Census Challenges in the News

Since the beginning of the year, Washington-based media has become more attuned to the challenges facing the U.S. Census Bureau and both its 2020 decennial and the American Community Survey. This is good news!

If the next decennial census doesn’t receive proper funding between now and Census Day 2020, the prospects for a huge undercount of the population dramatically increases.

A Washington Post article declares that underfunding means “the robustness of the 2020 Census is especially vulnerable.”

Meanwhile, a Science Magazine article is headlined “Scientists fear attack on federal statistics collection.”

Finally, a recent Education Week piece notes “education watchers are keeping close tabs on (funding for) the Census Bureau’s 2020 decennial census and for the American Community Survey.”

Let’s hope these articles are read by national policymakers!

The Case for a Mandatory ACS: Count on Americans to Get It Right

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

I have to start today’s census musing with an apology of sorts. It occurred to me, as I relay Appropriations Committee proceedings with tongue firmly in cheek, that some readers might think I do not like fish. Or, to be more precise, that I do not appreciate the importance of the fishing industry and coastal zone preservation. Au contraire, mon amis: I love the fishermen (oops, sorry; channeling you-know-who for a moment there), regularly consume fish, and live in a coastal state myself. It’s just that, when one is waiting patiently for a sign — any sign — that lawmakers appreciate the fundamental importance of a successful census and reliable data to the very foundation of our democracy, and the conversation keeps turning to counts of, um, fish, one can become despondent over the possibility that the nation’s largest, most inclusive, and most complex civic activity will get the short end of the budget stick. Again.

I had to get that off my chest before the Senate Appropriations Committee takes up the Census Bureau’s Fiscal Year 2017 funding bill (Commerce, Justice, and Science, or CJS) this week. As CJS Subcommittee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) helpfully noted when Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker testified in March, the largest chunk of new money for department programs is for 2020 Census planning.

The total request for the 2020 Census is $778 million; related activities, such as the new enterprise data processing system and geographic system updates, will support that effort. The Census Bureau also needs $251 million for the decennial census’ conjoined twin, the American Community Survey (ACS), to maintain a reliable sample size and continue researching new methods that will make it easier for the public to respond — a primary congressional goal.

Chairman Shelby told the Secretary that he is worried the Census Bureau is behind schedule in meeting its milestones to prepare for the census. Vice Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) reminded everyone that past enumerations have been plagued by “techno-boondoggles” (I did not make up that word), but that an accurate census remained the top goal. We will wait with baited (a fishing term!) breath to see how much money the committee is willing to spend on the bedrock of the nation’s democracy, but I find it hard to grasp how cutting the budget at this point will move the needle in the right direction.

At the March hearing, Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) engaged the Commerce chief in the most substantive discussion about Census Bureau programs. In 2012, then-Rep. Lankford helped steer his House colleagues off the cliff into a data black hole, by championing an amendment to eliminate the ACS entirely. His distaste for the survey — whose results help guide the allocation of billions of dollars through other parts of the same appropriations bill, she said without a hint of irony — seems not to have waned; he offered, and then withdrew, an amendment to make ACS response voluntary during consideration of last year’s CJS bill.

This year, the Senator pressed Secretary Pritzker for information on Census Bureau research into making the ACS a more pleasant experience for households fortunate enough to be selected for the nation’s premier survey on the well-being of our communities. Okay, he didn’t exactly say it that way. Nevertheless, we haven’t heard much about the “2015 Summer Mandatory Messaging Test,” so perhaps it would be helpful to consider the findings before lawmakers think again about relieving put-upon Americans of their duty to answer a few queries confidentially for the common good.

Using the September 2015 ACS sample as a test-bed, the bureau evaluated the consequences of several design and messaging changes to ACS materials (e.g. envelopes, questionnaire, reminder postcard, etc.). The modifications included “softening” (by wording choice, visually, or both) or even removing the mandatory response tagline (which currently reads, “Your response is required by law.”) from some or all of the mailings, and highlighting the survey’s importance and benefits.

But before we look at the results, let’s take a quick trip down memory lane, to when lawmakers first got the itch to let Americans opt out of a civic duty that helps ensure a fair, equitable, and informed society. In 2003, at the direction of Congress, the Census Bureau tested the implications of making the ACS a voluntary survey. The outcome was not pretty: mail response rates would plunge; costs — and, ironically, the burden on the public — would rise significantly ($90+ million/year, according to the latest estimate), due to greater reliance on more costly telephone and door-to-door follow-up and the larger sample size necessary to compensate for lower response; and data reliability for smaller communities (towns! neighborhoods! rural counties!) and smaller populations (people with disabilities! veterans! ethnic subgroups!) would drop, perhaps beyond the point of acceptability.

