What We Don’t Know Can’t Hurt Us (Right?)

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Hey, I have an idea!

Let’s stop collecting any information. About our economy. Our standard of living. Our educational progress. The well-being of our veterans and people with disabilities. The condition of our nation’s homes. How well our farmers are doing.

Let’s just live in an information vacuum, blithely ignoring the good and the bad (what you don’t know can’t hurt you, right?), drifting along in a state of blissful know-nothingness. Wouldn’t life be simple?

Okay, I’ll ‘fess up. This is not an original idea. I stole it from sophomore Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC-3), who just introduced a bill (H.R. 1638) to cancel the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), Economic Census, Census of Governments and every other survey the agency conducts, except the once-a-decade population count. Oh, and bye-bye Census of Agriculture (transferred from Census to the Agriculture Department in 1997). Sayonara, adios — no more data.

I think I get where Rep. Duncan is coming from. His biography says he wants to create a new congressional Committee on the Elimination of Nonessential Federal Programs, “with the express purpose of reducing federal outlays.” No data? No way to identify society’s challenges and to allocate federal resources prudently. Mission accomplished.

Cool! Then we might not need congressmen, because just about all of them rely on Census Bureau data to justify their existence. Rep. Duncan’s website offers great “Resources” for businesses, linking to Business USA, a program started by President Obama (yikes!) in 2011. On the Business USA website, I found this nugget on the Twitter feed: “Who Are America’s Job Creators?” Important question, so I went to the blog by the SBA Administrator Karen Mills. Well, wouldn’t you know… there are 28 million small businesses in the U.S.; they create two out of three new jobs and employ half of the country’s workforce. “But when you dive into the data,” Ms. Mills blogs, “you see that not all small businesses are the same.” Whoa, stop reading… can’t continue this important analysis without the data, which presumably comes from the Economic Census (cancelled!) and follow-on surveys (cancelled!).

Rep. Duncan also offers “Guidance and key resources to help eligible grantseekers find information on federal grants, loans, and nonfinancial assistance for projects, as well as on private funding” on his Resources page. 3rd Congressional District businesses, please go no further, because in FY 2008, ACS data guided nearly 70 percent of all federal grants (Brookings Institution report). Scratch those opportunities off your list.

Given the recent tragic events in Boston, it’s probably a safe bet that most lawmakers support funding to bolster state and local resources to combat various threats to peace and safety. Rep. Duncan provides a link on his website to help localities in his district find information on Homeland Security Grants, as well as equally important Assistance to Firefighter grants. Wait, hold up… scratch those programs; both rely on ACS data to determine eligibility. Sorry, local law enforcement officials and first responders; you’ll have to look elsewhere for support.

Under Transportation issues, Rep. Duncan tells us that, “infrastructure is a legitimate government function.” Good, I’m with you so far. The congressman goes on to say he supports legislation to phase out federal involvement in highway and mass transit programs, turning over all responsibility to the states and eliminating “costly federal mandates.” Okay, I don’t necessarily agree, but let’s assume the congressman’s position for a minute. And just how is South Carolina supposed to decide where to allocate its transportation dollars: better roads in Charleston, or Anderson (“The Electric City!”)? Without comparable, high-quality, small-area data (available from only one source: the U.S. Census Bureau), Palmetto lawmakers presumably will be throwing darts at a map (or maybe holding a sweepstakes – YES!). Anderson officials, by the way, really want you to know that the city is a magnet for businesses because it sits on the busy I-85 corridor. Sadly, businesses won’t know where to set up shop, because they rely on ACS and Economic Census data to understand local markets, workforce, commuting patterns and economic activity in prospective new locations.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT-3), original cosponsor of H.R. 1638, good to hear from you again. I applaud your focus on economic recovery (whether or not I agree with your approach); the fiscal plan described on your website clearly lays out the potential problem of deficit and spending in relation to gross domestic product. Wait… we won’t be able to calculate GDP without the quinquennial Economic Census, which provides the baseline data on classes of business enterprises, economic output, producer incomes, investment in assets and other measures of economic activity. (Worse, I’ll be deprived of one of my favorite statutory words: quinquennial!) Seems hard to make the case for one fiscal plan over another without, well, data on the economy. Just sayin’.

Hello, Rep. Steve Southerland II (R-FL-2)! I see you just introduced the “Strengthening Rural Communities Act” (H.R. 1632), directing 3-5 percent of existing Rural Development Essential Communities Facilities money for technical assistance. The bill would “make it easier for rural communities to thrive by providing the technical assistance and project planning they need to strengthen public safety, public health, and public access to upgraded services.” A worthy goal, indeed.

