‘Tis the Season (It’s Budget Time Again!)

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

It’s appropriations season! Which wouldn’t merit a chuckle except, doesn’t it seem like appropriations season is year-round now? Maybe it’s just me.

This gives me a chance to sound like a broken record – not an enviable trait when I am trying to get your attention. But President Obama has unveiled his budget request for Fiscal Year 2015, and it is my solemn duty as an advocate of all things census to make visions of smartphone-friendly questionnaires, linked government databases and shrinking dollar signs dance in your head.

The Obama Administration requested $1.211 billion dollars for the Census Bureau. That’s a tempting pot of gold for lawmakers looking to fund programs that constituents can see and touch. Research and testing for a statistical exercise five years away? Not so exciting.

Still, the Census Bureau needs every penny of its request to keep 2020 Census planning on track and to maintain a robust, comprehensive and user-friendly American Community Survey (ACS). Let’s break this down, shall we?

The FY2015 proposal is $266 million more than the current year discretionary appropriation of $945 million, a 28 percent increase. (The Census Bureau also receives roughly $30 million for two mandatory surveys.) All of the new money is for the Periodic Censuses and Programs account ($961M requested; +269M increase), which includes the 2020 Census and ongoing ACS ($689M requested; +226M increase).

The window of opportunity for 2020 Census research and testing will close in 2015, when the Census Bureau must select a design framework (a decision already a year behind schedule) and begin the second phase of census planning: operational design and systems development. In a related new initiative, the president requested a bump in funding to build an enterprise-wide integrated system for data collection and processing (Data Processing Systems — $65M requested; +34M increase). Sure would beat having unique systems for each survey and census, don’t you think? And the Census Bureau hopes to resume the Boundary and Annexation Survey, suspended this year due to budget cuts. The results come in handy when you want to put all of those enumerated people and houses in the right city, village or town.

Remember congressional angst over the ACS that led to an embarrassing 2012 House vote to eliminate the survey (with no Plan B as to how the government would function without the data)? The Census Bureau must complete a well-timed, comprehensive review of ACS content and methods next year, ahead of a national field test in 2016 and submission of topics to Congress by April 1, 2017.

The Census Bureau needs money for other programs that have been in congressional crosshairs. The 2012 Economic Census is almost history (FY2015 is the last of its six-year cycle), but as Blood, Sweat, and Tears once sang, what comes down must go up. Or something like that. Anyway, the end of one six-year quinquennial census cycle is the start of a new one; the $119 million request (+5M increase) will allow the Census Bureau to finish analyzing and disseminating 2012 Economic Census data and start planning for the 2017 canvass of American businesses.

Finally, the president is proposing $248 million for the Census Bureau’s second major account, Salaries and Expenses (S&E), a decrease of $4 million from current year funding. The ongoing activities covered under S&E include vital economic, demographic and social statistics collected through the Current Population Survey, Survey of Income and Program Participation, and other programs.

We’ll have more information about the Census Bureau’s plans for 2015 when the Commerce Department releases detailed budget justifications in a week or two. In the meantime, congressional appropriators are getting down to work. The deadline for submitting testimony to the House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies is March 31; the Senate subcommittee deadline is April 25. Let’s see if we can make the foundation of our democracy and basis of informed decision-making sound as exciting as we know it is.

Limping Along the Road to 2020

Terri Ann Lowenthalby Terri Ann Lowenthal

So where were we, census fans?

As we rub the sleep out of our post-government shutdown eyes, and revel in data on the re-opened Census Bureau website, we are faced with the prospect that the uphill climb to Census 2020 just got a little steeper. Okay, maybe a whole lot steeper.

Let’s consider the good news first. The federal government is open for business. Surveys are in the field again. Economic indicators are, well, lagging, but the Census Bureau will publish them in due time. Small-city, county, town and neighborhood data from the American Community Survey will be late, but we’ll have them before year’s end.

Now the gloomy news. The federal government is running on last year’s gas tank. That ramp-up in funding to complete decennial census research and testing? Fuhgeddaboudit. With sequestration and across-the-board cuts, the Census Bureau’s budget was already 11 percent below the request for FY2013. That fiscal year has come and gone, but the ghost of budgets past will linger for at least a few more months in the form of a Continuing Resolution that expires on January 15. Not only is there no modest, yet vital, funding boost into the second quarter of FY2014, there is no way to dig out of the 2013 hole yet. Budget uncertainty plus inadequate funding equals increased risk of cut-corners and missed savings opportunities.