The findings were so stark that Congress barely said another word about mandatory response for almost 10 years. (Our Canadian friends, however, apparently didn’t get the memo. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party pushed through a bill to make their census long form voluntary. Predictably, the renamed 2011 National Household Survey was a data disaster for less populous and geographically smaller areas. The outcry from the business community, municipal officials, and policy researchers was loud enough to prompt a swift restoration of the mandatory survey when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office last fall.)

The Census Bureau’s 2003 test and Canada’s experience provided consistent evidence of what Congress and the nation would lose if ACS response were voluntary. Never ones to be deterred by a universally panned idea, however, House Members voted three times to make ACS response optional; Senators, fortunately, refused to go along.

The Census Bureau is taking congressional concerns about the ACS’s perceived intrusiveness seriously. It has consulted with the best survey experts in the business and is researching ways to replace some survey questions with data from other government datasets (administrative records) and ask others less frequently. Then there is last year’s test of design modifications and different ways to convey that response is mandatory.

And whadda’ya know? The experimental design that strengthened the mandatory message and added a plug about the importance of the survey yielded the best outcome in terms of response rates, data reliability, and cost, even compared with the current materials. Self-response and final response rates were “significantly” higher, leading the bureau to project cost savings of $7.3 million per year and better data reliability (i.e. reduced margins of error in the data, which is, after all, derived from a sample). In fact, if the bureau continued to spend the same amount of money on the survey, it could increase the sample size by 4.7 percent, thereby reducing margins of error even more. (If the bureau reduced the sample size but maintained current data reliability, costs would drop even further.)

On the flip side, experimental designs that diminished the emphasis on mandatory response yielded, almost across the board, “significantly” lower response rates. If that were to happen, the Census Bureau would have to decrease the sample size by up to 12 percent, resulting in worse data, or increase the sample size by up to 11 percent to maintain data reliability, at an additional cost of up to $42 million. In other words, pick your poison: pay more, or risk more unusable data, all in the name of keeping the survey mandatory but not letting Americans in on the secret.

Here’s what I think. Most Americans are willing to do their part in support of a strong democracy and good governance. Tell them clearly and honestly why what you’re asking them to do is for the public good, and demonstrate that you don’t take their cooperation lightly and will not abuse the privilege, by continuously innovating and having some faith in your most important customer — the American people.

Congress, are you listening?

Making a Molehill Out of a Mountain

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

Members of Congress have deserted the Capitol for a holiday respite in their home districts. This is a good development, people. Lawmakers sometimes need a time-out… um, sorry, time off.

I am hoping some of them take a few minutes to brush up on the U.S. Constitution. Article I establishes the Legislative branch, and just a few sentences in, gives lawmakers their first responsibility: to oversee a count of the nation’s population every ten years. The census has to be as accurate as possible, because under the Fourteenth Amendment (which revised the original, flawed census clause), Americans have a right to equal representation — “one person, one vote.”

Despite the rather prominent constitutional placement of the census as a legislative duty, some lawmakers do not seem to think it is a priority. No, really, I am not making this up. For example, last week, the House Appropriations Committee considered the Commerce Department’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 spending bill. The draft bill, unveiled the previous week in the Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee, cut the president’s budget request for the U.S. Census Bureau account that covers 2020 Census planning and the related American Community Survey (ACS) by $374 million. The full committee further constrained spending for both of these programs in the report that accompanies the bill: $400m for the 2020 Census and $200m for the ACS.

Just to remind you of where we started: the President proposed a $1.5 billion budget for the Census Bureau next year. $920 million of that was for the decennial census, divided into $663 million for 2020 Census planning (+317M over FY2015) and $257 million for the ACS (+$15M). For the 2020 Census, the bureau must develop IT systems and the operational design in time for an end-to-end readiness test in 2018. It must contract for a vast communications campaign that can navigate an increasingly fragmented media landscape; start preparing for questionnaire assistance and language support efforts; and research the most effective ways to reduce undercounting, avoid duplications, and count special populations, such as prisoners and overseas military personnel. By the time Congress wakes from its census slumber, most major decisions will be locked-in.

