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?

Back to the Census Future

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

I have snapped out of my daydream of a Trump-like path to the 2020 Census, where everything is easy and will end up just fine because, you know, we’ll get great (not stupid!) people and take an amazing census. A headline blaring from the front page of the The New York Times woke me up.

Cut In Budget May Hamper 2000 Census

Oh, wait. Wrong year; wrong census. That was 1995! Yes, it’s census déjà vu all over again. No wonder I can’t sleep at night.

Twenty years later, Congress once again has failed to grasp the concept of ‘invest now, save later.’ This would be the same Congress that wants government to run more like a business: to think and act proactively; to take bold action to contain costs without sacrificing quality.

Except some lawmakers seem to think that the Census Bureau can wave a magic wand and change the game plan it’s followed since 1970. Generate administrative records to replace more costly door-to-door visits! Produce materials in more than 50 languages! Conjure up a nimble communications plan to convince every household in the world’s melting pot to participate! Build a secure IT infrastructure that can handle 8 million hits a day and process 140+ million cases! Cue the light saber, because that’s what we’ll need when the money isn’t there.

Earlier this year, the House of Representatives decided it believes in fairy godmothers. The Appropriations Committee capped Fiscal Year 2016 spending on 2020 Census planning at $400 million, less than two-thirds of the President’s $663 million request. Even that was too much for the full House, which cut another $117 million from the Periodic Censuses and Programs account, with a significant chunk presumably eating away further at 2020 Census funding.

Senate appropriators were marginally more generous, increasing the Periodics account by $22 million over Fiscal Year 2015. That would be for the entire account, which also includes the 2017 Economic Census, American Community Survey, and vital activities that support the census, such as the geographic framework and enterprise-wide data processing system. I’m not good at math, but I don’t think that leaves much of a ramp-up for the 2020 Census,

There is some good news, though. The FY2016 budget process broke down completely after that, with the White House and congressional Democrats objecting to the spending caps (sequestration) put in place by a grand budget deal two years ago. (You know you’re living in a parallel universe when Congress’ inability to fund the federal government on time is something to cheer about.) Congress bought time with a temporary spending bill (Continuing Resolution) that runs through December 11th.

Last week, lawmakers and the President finally brokered a deal that boosts overall spending on non-defense discretionary programs in FY2016 by $33 billion. Appropriators must now divvy up that windfall among the twelve annual funding bills (including the Commerce, Justice, and Science measure that covers the Census Bureau) and agree on final budgets for agencies and programs.

Meanwhile, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a joint subcommittee hearing this week on the progress of 2020 Census planning, with a focus on IT systems. Lawmakers are spooked by the ghost of the Census Bureau’s costly failure to equip census takers with mobile devices in the 2010 Census, and they want assurances that a vastly larger plan to automate the 2020 Census won’t fall flat.

But I am equally worried by what I didn’t hear at Tuesday’s session: how will sweeping reforms to the census process address the historic, disproportionate undercount of people of color, young children, limited English proficient and low-income households (both rural and urban)? No one asked a question that would illuminate the answer, although a few Members highlighted the need for adequate funding to prepare for the census.

The Census Bureau has a lot of work to do — and a lot of questions to answer —between now and late summer of 2017, when the 2018 End-to-End Readiness Test (with an April 1, 2018 “Census Day”) begins. Without sufficient funding, it will focus its efforts on building a basic framework for 2020 — IT systems, the mailing package and questionnaire, office locations, reasonable address list improvements. Elements that get to the heart of a fair count — targeted advertising; language assistance; partnerships with trusted voices in hard to count communities; thorough evaluation of administrative records; even development of statistical tools to measure accuracy — will continue to get short shrift.

There will be a lot of competition for that extra money in the Omnibus FY2016 spending bill.

Congress has a second chance to show that it cares not just about a cost-effective census, but an accurate one. Let’s hope it uses that opportunity wisely.

Postscript: O Canada! In 2010, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party majority in Parliament decided to let Canadians opt-out of the quinquennial (still love that word!) census long form, the equivalent of our American Community Survey (ACS). When the voluntary 2011 National Household Survey failed to produce reliable data for a quarter of all places and some key socio-economic indicators (such as household income), data users — from business leaders, to municipal governments, to researchers — were wringing their hands.