What’s at risk? The bureau has already pushed back a critical milestone — to select the 2020 Census design framework — by a year, to the end of FY2015. The National Content Test will be a year late, too, in 2016. That doesn’t leave much time to scrub the results before the legally-required content submission to Congress by April 1, 2017.

Now comes word that the Census Bureau is suspending work on several 2020 research and testing projects. It has “temporarily” reassigned 86 employees to other divisions because the money just isn’t there, and won’t fill a similar number of vacancies for 2020 Census planning unless it gets a sufficient funding boost for FY2014. People, this is not a promising sign of robust progress towards fundamental census reform. Congress can twiddle its thumbs while the fiscal clock ticks away, but the Census Bureau cannot defer the day of reckoning — April 1, 2020.

The Census Director says the agency will be able to complete the most critical 2020 Census activities planned for the current fiscal year. So why am I still tossing and turning at night? The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has identified IT management as a “long-standing” decennial census shortcoming. But thanks to sequestration and other budget cuts, acquisitions and systems development for 2020 will start a year later than planned. Let’s hope the bureau doesn’t have to cut corners when it comes to integrating and perfecting IT and field infrastructure.

Then there are promising strategies for maximizing electronic self-response on the front end and increasing follow-up efficiency on the back end. But is cyber-response the antidote to Congress’s census sticker-shock nightmare? Consider phishing scams, NSA-fueled privacy jitters, and finicky rural Wi-Fi connections before you answer. Can you imagine inviting scores of millions of households to participate online and not fully load-testing the system? Can you say healthcare.gov?

Maybe lawmakers should repeat Cyclical Program Ramp-up 101, before the 2020 Census is back to paper, postage and pencils — for twice the price.

Sorry, Come Back Later (Make an Educated Guess in the Meantime)

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Last April, I had a brilliant idea: “Let’s stop collecting any information.” Okay, it wasn’t an original idea, I quickly admitted; I pilfered it from a lawmaker who introduced a bill to nix all Census Bureau surveys, save a bare-bones decennial population count.

Census fans were incredulous. That April 23 blog post had record readership; even Stephen Colbert lampooned the bill, and a synopsis of the show quoted my blog. One of my tongue-in-cheek comments — “Cool! Then we might not need congressmen, because just about all of them rely on Census Bureau data to justify their existence.” — apparently struck a chord, judging from reprints in the press.

So far, only 15 colleagues have joined Rep. Jeff Duncan’s (R-SC) quest for an information void. Odds are H.R. 1638 won’t be seeing the legislative light of day any time soon. But do not despair, data-phobes! Congress has managed, through nonfeasance, to accomplish what a teensy fraction of the people’s house cannot on its own.

Thanks to the government shutdown, the Census Bureau’s work has come to a grinding halt. No harassing phone calls to unwitting, over-burdened citizens. No pesky, door-knocking surveyors invading the privacy of hard-working Americans who just want to live a quiet, government-free life (as soon as someone fills that pothole down the street). Even the duty-bound who want to cooperate (however grudgingly) from the comfort of their own computers are out of luck; online survey response is closed for business.

Not only is the populace finally free from the burden of government surveys, it’s relieved of the responsibility of having to consider objective, reliable information at all. The Census Bureau’s website is completely shut down. I’m thinking this is sort of a trial run for H.R. 1638, or maybe for last year’s mystifying House vote to eliminate the American Community Survey. No surveys and censuses, no data. No data, no need for thoughtful analysis of society’s challenges and informed consideration of solutions. We’ll just resort to rhetorical talking points and ideological pronouncements. Wait, wait… something is ringing a bell here…

It’s not just the Census Bureau that has shuttered the windows, of course. No one seems to be manning the websites at most other federal statistical agencies. (Furloughed Bureau of Economic Analysis employees, who are responsible for factoids like the Gross Domestic Product, “sincerely regret the inconvenience.” The GDP must not be very consequential, though, because H.R. 1638 would ax one of the main data sources for this indicator — the Economic Census.)