(Other activities in the Periodic Censuses and Programs account that are vital to an accurate census, such as evaluating and processing address and geo-spatial data from external sources, also are short-changed. The Administration proposed a $21m increase for Geographic Support to ensure that capacity keeps pace with the workload; the committee bill does not fund this request.)

For the ACS, the bureau needs roughly $240m just to maintain the current sample size and coverage (for example, including group quarters, such as college dorms, military barracks, prisons, and nursing homes). But the committee’s report lambasted the Census Bureau for not moving quickly enough to streamline the survey and reduce respondent burden. Bemoaning the fact that only one question (business or medical office on the property) fell by the wayside in the latest content review, the committee ordered the bureau to cut more questions expeditiously. (Note to the 1,700 data users whose comments convinced the Census Bureau to retain queries on marital history and field of undergraduate degree: you might want to let Congress know how much you love those questions. Get my drift?)

Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, has been reading the Constitution. It has occurred to him that if Congress doesn’t invest in thorough planning, the 2020 Census could cost a lot more than lawmakers are willing to spend and could miss a lot of Americans who, historically, have been harder to enumerate. Those groups include people of color, rural and low-income residents, American Indians living on reservations, young children, and people whose first language is not English.

So, Congressman Honda offered an amendment in committee to increase Census Bureau funding to the President’s requested level. The agency is testing sweeping reforms to reduce costs and modernize methods, he noted, but without adequate funding, the bureau “may have to abandon plans for a modern census and go back to the outdated, more costly manual 2010 design.” The concept of a funding ramp-up for a cyclical program is not lost on Rep. Honda. “The underlying bill effectively flat funds the census, but the costs of preparing for, modernizing, and testing for the census are not flat.” The congressman may be stating the obvious, but clearly the committee needs a reminder.

Sophomore Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) endorsed the Honda amendment, highlighting the importance of ACS data to private industry, economic development, and veterans assistance programs. Rep. Rosa De Lauro (D-CT) raised her hand to speak in support of the census and ACS, but the chairman prematurely ended debate. It gets like that sometimes after a long appropriations session.

Subcommittee Chairman John Culberson (R-TX) was not amused. He opposed the amendment, he said, because it did not propose to pay for the Census Bureau’s increase with funds from other programs within the bill (called an offset), thus busting the sacred “caps” set for each appropriations bill. Fair enough, and Rep. Honda planned to withdraw his amendment for that reason anyway.

But Rep. Culberson went on to point out that, while the census is important, the subcommittee had to make difficult choices about which programs deserved the most money. There’s manned space flight to Mars (Houston, which I represent in Congress, we have a problem.), counter-terrorism and anti-crime initiatives, those erstwhile Pacific coast salmon, neuroscience, and manufacturing institutes. “We’ve had to prioritize within the bill,” the congressman concluded. In fact, full committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY), in his opening remarks, had already highlighted “savings” in the bill from “lower priority” programs in the massive appropriations measure. See, I did not make this up.

On the bright side, there were no raids on the Census Bureau’s budget piggy-bank this time. Maybe Representatives are starting to feel a bit chagrined that a proposed 91 percent funding boost for the 2020 Census, to help the bureau get up the mountain in time, turned into a 17 percent molehill. But there’s still plenty of time for the Legislative branch to embarrass itself again when the full House takes up the Commerce spending bill, possibly as soon as next week.

An ‘Opt-Out’ Democracy

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

In March 2000, with the nation’s crown jewel of civic activities in full swing, a certain candidate for president who would later call 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home, famously told a reporter that he wasn’t sure he would fill out the census “long form” if he received one. Then-Texas Governor George W. Bush suggested that the lengthier questionnaire sent to a sample of households might represent unwanted government intrusion into Americans’ personal lives.

Maybe there’s something in the water in Texas. Fast-forward 15 years, and another Lone Star politician believes even more firmly that the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) — the modern version of the long form — is an “invasion of privacy.” The head of the Appropriations panel that funds the bureau, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), thinks we should let Americans opt-out of this civic duty.

