2020 Census Funding Increase Needed Urgently

By Jason Jordan, director of policy, American Planning Association

The Census Bureau is the cornerstone of the federal statistical system and the critical data resource for a vast array of local decision making in the public and private sectors. It is a irreplaceable resource. And, it’s in jeopardy.

That was the message delivered by former Census Bureau chief John Thompson in his address at APA’s 2017 Daniel Burnham Forum.

Thompson noted the challenges faced during the 2010 count and he pointed to congressional funding decisions this year and next as vital to a successful 2020 Census. He called on planners and others who depend on a range of census data and products to make a vigorous case for the Census on Capitol Hill.

In an appearance before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross echoed Thompson’s views. Secretary Ross told the committee that the Census is “the bedrock upon which we construct our system of democratic representation.” His testimony highlighted new estimates that the 2020 Census would need $15.6 billion, an increase of $3.3 billion from 2015 estimates.

Funding challenges related to the 2020 count pose problems for other essential Census Bureau projects and products. The same week that Secretary Ross noted the “urgent need” for decennial count funding, the Census Bureau announced that the Economic Census would be delayed by at least six months. The Economic Census provides key data about economic activity and employment. The delay will likely have negative effects later on both companies and local governments who rely on the data.

Similar problems could be in store for other Census activities, including the American Community Survey, as the Census Bureau shifts already strained resources to cover 2020 preparation shortfalls.

Census isn’t alone among federal data agencies when it comes to facing long term funding challenges. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has seen it’s budget fall by 10 percent since 2005. And, in an era when communities and companies are grabbling with major changes associated with ride sharing, safety, and the emergence of autonomous vehicles, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics has suffered a 21 percent decline.

At a time when the federal government should be modernizing its data and statistical systems to keep pace with growing demands and a changing “big data” and “smart cities” landscape, these vital agencies look likely to fall further behind.

At the same time Congress underfunds statistical agencies, a congressionally mandated, bipartisan task force has released a new report on “evidence-based policymaking” urging a variety of governmental reforms but also lamenting “insufficient resources and limited flexibility.” Leaders on both sides of the aisle hailed the report but what impact it has on the more challenging work of crafting appropriations bills remains to be seen.

Over the next few months, Congress will wrap up work on current fiscal year spending bills and begin work on next year’s budget framework. National Community Planning Month is the perfect time to urge Congress to provide the funds necessary to ensure that communities have the information and data needed to plan well.

This article was originally posted on the American Planning Association’s website on October 19.

American Planning Association Blog Post on 2020 Census

Inadequate Funding Imperils a Fair and Accurate 2020 Census

By Jason Jordan, director of policy, American Planning Association, and Trevor Grady, government affairs associate, American Planning Association

In less than three years the 2020 U.S. Census will be conducted. While that might seem like a long time, the reality is that the next months are critical to a successful decennial count. And there are significant reasons to be concerned about the upcoming census.

Many census experts are worried that the run-up preparation for Census 2020 is being seriously underfunded. The Census Project, an advocacy coalition of which APA is part, has charted the 10-year funding cycle for past decennial censuses. In each of the past four decades, there was a marked increase in years seven and eight to fund a comprehensive field test and develop new techniques. That isn’t happening this time around.

The recently completed final FY 2017 federal spending agreement saw funding at $164 million below the level called for by the Census Bureau. The news for FY 2018 is potentially much worse.

While in past years Congress would be using this year to ramp up for the coming count, the budget proposed by the Trump administration would be essentially flat from 2017 to 2018. In a statement, the Census Project said the budget is “woefully underfunding preparations for the next census at a critical phase in the planning process.”

A Census at Risk - Spending During Four Census Decades
Chart of census spending through four decades by The Census Project. Census 2020 is at the bottom. Sources: Congressional Research Service, courtesy Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.). *2018 figure from Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as reported by the Washington Post.

Yesterday advocates and census experts convened during a briefing with congressional staff to discuss funding issues and the growing concerns about preparations for the census.

Shortfalls in resources for 2020 preparations would also likely have negative implications for other census tools, such as the American Community Survey, because those programs would face a squeeze with resources potentially diverted to deal with mounting costs for decennial preparation. ACS could also face damaging amendments when Congress considers new appropriations legislation.

At this pivotal time, the Census Bureau is also without key leadership.

Earlier this month, Census Bureau Director John Thompson unexpectedly stepped down. His decision to leave the agency was in part a result of Trump administration’s lack of support in the budget. The resignation helped highlight the potential crisis. APA joined partner organizations concerned about vital federal data in calling for the Trump administration to swiftly appoint a well-qualified new leader for the Census Bureau.

Yesterday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was set to testify before a House Appropriations Subcommittee. Census issues are sure to be a big part of the discussion. Now is an important time for planners to engage with legislators about the critical value of census data and the need to ensure both solid leadership at the Census Bureau and full funding for both an accurate 2020 count and essential data tools for local decision making like ACS.

APA has made the defense of federal data a major priority for advocacy and will continue working with partners to support funding for vital data programs. Federally funded data underpin good local and regional plans, so it’s essential that we push Congress now to support the Census Bureau.

This article was originally posted on the American Planning Association’s website on May 26.