Not that I’m looking for a silver lining in the mess of the standoff on Capitol Hill, but the media took note of the data vacuum when the monthly unemployment and labor force figures, scheduled for release last Friday, went AWOL. Did we make any progress in job creation in September? Which sectors are hiring and which ones are shedding workers? Legislators usually have their press releases drafted in advance of the monthly first-Friday statistical release, waiting to put their respective spins on the numbers. I wonder how many ever stop to think about the genesis of that vital information — the Census Bureau conducts the survey and the Bureau of Labor Statistics crunches the numbers. Now the data gatherers are idle and the analysts are sitting at home, while the first week of October slides by, threatening the timely release of this month’s labor force data on the first day of November (which happens to fall on a Friday).

Sure, it’s hard to compete with war memorials and cancer drug trials in the battle for public opinion; statistics don’t stand a… well… chance of pulling at the heartstrings. But when Congress gets around to finalizing 2014 agency budgets, let’s hope it gives a little more thought to the public good that all these temporarily missing numbers serve.

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A note to my dear readers who aren’t steeped in the world of statistics: “Chance” magazine is a publication of the American Statistical Association, the world’s largest organization of people working in the statistical sciences.

Somebody Call A Tow Truck!

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

In my last blog post, I lamented a looming “collision” as U.S. House appropriators kept driving the wrong way – downhill and backwards – on the up ramp to the 2020 census, slashing the Census Bureau’s FY2014 budget request by $120+ million, which would leave the agency with $44.5 million less than its inadequate FY2013 budget. Without early investment in census research, testing and development, Congress could be spending a fortune to pull the 2020 headcount out of a ditch in a few short years.

Fortunately, the Senate has dispatched the highway patrol!

Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its version of the FY2014 Commerce, Justice, and Science spending bill (S. 1329), allocating the full amount the Obama Administration requested for the Census Bureau: $982.5 million. Sure, the committee once again dipped into the agency’s Working Capital Fund to get to that level, but the $10 million grab is small compared to previous raids on the WCF, and I will not look a gift horse in the mouth today. (See my Feb. 27, 2012, post for a quick tutorial on the WCF.)

I think Senate lawmakers are starting to grasp the long-range picture. The committee’s explanatory report (Senate Rpt. 113-78) says the budget request “suggests that the Census Bureau intends to reduce the 2020 Census costs to 2010 Census levels by finding ways to reduce door-to-door operations, using the Internet to solicit responses, and using scalable technology, such as elastic agency-wide IT systems that can expand for the 2020 Census and then return to normal operations tempo.” The committee wistfully mentions the possibility of spending less than the 2000 census, without adjusting for inflation, but we can forgive this momentary lapse in sanity, although it clearly yearns for yesteryear with later references to spending “less than the 2010 census” in 2020. Nevertheless, Senators seem to understand that the bureau can’t get from point A to point B, and accomplish the significant reforms Congress is seeking, without an investment in the groundwork that needs to be done.

House appropriators, on the other hand, want to have their cake and eat it, too. Their $153.5 million allocation for 2020 Census planning — $91 million below the president’s request — “underscores the Committee’s views that research and testing efforts are vital to ensuring that the 2020 Census is the most accurate and cost effective decennial yet.” We just don’t want to pay for those efforts. The committee asked for a schedule of all work “critical to the success of the 2020 Decennial Census,” including the cost of each activity “to better account for the cost effects of possible schedule slippage.” And then we’ll take you to task for falling behind schedule, even though we haven’t given you enough money to stay on track. The funding chiefs also want the agency to create shared and reusable IT services (“as a way to economize”!), continue developing a mobile computing infrastructure, implement a comprehensive information security program in accordance with in-depth GAO recommendations, and consult with the National Institute of Standards and Technology to ensure compliance with security standards. And please figure out how to do all of this vital work even though we cut your requested budget by nearly 40 percent. If the House has its way, Congress is going to need a super-size tow truck! (The House Commerce funding bill allocates $225 million for the American Community Survey — the most cost effective test-bed available for the 2020 census — $17 million less than the administration’s request.)