But I shouldn’t pick on Texas. Sen. James Lankford made his distaste for the ACS clear at a recent Senate oversight hearing on the 2020 Census. As the Oklahoma Republican described it, survey takers were all but stalking his constituents, door knocking incessantly and parked at the curb for hours, waiting for someone to come home and ask put-upon Sooners what time they leave for work (those would be the journey to work questions, folks). Scary stuff for a mother home alone with her kids, the senator said grimly. (We will pause here to consider whether answering the survey on-line or by mail when it first arrives with the message, Your response is required by law, might alleviate these spooky encounters. And then we will move on.)

Making response to the survey voluntary might not be a strong enough antidote for government nosiness and over-zealous survey takers in Sen. Lankford’s book. In 2012, while still in the House, he co-authored an amendment to nix the ACS altogether. A majority of his colleagues went along for the ride, largely along party lines. The Senate didn’t sign off on this rather drastic reaction to a vital survey that many U.S. households will never see. But the freshman senator now has a plum seat on the very panel that funds the Census Bureau. This story may not have a happy ending.

But maybe I can pick on Texas, because Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) just reintroduced his ACS opt-out bill (H.R. 2255). The congressman explained in an op-ed (The Humble Observer, Houston, May 15, 2015) that people are tired of government snooping into how many toilets and working sinks are in their homes. Perhaps people living in one of the nation’s largest metro areas are unaware that two percent of American homes, and more than three percent of Appalachian region homes, still lack full indoor plumbing. For 50 years, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) has used census “long form” and, now, ACS data to identify impoverished areas and upgrade housing quality across a 200,000 square mile area that is 42 percent rural. Making ACS response voluntary could eliminate reliable data for many rural areas. (We will pause once more to gently remind the Houston lawmaker that the ARC’s plumbing improvement and other anti-poverty efforts are ubiquitous in eastern Kentucky, whose representative in Congress, Rep. Harold Rogers, is grand pooh-bah of the all-powerful Appropriations Committee.)

Speaking of Kentucky, Sen. Rand Paul (R), through his libertarian-colored glasses, has carried the “voluntary ACS” legislative banner for several years. He’s been a little busy running for president this year, though, and hasn’t reintroduced a bill to save Americans from the crushing (45 minute) burden of filling out a survey that helps legislators make smart decisions. (No, we will not stop here for a joke about how data for smart decision-making might be a wasted resource when it comes to Congress. Rather, we will contemplate what Sen. Paul might say if he were asked about answering ten census questions during a 2020, instead of 2016, presidential run.)

Perhaps other lawmakers would do well to consider the information vacuum north of the border before jumping into the data-less abyss. Canada, sophisticated in so many ways, decided to scrap its mandatory census long form in favor of a voluntary National Household Survey in 2011, succumbing to conservative hand-wringing over the longer questionnaire’s perceived manifestation of government overreach.

The results of this policy shift were predictable (and predicted; Canada’s chief statistician resigned in protest when Parliament passed the law). Response rates to the voluntary survey plummeted from 94 percent to 69 percent. The cost went up by $22 million in an effort to keep the survey representative by increasing the sample. But non-response remained unacceptably high among harder-to-count population groups, and Statistics Canada could not produce reliable socio-economic data for a quarter of all localities, mostly small communities and rural areas.

Canadian policymakers and businesses that rely on census data to assess the nation’s economic and social needs have had a few years to absorb fully the voluntary survey wreckage, and they don’t like what they see. Or, to be more precise, what they can’t see. The president of the Canadian Association of Business Economics wrote in a Toronto Globe and Mail op-ed (Nov. 5, 2014) that the highest non-response rates are in rural and low-income areas “where the need for robust data is arguably most pressing to support sound decision making.” Policymakers can’t compare conditions between towns, counties, and regions in many cases, while neighborhood comparisons simply are of “questionable feasibility,” Paul Jacobson observed. Toronto’s public health agency, tasked in part with improving health care for the city’s low-income residents, has stopped using the unreliable long form data altogether.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Restaurants Canada, Toronto Region Board of Trade, and other influential business groups are now pressing to restore the mandatory long form. Many of their U.S. counterparts are urging Congress not to make the same mistake Canada did.

Here’s what doesn’t sit right with me about the voluntary-ACS campaign: You can’t make participation in a portion of the decennial census optional, without somehow making democracy optional. We Americans have a lot of rights; whatever happened to our sense of collective responsibility for preserving our democratic ideals? You know, “Ask what you can do for your country.” Helping elected leaders spend public funds wisely through an objective data-lens, available for all to view, doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

So, ask not what your country can do for you… unless, of course, you are still sitting in traffic on US 290 in Houston. Then, by all means, claim your share of federal highway improvement funds — doled out, in part, based on ACS data — before you tell your government, as Rep. Poe patriotically put it, to leave you alone.

