove the point home with a 20 percent cut to the ACS budget, capping spending for next year at $200 million. And that was before the full House slashed another $117 million from the account covering the ACS and 2020 Census planning. “Completely shortsighted” was how the committee minority described the Census Bureau’s funding level, saying the data are needed to “better understand and predict changes in the American economy and the health of American communities, which in turn helps inform good public policy.” Imagine that.

People, I don’t know if you are shaking your heads, throwing your hands up in the air, or heading back to the liquor cabinet right about now. But maybe you should whip out your laptops and fire off a message to your elected representatives, letting them know that plunging the nation into data darkness will not enhance their reputations as enlightened lawmakers.

The Lows (and the Highs)

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

I had to cut short my fishing trip last week to buy a new laptop. I am telling you this odd news for a reason, census fans. So please stick with me for a minute.

I am a technological Luddite. The thought of a new gadget or software program gives me heart palpitations. So yes, I had a meltdown in the Apple store, as I struggled to understand how to migrate the information from my old device to the new one. (“Migration:” Isn’t that a demographic trend that the U.S. Census Bureau measures?) I just need my Word documents and emails, I practically sobbed to the infinitely patient, but too-technically-savvy-for-me, sales person. And no interruptions in my work flow, because the Senate Appropriations Committee is taking up the Census Bureau’s FY 2016 funding bill. But I digress.

Back home, I started to regain my composure as the nice man from Microsoft remotely installed word processing software on my shiny new toy. And then I got to thinking about how fast the world is changing, and how hard it is to keep up with advances in social media and technology and new ways of snagging the services and goods we need. My age is getting the best of me, for sure.

But I also started thinking about some things in this world that are timeless. Take the U.S. census, for example. Sure, the way we go about it and the information we collect reflect, in the truest sense of the word, the transformation of society. But the goal remains fundamental to preserving our representative democracy: a fair and accurate count of everyone living in the U.S. (and where they live) on Census Day, every 10 years. We haven’t missed one yet, although heaven knows the census has missed millions of us over time. In fact, complaining about a census undercount is as old as President George Washington himself.

Speaking of George, it was the Founding Fathers who had the bright idea to vest the legislature with responsibility for overseeing the census. I wonder if James Madison and Thomas Jefferson are rolling over in their graves right about now. Because Congress (or, at least some of its members) apparently has decided that it can’t pay for a census that counts everyone in 2020. The proof, regrettably, is in the budget numbers.

In late May, the House of Representatives slashed President Obama’s FY 2016 budget request for the 2020 Census by more than one-third, approving the FY 2016 Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill (H.R. 2578) by a mostly party-line vote (242-183). Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee decided it also doesn’t want to spend the money to plan a proper census. Its version of the bill increases the account covering the 2020 Census by just $22 million over current year funding. To put that paltry sum in perspective, the president requested a ramp-up of $317 million for the 2020 Census alone. (The Periodic Censuses and Programs account also includes the American Community Survey and 2017 Economic Census, as well as key activities that support these cyclical programs, such as building the address list and digital mapping system.) You do the math. Because I can’t find enough money for the Census Bureau to pull off the census Congress wants. (Although we could cancel the entire ACS and Economic Census to save money. Please don’t fall off your chairs.)

Congress has said it wants to spend less on the 2020 Census than it did on the 2010 count (roughly $13 billion). It has instructed the Census Bureau to figure out how to offer and boost Internet response, use data gathered through other government programs to reduce the paper-pencil-brick-and-mortar-footprint, and contain costs. In response, the Census Bureau has embarked on an ambitious program of research, testing and development to bring these “modern” methods to fruition, without sacrificing accuracy.

And therein lies the literary rub: it costs money upfront to make sure these new operations work well and reach all segments of a culturally and geographically diverse population. What happens when the Census Bureau doesn’t have the money to figure it all out?

It could abandon most new initiatives, on the reasonable premise that it is too risky to deploy sweeping operational reforms without thorough evaluation and testing. Going back to the 2010 Census design will cost billions more. Which Congress has said it will not allocate. Do we abandon a robust communications campaign, in-language materials, local partnerships? Start counting and stop when the money runs out? Roughly one-quarter of all households don’t respond to the census upfront, if recent history is any guide. The most costly operation is tracking down the remaining, so-called “hard to count” residents, who disproportionately are people of color or live in low-income or limited English proficient households.

The bureau could “stay the course” and hope that fundamental reforms will work, without really knowing if those methods will count all segments of the population — especially historically undercounted groups — well. Trying to save money by replacing door-to-door visits with data from other government programs could leave out the very people who already are less connected to civic life, such as younger, unemployed singles and immigrants.

I can’t figure out what kind of census Congress thinks it will get without investing enough money in planning and preparation. The Senate Appropriations Committee graciously explained in its report on the funding bill that the Census Bureau had made a “conscientious decision” to start 2020 Census planning much earlier in the decade than in census cycles past. Nevertheless, the majority report said, the bill allocates 34 percent more money than at the same point in the 2010 Census cycle, and the committee expects a return for its investment in the form of cost savings. There is no mention of accuracy, or of efforts to achieve an inclusive census in hard-to-count communities. The timeless goal of ensuring a solid foundation for our democracy has taken a back seat to pressing fiscal concerns.

Committee Vice Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) was having none of it, calling the committee funding level “inadequate and irresponsible.” She proposed a $360 million boost for the Census Bureau; her amendment (which proposed funding increases for several agencies in the massive bill) failed on a party-line vote.

There wasn’t much discussion about the census during the committee’s meeting on the FY 2016 Commerce bill, which allocates $1.13 billion overall for the Census Bureau, compared to the president’s request of $1.5 billion and $992 million approved by the House. But senators spent a lot of time debating the merits of industrial hemp and federal enforcement of anti-marijuana laws in states that allow people to smoke pot for medical and, um, other purposes. I guess that was the high point of an otherwise dismal morning for the 2020 Census.

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.