Will lawmakers beat the fiscal year clock to enact a final Commerce spending bill by midnight on September 30? Let’s consider: the House will be in session 17 more days until the FY2013 coach turns into a pumpkin; the Senate will be in session 26 days. Ummm… I think I see a temporary spending resolution in my crystal ball, which could leave the Census Bureau spinning its wheels in a ditch for a while longer (at the paltry current year funding levels), while the House and Senate try to come to grips collectively with the concept of ramping up for the nation’s largest peacetime undertaking.

Note: The House FY2014 Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill and report numbers are not available as of this writing, but both documents are available on the House Appropriations Committee website.

Slip Sliding Away: The Risk Factor Goes Up As 2020 Census Funding Goes Down

Editor’s note: This blog post was revised on July 11 to reflect more detailed information released by the Appropriations Committee.

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

I’m starting this blog post with one of my famous census headaches.

That’s because House appropriators are driving the wrong way — downhill and backwards — on the up ramp to Census 2020. I see a collision in the not too distant future: Congress doesn’t want to pay a lot for the next census, but it won’t put gas in the tank to keep the Census Bureau from stalling on the road to achieving that goal.

The Census Bureau is trying to wrap up its research and testing phase for 2020. Fundamental reforms in methodology and technology are on the table as the agency strives to curtail the big-ticket enumeration items, especially universal canvassing to confirm the address list and reliance on paper forms for every household in the nation. The bureau had hoped to select a design framework in 2014 so it could move forward with operational and systems development; now that’s not going to happen until 2015.

This year (FY2013), lawmakers cut the bureau’s budget request by 11 percent (more if you count another sneaky transfer of money from the Working Capital Fund). And now the House Appropriations Committee is taking another whack at the budget for Fiscal Year 2014; the Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee allocated just $845 million in its “committee mark” today, $44 million less than current year funding. The president requested $982 million, only a hair over his request for FY2013. That’s a cut of $137 million, or 14 percent, in discretionary spending.

Talk about rolling backwards down the hill… can I have another Excedrin, please?

Call me crazy (maybe it’s just the pulsing in my temples), but it almost looks like Congress has decided we really don’t need to plan for the next constitutionally prescribed decennial census — coming to a neighborhood near you in less than seven years. The Census Bureau can just envision ways to cut the cost of counting, cross its fingers, and hope for the best.

Field tests scheduled for 2013? A 28 percent funding cut forced the Census Bureau to cancel some and delay others, including key tests of strategies to encourage and facilitate electronic response in ways that preserve public confidence and ensure data security. An Internet response option could save big bucks during the census, but the methodology is far from simple. Do you send a letter to each household first, with a unique code for answering online, or could people somehow “pre-register” to receive a code for online participation? Should you mail a questionnaire if a household doesn’t answer online by a certain date, or just send an enumerator to the door? Would Americans welcome or reject text messages and emails from the Census Bureau, urging them to be counted, and how can everyone avoid the inevitable phishing schemes from false census.gov addresses (I’ve received two myself already)? I can’t answer these questions, and neither can the Census Bureau without thorough evaluation.

Possible changes to census questions? The American Community Survey is a cost-effective test-bed for proposed revisions, but the 2013 funding shortfall will push back a key content test from 2015 to 2016, which — in my opinion — is getting too close for comfort to the statutory April 1, 2017, deadline for submitting census topics to Congress.

The Census Bureau has made the hard choices for 2013: moving some research from the field to a desk; pushing back deadlines; reevaluating projects planned for next year. It is moving forward, for now, with research into a potentially big money-saver: using administrative records to identify possible undercounts and add people who might be missed during the census. But with the National Security Agency data mining program looming large in the American consciousness, that research must be thorough and robust before the Census Bureau can even hope for buy-in from lawmakers and the public. Important research into public trust and confidentiality concerns has been pushed back already. Without a funding increase in 2014, the agency won’t even be able to cover its staffing costs.

The risk of an unacceptably costly or unacceptably inaccurate census, or both, continues to go up as Congress continues to squeeze the Census Bureau’s budget during the critical research, testing and development phases of our decennial enumeration. The census is a 10-year program. Congress can invest in planning now, to keep the life-cycle cost of the enumeration in check ($13 – $18 billion, depending on the design, according to independent auditors), or keep letting the car roll backward — and dig itself out of a census ditch for $30 billion in a few short years.