The Agriculture Department administers the Community Facility Grants Program to help very small communities develop “essential” facilities, such as health care and childcare centers. Wait… the program gives priority to low-income rural areas — those with “median household incomes below the higher [sic?] of the poverty line or 60% of the State non-metropolitan median household income.” The only source of that information for rural areas would be the American Community Survey. Sorry, 2nd Congressional District residents; if you want to demonstrate a need for these grants, you might have to stand outside looking poor (because your congressman has cosponsored a bill to eliminate the availability of any data to prove it). (Good thing Marianna, Blountstown and other 2nd District communities have already taken advantage of project planning assistance to build or upgrade water and wastewater projects, according to the congressman’s website. Without the ACS, no more USDA Water and Waste Disposal Loans and Grants, worth $45 million in FY 2008.)

I think I’m getting one of my famous census headaches. But while you join me with a cold pack on your forehead, trying to take this all in, let me say there is a redeeming provision in this otherwise absurd bill. It eliminates the mid-decade census! What? You didn’t know Congress authorized a second census in the year ending in “5?” Well, that’s because Congress never funded one! But obviously lawmakers thought in 1976 that it might be a good thing to have more data about the condition of our communities and well-being of our population. Whatever were they thinking back then?

The Cycle of Life: Pay Now Or Pay Later

By Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Lifecycle.

Probably makes you contemplate caterpillars and butterflies as spring blossoms start to appear. Or, maybe babies and grandparents; The Lion King.

Me? As usual, I’m wringing my hands about the lifecycle of a census. The planning, preparation, promotion, implementation, numbers crunching. The census lifecycle goes up and it goes down — and then up again — but there is no plateau.

Research and test; develop methodology, operational plans and systems; prepare to launch; execute; tabulate and publish data. Repeat every 10 (the constitutionally required decennial census) or five (the legally required Economic Census and Census of Governments) years.

2020 seems light-years away. But consider the following:

  • A mere seven years from now, census forms will be in the mail (or online or your smartphone or whatever latest gadget I’ll be too old to master).
  • In six years, field workers will be canvassing the nation’s streets, rural roads and remote dirt lanes to be sure all addresses are in the system.
  • Just five years down the road, the Census Bureau will submit the 2020 Census questionnaire to Congress; in four, it will send lawmakers the topics it will include on the form — both submissions are required by law.
  • In three years, Census staff will be mired in final, targeted research and testing of the 2020 design (using the American Community Survey, if lawmakers haven’t pulled the plug, as a primary cost-effective test-bed), operations development, and complex IT systems testing.
  • Next year (that’s 2014, folks), the agency will choose the basic design for the 2020 population count.

My, my… where does the time go?

Here’s the rub: there is little flexibility in the lifecycle; no “down time” to push back decision-making; no “give” in the schedule without risky and often costly delays down the road. Census planning and preparation are up against two immutable deadlilnes: Article I, section 2, of the U.S. Constitution, and a codified census date — April 1, 2020.

There’s no putting it off. There are no do-overs. The Census Bureau has to get it right the first time, on time.

Let’s stipulate that putting the 2020 Census on a 2010 Census design path will cost too much money — $30 billion, according to government agency watchdogs. That’s why major design changes are in the works now. By the end of next year, the Census Bureau must have a framework for 2020 that will allow development and thorough testing of multi-mode response options (but my dad, who will then be 88, will still fill out his paper questionnaire, I promise!), IT platforms to support appropriate use of existing data sources (also known as administrative records), evolving communications strategies to reach a diverse (age, race and ethnicity, type of community, language) population, and streamlined field operations overseen by six, not the previous 12, regional offices. Investing now in this essential planning will yield a census lifecycle cost of $13 – $18 billion, depending on the design chosen. Hey, now we’re talking real savings!

It all seems like a logical means to a rational end, except Congress doesn’t seem to get this lifecycle thing yet. For the current fiscal year (2013), the president had requested $970.4 million for the Census Bureau, including $711.3 million for the account covering the 2020 Census and ACS. The House slashed $75.6 million from the 2020 Census planning pot in its first stab (and I do mean that figuratively and literally) at the Commerce Department funding bill last May, even deciding to axe the ACS altogether. The Senate was more generous in its first go-round, although it couldn’t resist dipping into the Working Capital Fund again to come up with the money. But as Congress struggled (and struggled) to avoid sequestration (unsuccessfully) and then enact a final funding measure as the fiscal year clock ticked away, the Census Bureau lost a few tens of millions here and a few tens of millions there — and before you could say “prudent investment,” the need for a modest budget ramp up of 3 percent had become a budget cut of roughly $126 million, or 13 percent.