Trying to Read the ACS Content Tea Leaves (Good Luck With That)

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

There’s a certain je ne sais quoi to the way Congress deals with the census. One minute, lawmakers are trying to deep-six the Census Bureau’s signature American Community Survey (the modern day census “long form”). The next, they’re ignoring the Census Bureau altogether. Or they’re using it as a piggybank for their favorite programs. Those would be the programs that largely rely on census data to allocate the money legislators from both parties pilfered from the Census Bureau. It’s all very confusing.

But the Census Bureau has tried to rise above the hopelessly mixed signals from Congress (We don’t like what you do. We don’t care what you do. We don’t want to pay for what you do, even though everything else we do depends on it. What exactly is it that you do?), forging ahead with the most rigorous review to date of questions on the ACS.

The Census Bureau is completing the first phase of its multi-year ACS Content Review effort. On October 31, it published a notice in the Federal Register proposing to eliminate several questions that the agency concluded pose a greater burden on the public, relative to the benefits of the data to policymakers and program administrators. The bureau has cool scatter-plots and matrices and charts that show how ACS questions stack up on a cost-benefit analysis, but the bottom line is that Congress itself has asked for most of the data, directly or indirectly, to set policy, allocate resources, and implement programs. A handful of questions tip the scale too far on the cost side and are on the chopping block for the 2016 ACS.

Let’s stipulate that the survey can appear daunting to those who receive it each year. That would be less than 3 percent of American households, although if you believe ACS opponents, you’d think the government had all of us chained to our desks, depriving us of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness until we answer 72 questions about ourselves, our families and our homes. The range of topics can make it seem like the Census Bureau is being a bit nosy. Naysayers like to point to questions about what time people leave for work or whether people have difficulty dressing or bathing. I am confident these critics do not include legislators who issue triumphant press releases about traffic congestion mitigation projects and services for people with disabilities they secure for folks in the home district.

But, where was I? Oh yes, scrubbing ACS content for errant questions. Turns out that questions on your marital history, what you studied in college and whether there’s a business or medical office on your property don’t produce information that legislators and government agencies use widely.

It’s a good thing, by the way, that the Census Bureau still plans to ask whether you are married or not. For the 2000 Census, the bureau decided to move the “marital status” question from the short form, which everyone gets, to the long form sent to a sample of households. Ultra-conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) balked at this slap to a sacred family institution, and his colleagues adopted a resolution to keep the query on the 100-percent form. (Unfortunately for them, timing is everything in a census: the questionnaires had already been printed when the resolution passed.) House members had already jumped on the “more data is better” bandwagon, with more timely bills to add questions on family caregivers, home computer use and Internet access, and to preserve the ancestry question. But once the enumeration started, lawmakers raced to distance themselves from the forms flooding mailboxes; there were seven proposed House bills from March to May 2000 to limit the number of census questions Americans must answer (in most cases, just name and number of people in household). I do not think the law requires consistency in census gripes.

For the current round of questionnaire trimming, the Federal Register comment period closes on Dec. 30, 2014. The agency plans further research on alternative sources for data gathered in the ACS (such as administrative records) and the wording of questions, some of which is problematic. (Millennials, for example, can’t relate to “dial-up service” on the Internet access question. Go figure. Boomers probably have nightmares just seeing the term. Screeeeech ….)

I’m betting that demographers, researchers and policymakers interested in STEM education will fight to save some of the questions the Census Bureau wants to drop. The bureau must finalize all ACS content decisions (adding and dropping questions) before the April 1, 2017, legal deadline for submitting census topics to Congress; the actual questions go to the legislature one year later.

Congress will have the final word on content, which might be difficult to parse when the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. The House has voted twice to make ACS response voluntary (a stake in the heart of small-area data) and once to eliminate the survey altogether. Yet, lawmakers want the data to divvy up $400+ billion annually for highways and transit, education, emergency preparedness, rural development, food and housing assistance, job training, and much more. Good luck with that when the data disappear.

Can We Talk?

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

No, I’m not going to pay homage to the late, great Joan Rivers today, but hopefully I now have your attention.

