Census May Take Hit as Business Data, Redistricting at Stake

  • Survey advocates have asked for at least $300 million more
  • Census Bureau has cut test runs due to lack of funding

By Jack Fitzpatrick | August 16, 2017 10:23AM ET

Companies and political groups worry the Census Bureau is stumbling into a critical year of preparation for its next decennial survey as Congress considers a fiscal 2018 spending proposal they say would short the bureau hundreds of millions of dollars.

Advocacy groups are concerned that a skewed 2020 census could affect future legislative reapportionment and redistricting. Businesses, meanwhile, depend on fine-grain data on shifting demographics, including the age, race, and income level in nearby households.

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees have approved Commerce-Justice-Science spending bills that would fund the bureau at slightly more than $1.5 billion in fiscal 2018. Many businesses that rely on Census Bureau data consider $1.8 billion a “bare minimum,” said Tim Maney, executive director for congressional and public affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“State and local chambers and retailers want to know what ethnic groups are coming into what neighborhoods and what the education level is of people nearby, so they can know where to put resources behind building new facilities,” Maney said. “They don’t want to have to put their finger in the wind and say, ‘Let’s put billions of dollars in buildings here and see if it works.’”

The shortfall could come at a pivotal time for the bureau. Former Bureau Director John Thompson resigned suddenly in May and President Donald Trump hasn’t nominated a replacement. The bureau has also scaled back its plans to conduct 2017 and 2018 test runs in areas where residents have historically been undercounted, including Native American reservations, rural areas, and communities with a high number of racial minorities or Spanish speakers.

Thirty-two Democrats sent a letter on Tuesday to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department houses the Census Bureau, asking for the rapid appointment of a new bureau director and to ensure there’s enough money to complete the decennial survey.

“Lack of leadership, woeful underfunding, delayed testing of new technology, and new demographic challenges lead us to believe that significant action must be taken to get planning and preparation on track to ensure an accurate census count in 2020,” according to the letter signed by members of the House, including Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). The letter said there’s “no clear leadership” as it enters the “ramp up period” which starts two years before the 2020 decennial census.

Industry Lobbies

Amid concerns of an underfunded and under-tested survey, more than two-dozen industry and political groups have reported lobbying on Census Bureau funding since the start of the year, according to lobbying reports filed with the Senate. They include the senior citizens group AARP, General Dynamics Corp., the League of Women Voters, and Nielsen Holdings Plc, a global data company known for its television ratings.

The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey offers more detailed data after the decennial census outlines the number of people in each state. Survey takers ask for demographic information including age, gender, and race, as well as questions on residents’ income, occupation, home ownership, and length and means of commuting to work. The survey breaks the data down into small geographical tracts covering a few thousand people, allowing businesses to see who lives nearby, rather than looking at broad, state-level statistics.

Shopping centers, for example, rely on geographic data on the ethnic and economic makeup of nearby residents, said Stephanie Cegielski, vice president of public relations for the International Council of Shopping Centers.

“Without Census data we would essentially be flying blind in trying to figure out what the demographics look like and what the social and economic makeup of any community is,” Cegielski said.

Robert Dietz, senior vice president and chief economist at the National Association of Home Builders, said in an email the housing sector depends on “robust geographic detail” from the Census Bureau and that NAHB uses data for reports and analysis.

For groups representing those residents most likely to be undercounted, the Census Bureau’s struggles have prompted political and economic concerns.

In a follow-up study released in 2012, the Census Bureau estimated its 2010 survey had overcounted the country’s non-Hispanic white population by 0.8 percent. It found that it undercounted the black population by 2.1 percent, the Hispanic population by 1.5 percent, and American Indians and Alaska Natives living on reservations by 4.9 percent.

Redistricting Concerns

Another inaccurate count could throw off the redistricting process for legislatures in states with high Native American populations, including Montana, Arizona, and Alaska, said Amber Ebarb, a budget and policy analyst with the National Congress of American Indians.
The government also relies on Census Bureau data on Indian reservations to provide more than $1 billion each year in economic development, including housing programs and road maintenance, Ebarb said.

“Those who are most likely to be undercounted are most in need of resources on economic development,” she said.

Congress is in a difficult position when it comes to Census Bureau funding, Maney said. Lawmakers in both parties understand the business community’s reliance on accurate Census Bureau data, but the budget caps on discretionary funding set by the Budget Control Act of 2011 constrain lawmakers’ ability to increase spending. House Republicans are proposing to bust defense caps while keeping domestic spending within the limits. However, Senate Democrats aren’t likely to sign off any budget deal unless domestic limits are also raised.

The fact that the census only occurs every 10 years also raises the question of whether the House in particular has enough institutional memory to realize that this is the time to ramp up spending, said Phil Sparks, co-director of the Census Project, a group of organizations that have called for at least $1.8 billion in Census Bureau spending for fiscal 2018.

Partisan Reaction

In the current fiscal year Congress appropriated $1.47 billion for the Census Bureau. During a House Appropriations C-J-S Subcommittee hearing on census funding in May, reaction to increasing spending levels broke along party lines. The panel’s chairman, Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) said he wanted to “ensure that the census is done under budget.” Culberson criticized an estimated $309 million cost overrun on data collection at the bureau.

The subcommittee’s ranking Democrat. Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), expressed concerns with the lack of a significant increase in funding during the latter part of the decade.

“Normally, we would expect to see significant increases in the bureau’s budget at this point in the decade, as we get closer to the census count itself,” Serrano said.

House Appropriations Committee spokeswoman Jennifer Hing said in an email Tuesday the committee “believes the funding level in the bill is sufficient to meet current needs.”

The House Appropriations Committee report on Commerce-Justice-Science funding asked the bureau to reconsider its plans to cancel two of its three 2018 tests. The Senate Appropriations Committee wrote in its report it “is seriously concerned” that the administration’s request of almost $1.5 billion “may not be adequate” to meet the bureau’s needs. Still, the House committee offered only $10 million more than the administration’s request, and the Senate committee offered only $24 million more.

Census Bureau spokesman Daniel Velez said in an emailed statement that the “Census Bureau will take all steps to ensure a fair, full and accurate Census is carried out in 2020.”

Some of the Census Bureau’s funding challenges started with a directive from Congress. The Senate Appropriations Committee report for fiscal 2011 called on the Census Bureau to develop a plan to spend no more on the 2020 Census than it did on the 2010 Census, which totaled $12.5 billion over 10 years. To promote efficiency, the bureau plans to take a more technologically advanced approach, including allowing people to respond online.

Test Runs

Regardless of the cost of the 10-year cycle, the Census Bureau generally ramps up spending in the years preceding the decennial census. The bureau’s 2018 test was meant to be its full dry run of promoting the census and collecting the data in three counties with more than 700,000 households combined. The bureau also starts an advertising campaign, partnering with local organizations, to inform residents ahead of time that they’ll hear from survey-takers.

If the bureau can’t conduct the right kind of outreach in 2018, it may not be able to make up for it in 2019 and 2020, Sparks said.

“This is like a finely tuned watch and everything depends on everything else working,” Sparks of the Census Project said.

–With assistance from Nathan Howard.