The hapless 2012 Economic Census — you know, the one that yields little secrets, like how well the economy is doing — really took it on the chin. FY2013 is the peak year in its short five-year lifecycle; now there’s not enough money to produce key economic data on time. The administration requested an exception from forced spending cuts, probably figuring it might be nice to know about payrolls, business investment and industry competitiveness when economic recovery is front and center, but Congress wouldn’t go along. Another likely casualty is the Survey of Business Owners, an add-on to the quinquennial (I love that word!) Economic Census which produces the only information on women-, minority- and veteran-owned businesses. We’re not just cutting budgets anymore; we’re losing information that helps us spend the money we do have wisely.

Tomorrow the president will unveil his budget request for FY2014. And it seems to me that Congress has a choice: it can pay now, to reduce total census costs conceivably by half — or it can pay later. More; much, much more.

Budget Deja Vu: Guard The Piggybank!

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

Were you getting ready to burrow underground for a while, census fans? (Didn’t the groundhog see his shadow?) Not so fast! President Obama’s Census Bureau budget request [PDF] for Fiscal Year 2013 (FY2013) compels us to shake off early-in-the-decade cobwebs and convince lawmakers that a modest increase in funding for the agency will not break the federal bank.

In fact, it just might save the Treasury significant money in the foreseeable future, as successful testing of electronic response options for ongoing surveys could reduce costly door-to-door data collection in the 2020 Census, and continuous updating of the national address list and digital map could eliminate universal pre-census address canvassing, which also comes with a high price tag. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The president proposed a total budget of $970 million for the Census Bureau, a 3 percent rise over the Fiscal Year 2012 funding level of $942 million. Truth be told, Congress pretended to give the Census Bureau $942 million last year, but in the light of day, it appropriated only $887 million, directing the agency to use $55 million from the now well-known, much-maligned Working Capital Fund (WCF) to make up the difference.

The top program priorities in 2013 will be the Economic Census and continued planning for the 2020 Census. Next year (which starts October 1, 2012) marks the peak of a six-year planning and implementation cycle for the 2012 Economic Census ($112 million), as the Census Bureau gathers information from 3 million business enterprises across the country (using 4.6 million forms, in case you’re into numbers). It’s worth remembering that this quinquennial measure of the nation’s economic health almost came to a screeching halt last year when House appropriators reduced (whacked!) the bureau’s budget request by a quarter. Lawmakers came to their senses after economists kindly pointed out that the nation needs data from this census to produce key indicators such as Gross Domestic Product.

As 2010 Census activities wind down with final evaluations and data products, planning for the next decennial enumeration is on its cyclical upswing. We aren’t talking big money yet, but the 2020 Census budget request ($131.4 million) is nearly double the FY2012 funding level ($66.7 million), a bump appropriators might find hard to swallow unless there’s a good reason. Fortunately, there are several.

It seems like a no-brainer but Congress has been known to ignore the obvious, so it’s worth repeating. The Census Bureau must invest resources early in the decade to ensure cost-effective, successful implementation of census operations down the road. The pace of technological change and rapid evolution of communication modes make ongoing research and testing essential. Similarly, keeping up with changes in the nation’s housing stock and roads could save hundreds of millions of dollars (now that’s real money!) during census preparations in 2018-19, allowing the bureau to confine final address checking to areas in frequent transition. And steps the agency takes now to improve large acquisition and contract management for the census could help it avoid billion dollar (literally) mistakes later.

Overall, the president’s funding request for the Census Bureau appears to be reasonable and responsible, taking advantage of cost savings whenever possible and investing prudently in programs that will yield, both directly and indirectly, savings for the agency and the nation in the future. For example, American households can answer the American Community Survey electronically starting in January 2013, saving an estimated several million dollars a year. The Census Bureau will try again to update its Supplemental Poverty Measure, an important policy building block that the bureau couldn’t pay for in FY2012.

Let’s hope legislators can resist the urge to dip into the WCF piggybank again, as funding caps continue to shrink. I’m not holding my breath though. (Have I mentioned recently that Senate appropriators helpfully encouraged the Census Bureau to spend less on the 2020 Census than it did on the 2000 count, without adjusting for inflation? I’m still chewing on this.) Census officials haven’t ignored congressional hand wringing over the lack of transparency in WCF practices; the agency is seeking outside expertise to help it improve performance measures and business models.

When you think about it, the bones of the census funding story haven’t changed, but it seems like it’s getting harder to get lawmakers to listen. So dust off those winter blues, census gurus, and start reminding your elected representatives that they can’t do their jobs without the rich store of data the Census Bureau produces. The bureau’s budget is a drop in the bucket when compared to the value of the public and private sector decisions that ride on its work, day in and day out.

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.