Truth is, I am having a mid-decade crisis and need to share. (This should not be confused with a mid-life crisis. Been there; done that.)

Congress has emerged from its summer slumber and will try to keep the government running past Sept. 30, when the current fiscal year ends, before heading home soon to campaign again.

Meanwhile, I am looking into my census crystal ball and contemplating the outcome of the 2020 population count. I’m anxious about what I see. I know it’s early to sound the alarm, but the pieces of the puzzle are not fitting together neatly in my vision of the future. Best not to bear the anguish alone, no?

Why the angst? First of all, Congress isn’t paying much attention to 2020 Census planning. Granted, it isn’t paying much attention to anything at all, save the midterm elections. But even if lawmakers get their act together when a new Congress reconvenes next winter, opportunities to plan and carry out four major field tests that will inform the design framework for the 2020 Census, will be slip-sliding away like much of the country during the predicted repeat polar vortex.

Congress, in fact, is so disinterested in the census that House members turned “raid the Census Bureau piggy-bank” into a virtual sport last spring, stopping their bipartisan target practice only after Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) lamented that there wouldn’t be a census in 2020 if lawmakers kept at it. Rep. Wolf, by the way, is retiring from the “do nothing” Congress to, presumably, do something else. But I digress.

Senate appropriators have been putting relatively more money into census research and testing, with the caveat that the Census Bureau’s spending limit for the next enumeration is the same (or less) than the 2010 Census budget (roughly $13 billion), without adjusting for inflation. They have been pushing the bureau to move forward quickly with new initiatives. For example, the committee noted (S.Rept. 113-181) that the bureau could save a lot of money by using existing government databases to update the master address list and to reduce costly visits to unresponsive households. But it fretted that the bureau hasn’t figured out whether and how it can get its hands on these administrative records. No one seems concerned yet about the quality of the data for census purposes. Instead, the bureau should work “expeditiously” to get administrative records from federal, state, local, and Tribal agencies, appropriators said.

And that takes up-front money for research and testing. On tap for next spring is a field test that will help determine if administrative records can substitute for door-to-door visits to households that didn’t respond by mail or Internet. Let’s think about that possibility for a minute.

The census wants to know who lives in a home on a specific date: April 1, 2020. It asks how everyone in the household is related to each other. It collects detailed information on race and ethnicity; revised questions aim to increase the granularity of those data. Field tests will better illuminate the self-response universe, but let’s stipulate—based on experience—that the nonresponders are more likely to be in low income urban and rural households, people of color, and immigrants with limited English proficiency. (Remember, one-quarter of all households did not respond by mail in 2010; there was no Internet option.) Young children and young minority men are most likely to be overlooked, even in households that are otherwise counted. Will administrative records tell us who usually lived where on Census Day? How people in so-called complex households are related to each other? Whether a person is Mexican American or Vietnamese American or Afro-Latino? (And, at the risk of waving a red flag over the bayou, government databases aren’t likely to cover the undocumented population. Just saying.)

Stakeholders will want to see solid evidence that administrative records can match the quality and detail of data collected through in-person interviews, before the Census Bureau commits to such a sweeping design change. I’m not saying I oppose the use of administrative records in the census. The Census Bureau must find bold ways to keep costs in check, even as the population grows and diversifies. I’m saying, test thoroughly and proceed with caution. Congress needs to make that happen with adequate funding now.

The president requested $963.4 million for the account that covers 2020 Census planning and the American Community Survey (ACS). The Senate Appropriations Committee coughed up $896.7 million, a seven percent cut. Which, of course, is generous compared to the House-passed funding level of $725.4 million for the same account. In a nutshell, the $238 million House cut (20 percent) wiped out the “ramp up” for 2020 Census planning. (To be fair, the House Appropriations Committee recommended a funding level of $858.5 million for Periodic Censuses and Programs.)

And now we’re headed down the up-ramp. Any day now, Congress will pass a temporary spending bill that funds most of the government at current year (FY2014) levels through December 11. So far, the House has added a 0.06 percent across-the-board cut (H.J. Res. 124). The first major FY2015 2020 Census field test—to assess the use of state, local, and commercial databases to update the master address file and allow for targeted, pre-census address verification only—has started, but most spending for that activity happens in October and November. The Census Bureau is already gearing up for two critical tests with an April 1, 2015 “Census Day,” one of which involves the aforementioned use of previously collected government data to count nonresponding households.