The ACS: Big Brother, or Democratic Capitalism at Its Best? (You Decide!)

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

It’s appropriations season (not to be confused with the closing NBA and NHL seasons, or the full-throttle MLB season, but a sport in its own right nonetheless). That means census stakeholders are on high alert for the latest assault on the Census Bureau’s invaluable — and vulnerable — American Community Survey (ACS).

Let’s take stock of the nation’s largest sample survey, shall we? Following the 1990 census, with disappointing mail-back rates and the highest recorded disproportionate undercount of people of color, lawmakers theorized that the much-maligned census long form — sent to roughly one in six households to measure key socio-economic characteristics — might be dragging down the once-a-decade population count. (Long form response rates were about 12 percent lower than those for the universal short form.) They urged the Census Bureau to find a better way to collect information necessary for decision-making.

The Census bureau launched its signature replacement survey nationally (despite ill-timed budget cuts) in 2005. Congress seemed satisfied. The 2010 census, pared down to just six topical questions for all households, held its own in terms of projected mail-back rates, accuracy, on-time completion and staying within budget (significant technology glitches notwithstanding).

But Congress also was changing. A crop of junior lawmakers who valued limited government above all else soon had the ACS in its crosshairs. First, Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) proposed making ACS response voluntary. Not swayed by a hearing on the bill at which every witness (except Rep. Poe) opposed the idea, the House passed an amendment (May 2012) to last year’s Census Bureau appropriations bill. Emboldened, the limited-government gang quickly followed up by snuffing out ACS funding entirely.

Cooler heads prevailed in the Senate, although the final FY2013 Continuing Appropriations Act calls for an independent study of the consequences of making the ACS voluntary. But the survey’s critics are not giving up. Rep. Poe and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) reintroduced bills not only to make ACS response optional, but to require a clear opt-out message on the form.

Not to be outdone, Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) decided the Census Bureau shouldn’t do anything at all except count the population every 10 years. No more ACS; goodbye, Economic Census, Census of Governments, Census of Agriculture, and countless other smaller but vital surveys that tell us how our people, communities, economy and business sector are faring.

Given the all-out assault on the ACS, you’d think the survey was a mini version of the NSA phone and email dragnet, designed to breach the privacy of average, law-abiding Americans. But a new coalition in Minnesota shows just how wrong the critics are, and how the survey supports informed decision-making and prudent resource use in virtually every sector of everyday American life.

Minnesotans for the American Community Survey (MACS… cute, huh?) wants members of Congress to know that they rely on ACS data to make policy, operational and fiscal decisions that affect the quality of life in your community and neighborhood. From local chambers of commerce and municipal service and infrastructure agencies to nonprofits serving children and the elderly and people with disabilities and refugees and low-income mothers — the very people who make our communities tick —  organizations need reliable, timely, consistent and comprehensive information to guide the work they do: where to locate stores and what products to sell; how to meet growing transportation needs and mitigate traffic congestion; what type of housing development best meets the needs of residents; who needs health care and help paying for it; whether workforce skills and educational levels match the needs of companies that want to locate in the state.

Dakota County’s Office of Planning and Analysis is a member of MACS. The state’s third-largest at around 400,000 people, Dakota is an all-American county, equal parts urban, suburban and rural, with a high median household income and low family poverty rate. How do we know this? The ACS, of course. What does the county government do for its residents? It helps maintain 440 miles of roads and 81 bridges; protects its natural and agricultural areas; offers job training at workforce centers; prepares for natural disasters and health emergencies; and provides for children in need. I may be going out on a limb here, but I suspect Dakota County doesn’t do any of these things blindly. It uses data derived directly or indirectly from the ACS to evaluate and project the needs of its citizens, and to meet those needs efficiently. Do the data give the county an excuse to spend taxpayer money, as some critics of the ACS have charged? Hardly; Dakota boasts one of the lowest county tax rates in the state.

The Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce is also part of MACS. The organization helps “grow member businesses and the region,” according to its website. It’s currently promoting a huge development project in downtown Minneapolis that will offer office space, housing, retail, dining, parking and park space. And how does a project like this attract investors, stores, home buyers or renters, and business tenants? I’ll go out on a limb again, but I’m pretty sure the glossy brochures feature plenty of economic, social and demographic facts, derived largely from the ACS.