Earlier this year, Conservatives blocked a bill sponsored by Liberal Party MP Ted Hsu to restore the mandatory long form. But now-Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party vowed to restore the mandatory long form, if elected. And wouldn’t you know, within days of taking office, Trudeau did just that, with two Cabinet Ministers making the announcement today. The Toronto Globe and Mail even reported that the former Conservative Party MP who pushed the voluntary long form now says he “would have done it differently” and asked more thoughtful questions in trying to determine how best to protect privacy and ensure data security. Are you listening, U.S. Congress?

Down the Drain

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

Dear American Community Survey (ACS) data users:

Have you recovered yet from the loss of the 3-year estimates, which offered reliable data for places with populations of 20,000 or more, often capturing trends that one-year estimates for larger places (65,000 population and above) can’t document as well? (Just to refresh your memories, we can chalk up the elimination of that dataset to budget cuts in the current fiscal year.)

I hope so. Now, get yourself another stiff drink, because the path Congress is following for next year’s budget (Fiscal Year 2016) could set the survey back even further.

Let’s start with the House of Representatives. Last month, Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) rallied his colleagues to turn the nation’s premier survey into an optional exercise, lest the government ask too much of its citizens in furtherance of democracy. By “rallied,” I mean his amendment to make ACS response voluntary passed the chamber at 10:37 p.m. with only the appropriations subcommittee chairman and ranking member on hand to listen or muster an “aye” or “no” (otherwise known as a voice vote).

The congressman’s proposal was no surprise. Over the past month, he’d taken to news outlets in his Houston district to rail against “government overreach at its worst.” The ACS question on flush toilets in the home really rankled him, so he will be tickled to know that the question is going down the drain next year.

This is the third time the House approved a “voluntary response” amendment to the Census Bureau’s annual funding bill. Let’s hope it’s not the charm. Because based on Canada’s recent experience with a voluntary census “long form” (the equivalent of our ACS), the result would be plummeting response rates, significantly higher costs, and loss of reliable data for small and less populous areas, as well as small population groups. Canada couldn’t produce data for a quarter of its places after the 2011 National Household Survey.

But maybe senators will save the day! In fact, the Senate Appropriations Committee seems to rather like the ACS. In its report on the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) funding bill (H.R. 2578), the panel was full of praise for the nation’s premier survey. That show of support apparently was enough to deter Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) from pressing ahead with his amendment to let Americans opt-out of the ACS (he “offered and withdrew” it), saying only that he hoped House and Senate negotiators would resolve the issue down the road. In other words, he hasn’t given up the fight.

A shout-out to CJS Subcommittee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) is in order, for seeing the light on the importance of the ACS. But don’t raise a toast to the Senate just yet. Because appropriators weren’t in the mood to put their money where their mouths are.

Yes, data for “small towns and rural areas” are important! Yes, the ACS is “often the primary or only source of data for States, localities, and Federal agencies” on many policy topics! But, we regret to inform you that we just don’t have the money to sustain the ACS sample size, which is necessary to produce high-quality estimates for neighborhoods, small counties, American Indian reservations, race and ethnicity subgroups, veterans, people with disabilities.

Okay, the committee didn’t actually say that. But cutting the Periodic Censuses and Programs account budget request by 30 percent is bound to weaken the survey significantly, at least for the foreseeable future, while the bureau scrambles to research ways to bring down data collection costs. Those 5-year estimates, which average enough data to produce reliable estimates for small areas? They just might turn into 6-year estimates, making the measurements less timely and stable. The committee’s senior Democrat, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), summed up the proposed funding level in one word: irresponsible.

House appropriators, on the other hand, were perfectly happy to let us know how much they dislike that “burdensome” survey. In fact, majority members were downright “disappointed” that the Census Bureau dropped only one question (medical or business office on property) from the survey so far, as part of an in-depth content review; they directed the agency to find other nonessential questions to ax post haste.

Then, they drove the point home with a 20 percent cut to the ACS budget, capping spending for next year at $200 million. And that was before the full House slashed another $117 million from the account covering the ACS and 2020 Census planning. “Completely shortsighted” was how the committee minority described the Census Bureau’s funding level, saying the data are needed to “better understand and predict changes in the American economy and the health of American communities, which in turn helps inform good public policy.” Imagine that.