If the lame-duck Congress extends the Continuing Resolution into the second fiscal quarter or (worse), if the next Congress sticks with the current funding levels for the entire year (a real possibility if control of the Senate changes hands), without carving out an exception for 2020 Census funding, the spring tests could be toast.

Then what? Continue limping along through the systems and operational development phase, preparing for a census that incorporates complex new procedures that haven’t been fully vetted and may not meet stakeholder expectations? Pray that 2020Census.gov doesn’t crash when eight million people a day log on to answer the questionnaire? Fall back on tried-and true-methods developed for a time gone by, and costing billions of dollars more, hoping future Congresses and the next Administration care enough about an accurate, comprehensive census to pay for it?

I hope I’m wrong. I hope I wake up in 2020, and the census gods are smiling. That people are lounging in the park in the early spring warmth, answering census questions on their smartwatches in English, Korean or Spanish. Enumeration nirvana! But I’m tired of holding my breath every year. Stakeholders, it’s time either to pray or mobilize. A little of both probably wouldn’t hurt.

Radio Silence

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

It must have been spring fever. In a flurry of activity in May and June, House and Senate appropriators dutifully considered and approved their respective bills to fund Commerce Department (and many other) agencies next year, including a reader favorite: the U.S. Census Bureau. The House of Representatives went one step further, burning the midnight oil to pass the Fiscal Year 2015 Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill (H.R. 4660) over a two-day period.

But now it’s mid-July. You’ve been sitting at the edge of your seats, waiting anxiously for the next episode of the Census Bureau funding soap opera, ready to swing into action to save 2020 Census innovations and reliable ACS data from death by a thousand budget cuts. Or maybe you haven’t been thinking about this at all; a good book at the beach sounds like way more fun. But on the off chance you’re wondering about the radio silence since the Senate stood poised to tackle its version of the Commerce spending bill (S. 2437) more than a month ago, let me fill you in what you missed. Nothing.

In fact, the Senate couldn’t even muster the votes to start debate on the bill. The minority leader balked over an issue, completely unrelated to the bill, that no one quite recalls anymore. (I think it had something to do with coal.) Now, everyone seems to have thrown their hands up in the air and started counting down the days until a blissfully long August recess, after which it will be time to wipe the mothballs off the ineradicable Continuing Funding Resolution.

And here’s where you need to put your book aside and roll out of your lounge chair. Because if you thought the House’s $238 million raid on the Census Bureau’s budget spelled deep trouble for 2020 Census planning and other core surveys, think about the consequences of no funding increase at all for the nation’s premier cyclical program. As the name implies, a continuing resolution (CR) funds federal agencies at this year’s levels. Not exactly an ideal situation for a 10-year activity that must “ramp up” to stay on schedule, with immutable deadlines looming. Chief among those are required reports to Congress on the topics (April 1, 2017) and questions (April 1, 2018) for the 2020 Census (including the American Community Survey, the modern version of the census long form); Census Day (April 1, 2020); population totals used to reapportion the House of Representatives (December 31, 2020); and detailed population data to redraw congressional districts (March 31, 2021). Oh, the irony.

The Census Bureau, already behind schedule due to previous budgets cuts and funding delays, has four major 2020 Census field tests planned for FY 2015. Under the microscope will be cost-saving innovations and questionnaire updates: the feasibility of replacing universal pre-census address canvassing with targeted updating; using automation, real-time data and administrative records to manage and streamline costly follow-up with unresponsive households; new strategies to boost self-response, especially on the Internet, as well as methods for pre-registration and processing electronic responses that lack unique identifiers; revised questions on race and ethnicity; assistance for non-English speakers; and improving estimates of mail, online and telephone response. By the end of 2015, the Census Bureau must lock in a design for the next census and begin systems and operational development.

What to do, people? Time for what Washington-insiders quaintly call an “anomaly,” more easily understood as an exception to flat-line funding in the CR. Without one, either the 2015 census tests will start falling like dominos, jeopardizing the reforms needed to modernize the headcount, or the bureau will have to scale back other surveys to pay for them. The 2020 Census isn’t the only cyclical program at risk; planning starts next year for the quinquennial (still love that word!) 2017 Economic Census.

An anomaly for the Census Bureau in the all-but-inevitable FY 2015 CR seems like a no-brainer. Whether Congress will come to its census… er, senses… remains to be seen.