The ACS isn’t Big Brother. It’s your city, community, neighborhood: the construction workers, transforming downtown Minneapolis; the small business owners and store clerks, offering dry cleaning at convenient locations and clothes you want at the mall; the health care clinics, treating children in low-income households when they’re sick; the county planners, making sure there will be enough elementary schools to serve a growing number of young families; transportation systems, accommodating people with disabilities and the elderly; and workforce centers, helping returning veterans match their skills to available jobs.

We do our part as Americans by answering a few questions that add up to a portrait of our everyday lives (and most of us will never have to, anyway). We see the aggregate statistics — and watch our communities flourish. That’s democratic capitalism at its best.

Lessons from North of the Border: Why a Voluntary ACS Could Wipe Some States Off the Map

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

What if we took a survey and no one answered? Or, to be more realistic, only two-thirds of us did?

That’s what happened north of the border recently. The Canadian Parliament decided to do away with the nation’s mandatory long-form survey and replace it with the voluntary National Household Survey (NHS). Statistics Canada (StatCan) reported the results of the first NHS, conducted in 2011, this week. Instead of the 94 percent response rate achieved with the 2006 mandatory long form, only 68 percent of households returned the voluntary survey. Instead of having reliable data for 97 percent of the country, only three-quarters of Canada’s localities will have a picture of their socio-economic conditions.

In abolishing the mandatory survey, conservatives decried the burden on Canadians of revealing “personal” information to the government. How ironic, then, that in order to make up for projected falling response rates, StatCan increased the number of households that received the survey, from one in five to one in three. That’s a 65 percent jump!

Now that we’ve recovered from the initial shock of a proposal (H.R. 1638) to axe just about everything the Census Bureau does, legislation to make American Community Survey (ACS) response optional might seem relatively tame, if not harmless. Think again, census stakeholders.

Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), citing “big government at its worst,” reintroduced a bill (H.R. 1078) to let people ‘just say no’ to all or part of the survey. (See my March 20, 2013, post.) A 2003 field test of a voluntary ACS, which Congress demanded, gave a glimpse of the stiff consequences of such a significant change in methodology. Response rates would plummet, especially for traditionally hard-to-measure population groups, and costs would skyrocket (by at least 30 percent), as the Census Bureau scrambles to ensure enough response to produce accurate data for towns, small counties, rural communities, neighborhoods and smaller population groups such as veterans, people with disabilities and ethnic subgroups. The Canadian experience, the first of its kind to our knowledge, bears this out.

Congress doesn’t seem in the mood to allocate more money for good data; the Census Bureau already is reeling from an 11 percent budget cut this year (13 percent if you count the $18 million dip into the Working Capital Fund). The bureau might have to follow StatCan’s lead and put a warning on all small-area data estimates: Use at your own risk due to high non-response error. Translation: The data are flawed because some population groups are less likely to respond than others and therefore skew the representation of the sample.

More likely, we might not see any data for small areas because the bureau won’t have the money to compensate for plummeting response rates by increasing the sample size (that’s sampling error, folks) like StatCan did. Forty-one percent of U.S. counties are home to less than 20,000 people; even with a mandatory ACS, the Census Bureau must aggregate data over five years to accumulate enough responses to yield statistically valid estimates for these areas.

New York? Most counties are larger, although we’d lose information about communities and neighborhoods within counties, making it difficult for local governments and businesses to target services and investment dollars. But bye-bye to most of Montana, the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas, Idaho and Iowa. You can wipe half of Texas, Nevada, Wyoming and Utah, much of Colorado, Missouri, Georgia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Arkansas and Minnesota, and not insignificant portions of other states off the map. No data for 95 percent of American Indian reservations and Alaska Native areas, most elementary school districts, and more than half of secondary school districts. How is anyone supposed to make rational decisions without all of this local information?

Meanwhile, joining the list of conservative voices that appreciates the value of objective, reliable data to support decision-making is The Weekly Standard. A May 20 article calls the ACS “one of the most robust and important tools we have for measuring and understanding American trends.” Ironically, The Weekly Standard admonished the Census Bureau for deciding, because ACS content is now a zero sum game, to drop the question on how many times a person has been married, to make room for questions on use of health care subsidies and premiums that will help policymakers assess the effectiveness of the Affordable Care Act (okay, Obamacare).