People, I don’t know if you are shaking your heads, throwing your hands up in the air, or heading back to the liquor cabinet right about now. But maybe you should whip out your laptops and fire off a message to your elected representatives, letting them know that plunging the nation into data darkness will not enhance their reputations as enlightened lawmakers.

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.

Welcome 114th Congress: No Time for a Nap

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

Happy 2015, census fans!

I have great news. According to the Census Act (Title 13, United States Code), we could be getting ready to launch a census. That’s right: lawmakers, way back in the radical 1970s, thought it would be a neat idea to survey the population not just once every 10 years, but every five years. So Congress authorized a mid-decade census to serve every useful purpose the decennial census does—like, um, measuring the characteristics of our population and housing, to see how well we’re doing and to address societal needs—except congressional reapportionment.

I know what you’re thinking. Did I miss something? Have I been asleep at the switch every spring during a calendar year that ends in “5” and neglected to fill out my mid-decade census form? Rest easy, civic-minded readers. Congress had a good idea (at the time), but lawmakers never wanted to pay for it. Wait. That sounds familiar! But, back to our story.

Of course, the universally popular American Community Survey has since eclipsed the idea of a mid-decade census. (Are you chuckling just a little?) The modern version of the census long form produces updated information about our communities every year, made all the more useful by advances in technology that allow us to access the data quickly and (relatively) easily. As our world seems to spin ever faster, the Census Bureau churns out objective facts and figures to help us make sense of it all.

You might be feeling comforted right about now, knowing that census data, as a public good, are available to everyone who wants to understand the world around them and have the tools both to improve their communities and to hold their civic leaders accountable. Well, please don’t lean back and take a nap just yet.

The new chairman of the Census Bureau’s U.S. House oversight committee doesn’t much care for the ACS. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) co-sponsored legislation to make ACS response voluntary (H.R. 1078, 113th Congress) and voted to ax the survey altogether in 2012. I think it’s fair to say that Chairman Chaffetz isn’t a big fan of data at all; he lent his name to a bill to get rid of all censuses and surveys, save the decennial population count (H.R. 1638, 113th Congress).

In fact, as we reach the midpoint of the decennial cycle, and the Census Bureau launches the second phase of 2020 Census planning with operations and system development, the census seems to be fading from view altogether. The reorganized House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform no longer has a subcommittee with “census” in the title. The description on the committee’s website of the revamped Subcommittee on Government Operations doesn’t mention the census at all (so you’ll have to take my word for it that this panel is the right one!). It isn’t much of a stretch to conclude that timely and thorough oversight of the nation’s largest peacetime mobilization of people and resources will be sitting on a back burner for a while.

I know that everyone’s issue is important. It’s a jungle out there in the policy world; everyone has to fight to be heard. But, I’m thinking that a mention in the very first lines of the Constitution might give the census a profile boost of some sort. You know, the very first responsibility—to oversee the population enumeration—the Constitution bestows upon the legislature (Article I, section 2). The raison d’etre that 435 members of the 114th Congress are sitting in their seats today. You’d think the activity that defines our democratic system of representation would garner a little more attention than its perennial role as piggybank for other programs during appropriations season. Maybe lawmakers haven’t had time to brush up on the nation’s founding document in a while.

Speaking of appropriations, the House Commerce, Justice and Science Subcommittee is in new hands. Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) now leads the panel that funds everything from weather satellites to fisheries to export and manufacturing initiatives to community policing, counterterrorism and cyber-security programs to neuroscience and STEM education research. The Census Bureau is somewhere in that mix. So is NASA. Rep. Culberson is from Houston, home of the Johnson Space Center. Does anyone else hear that piggybank cracking open again? As if this picture isn’t looking scary enough to census fans, the new chairman also co-sponsored the voluntary ACS bill in the last Congress.

Across Capitol Hill, new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was an original co-sponsor of a voluntary ACS response bill sponsored by fellow Blue Grass State Sen. Rand Paul in the last Congress (S. 530, 113th Congress). The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, with legislative responsibility for the Census Bureau, has a new chairman: Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI). It appears that the full committee will exercise primary responsibility for oversight of the Census Bureau and federal statistical system.

But maybe ACS critics will reconsider their philosophical angst about requiring a few minutes of individual civic duty for the greater societal good when they see what happened to Saskatchewan. After Canada opted for a voluntary census long form in 2011 (the head of Statistics Canada resigned in protest), almost half of the territory sort of disappeared from the map. Seems that response rates dropped so steeply, the survey couldn’t produce reliable data for rural and less-populous areas.