Raise your hand if you remember what happened the last time the Census Bureau tried to mess with a census question on marriage? Well, before the 2000 count — when the census long form still ruled the data world — the bureau thought it might streamline the short form that everyone received, by shifting a question on marital status to the sample (or long) form. You would have thought someone proposed abolishing Mother’s Day! Very conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC), incensed at the inference that marriage was no longer a “sacred institution” — and who had been complaining for years that the census form was too long — proposed an amendment (to the Transportation appropriations bill, 106th Congress) in support of keeping the question on the short form.

So, we have some conservatives railing against the public burden of so many nosy questions, and others urging the government to keep asking how many times you’ve been married. While Sen. Helms and conservative colleagues (e.g. John Ashcroft, Sam Brownback) were fighting to save the marriage question, the same Senate went on record urging Americans to answer only the long form questions they liked in the 2000 census. Yes, I feel a census headache coming on…!!

Where Have I Heard This Before? (or, History Repeats Itself)

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

So where do we go from here, census stakeholders? Let’s take stock.

As I reported in my last blog post, nearly a dozen House members think it’s a good idea to do away with every survey and census — except the once-a-decade population count — the U.S. Census Bureau conducts. With a few legislative votes and the stroke of a president’s pen, they would leave the world’s greatest democracy with virtually no useful information on which to base prudent decisions and with which to hold elected officials (like themselves) accountable.

Some observers are understandably shocked — shocked! — at the absurdity of such a proposal. Whatever could the proponents be thinking?

According to a press release, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), is acting on behalf the many annoyed constituents who believe the surveys are “invasive.” Many? Really??? Given the small sample size of non-census surveys, only a tiny fraction of the congressman’s constituents would ever be asked to fill one out. While the congressman acknowledges the need for “some” economic data, he is confident there are other ways to gather it that don’t involve “harassing people” or “invading their privacy.” “Americans are tired of too much government meddling in their daily lives,” Rep. Duncan assures us. (Except, I’m sure, when potholes need filling, a doctor’s visit is paid for through Medicare or Medicaid, classrooms are too crowded, or they really would like a new senior center close to public transportation.)

This all sounds vaguely familiar. In fact, it sounds like an effort to up-end the census (and related American Community Survey, which used to be the census long form)… circa 1970.

You see, that’s when a group of young conservatives, in a mailing to (presumably) other conservatives, wrote: “The citizen’s right of privacy is directly violated when the federal government attempts to force us to answer questions that are none of the government’s business… The point is not what questions are being asked,” the authors declared, “but that a federal agency dares to institute a process that will pry into the core of our individual lives.” They also organized anti-census demonstrations at federal buildings.

And they might have stirred every limited-government soul to dodge the census, except that one very notable conservative decided to call their bluff. Renowned columnist James J. Kilpatrick, himself a recipient of the anti-census diatribe, countered the “privacy” argument in an op-ed (Washington Evening Star, 2/22/70; syndicated elsewhere):

“Is it true that such information is ‘none of the government’s business?’ On the contrary, such information is of the first importance to government. How else can public policies be fashioned wisely? Where should schools be built, and water lines laid, and parks established? How many people will be using what highways and airports when? The economic and demographic information coming from confidential Census reports… is vital to every public and private undertaking that rests upon a knowledge of what our country is.”

There’s something else going on here aside from vague concerns about “privacy.” In the required “Statement of Constitutional Authority,” here’s what Rep. Duncan submitted in support of H.R. 1638:

“Article I Section 2 notes the need for an Enumeration of the people necessary for the apportionment of Congressional districts. That is the true purpose of the Census Bureau. This legislation seeks to return the Census Bureau to the Constitutional intent of the Founding Fathers by eliminating non-Constitutional additional enumerations that the Bureau undertakes today.”

So there we have it. The sponsors believe that the federal government does not have the authority to gather information from the people in order to produce statistics that guide fiscal and social policy-making and the allocation of government resources. Funny, this also rings a bell; the 1970 protesters labeled the census a “violat[ion] [of] our rights under the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Amendments to the Constitution.”

Not so, states’ rights advocate Kilpatrick shot back. Not only do legislators have broad authority with regard to census-taking (i.e. “in such manner as they shall by Law direct”), the columnist said, they have the power to regulate commerce. “Nothing in the Constitution prohibits the Congress from combining its powers in useful ways. Thus a Census question on the houses we own, and the plumbing and heating in them, may not relate narrowly to ‘enumeration,’ but it relates reasonably to commerce — and it scarcely reaches ‘the core of our individual lives’ [quoting the anti-census mailing he received]. The same thing is true of questions relating to our jobs and how we get to them.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself, Jim, though heaven knows I’ve tried.

Having defended the need for informed decision-making (is there any other worthwhile kind in a democracy?), I fully understand why survey recipients might view the questions as odd, at best, or maybe nonsensical or even intrusive. The Census Bureau has a responsibility, too, to explain clearly the purpose of questions to households fortunate enough (smile) to receive one, as well as to limit follow-up calls and door-knocks to a reasonable number for people who clearly don’t want to be bothered. Kudos to the agency for finally establishing a Respondent Advocate for Household Surveys, to be the ears and voice for people wondering what the heck the government really wants to know (e.g. not when you leave the house, but how many cars are on the road during rush hour!) and advise the Census Bureau on how to make surveys more user-friendly.

Now, if only our elected officials would demonstrate some leadership and help illuminate the need for objective, reliable data, instead of pretending we can live in a society that doesn’t even calculate the unemployment rate!

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, Part Two: Time to Ramp It Up

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Last week, I gave a little tutorial on the lifecycle cost of a decennial census. You know: “The seasons, they go round and round, and the painted ponies go up and down.” Up and down are the operative words; right now, the cycle is in up mode. Meaning the Census Bureau needs modest funding increases each year to stay on an efficient, productive research and planning schedule that will save billions of dollars in implementation costs over the entire lifecycle.

Did I just date myself terribly? (“Like” if you remember that song!) But, I digress. President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2014 (FY2014) $982.5 million budget request for the Census Bureau barely budged over his request for the current year. Embedded in that overall agency number is $486 million for the 2020 Census, which includes the ongoing American Community Survey (ACS).

The ACS is really a bargain, folks. Its $242 million price tag is an infinitesimal half a thousandth of a percent of the federal aid directed prudently (Congress enacts the formulas, after all) each year to states and localities for schools, roads and transit systems, rural economic development projects, health care, job training, crime prevention programs, and other state and local activities, based (directly or indirectly) on data the ACS yields annually. Businesses and community-based nonprofits use the data to make billions (and billions and billions) of dollars in investment and program decisions that spur job growth, commerce and economic development. And the survey is now a two-for-one deal: it’s a rolling test bed for new methods and systems that could reduce 2020 Census costs considerably.

Speaking of 2020 (just around the corner… see my last blog post!), the president requested an increase of $154.2 million to finish the research and testing phase, allowing the Census Bureau to select a design framework and move forward with operational and systems development in subsequent years. Key elements of census reform could include broad use of administrative records to keep the address list up-to-date and to identify unresponsive households during the enumeration, as well as multi-mode response options that take advantage of the latest tech gadgets. Without thorough research and testing, the bureau might fall back on a far more expensive (but tried and true) paper and pencil design. Which Congress already has said it won’t pay for, by the way.

As Commerce Inspector General Todd Zinser warned Senate and House appropriators this week, “To achieve cost savings, the Bureau is exploring new and innovative design alternatives based on evidence from its research and testing operations. However, the Bureau may be seeing signs of delays due to budget reductions and schedule slippage in its 2010 decennial census evaluation program and the 2020 decennial research and testing program.”

The problem, in other words, is that the Census Bureau already is positioned fiscally to fall behind, because Congress whacked about 13 percent from its 2020 Census budget request for the current year, what with sequestration and across-the-board cuts. The bureau will need its full FY2014 request of $244.8 million for 2020 Census planning just to stay on top of things.

So here we are, once again, facing an uphill battle for a reasonable investment in two of the nation’s premier statistical programs, both of which return far more to a democracy and informed decision-making than they will ever cost. Time to buckle down, census stakeholders, and fight the good (if often unrecognized) fight!