U.S. lawmakers representing smaller counties might want to consider a stateside scenario. Self-response nosedives when the bureau can’t say, “Your response is required by law,” according to analysis of Census Bureau field-testing of the idea in 2003. It’s too expensive to make up for lower response rates with a larger sample or more phone calls and door-knocks. (ACS critics, please don’t humor me with assurances of funding the extra $100 million a year needed to overcome the response problem. Really? Have you been reading my blog?) The sample for rural and remote communities becomes too small and insufficiently representative to yield valid estimates. The Census Bureau can’t publish critical socio-economic data for jurisdictions with populations under 20,000, which require five years of accumulated sample (the so-called “5-year ACS estimates”). Poof! Half the counties in Utah and Kentucky could be wiped off the data map. I kind of like those census maps with all the little county squares in different colors. A lot of black would ruin the effect.

Maybe there’s another glimmer of hope. The new chairman of the House census oversight subcommittee, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), didn’t co-sponsor the optional ACS response legislation in the 113th Congress. Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-VA) was the ranking Democratic member of the Government Operations Subcommittee in 2013-14; he could pull the same duty this time around. Rep. Connolly earned my admiration when he pointedly told his colleagues, during consideration of the Census Bureau’s appropriations bill last spring, that an amendment he was offering, to increase funding for specialized veterans treatment courts, did not raid the statistical agency’s budget for money. At least someone gets it.

But I’m not closing my eyes for a snooze right now. I’m keeping a wary eye on the 114th Congress, which looks challenging, to say the least.

Reason Prevails (At Least for Now)

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

Sometimes, I just don’t get stuff.

Take, for example, the decision to schedule a vote on H.R. 1078. I muddled through last week with my lingering census headache, trying in vain to divine why a House committee — two years after it examined the pros and cons of making American Community Survey (ACS) response voluntary and heard only a chorus of cons (except from the sponsor of a bill to do just that) — decided to move the bill out of committee anyway.

I considered the arguments against the ACS.

The survey is unconstitutional. Which, I agree, would be a really bad thing. Except the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1870 that Congress has the constitutional authority to require both a population count and the collection of additional statistics in the census. (The Legal Tender Cases, Tex. 1870; 12 Wall., U.S., 457, 536, 20 L.Ed. 287) Many federal cases have since described the census as more than a simple headcount, from the very first enumeration in 1790. I think I’ll go with the Supremes on this one.

Speaking of the first census: that’s when James Madison (then a mere member of Congress) made sure that the first Census Act allowed the collection of “useful” social and economic information to support decision-making and resource allocation. A Founding Father seems like a credible source for original intent, don’t you think?

The survey poses an unreasonable burden on the public. Which also would give me pause. Except that only 2.5 percent of U.S. homes receive the ACS each year (and some of those are vacant). The ACS only gathers information needed to divvy up federal grants prudently, implement federal programs and enforce federal laws. I’m going out on a limb here, but if Congress enacts those laws and programs, isn’t it a tad illogical to turn around and say we can’t collect the data? (See, this is why I’m plagued with headaches.)

Speaking of public burden: I can’t quite grasp how making survey response optional addresses the problem. You see, both Census Bureau testing and Canada’s experience with its first voluntary census long form demonstrated that more households would need to get the ACS in order to overcome a precipitous drop in response rates and maintain a representative sample to produce valid estimates. Seems like more of the public would be burdened. Just sayin’.

I think the Census Bureau is taking congressional concerns about response burden seriously. It’s doing a comprehensive review of ACS topics and requiring federal agencies to justify their need for the data under federal law or regulation. The wording of questions can be problematic, too. Would you believe that some, er, younger people don’t know what dial-up Internet connection is? (Geez, I can’t be that old.) And some survey recipients raise a skeptical eyebrow when asked what time they leave the house and return home from work. Yes, commuting flow data are essential for transportation planning at all levels of government, but maybe there’s a way to pose the questions that doesn’t conjure up images of burglars waiting for a chance to strike. I’m happy to report that the Census Bureau is addressing these issues and more before it submits 2020 Census and ACS content and question wording to Congress in 2017 and 2018, respectively, as required by law. (Ummm, yes, Congress has signed off on all of the questions currently in the field.)

We can’t be sure that personal data will remain confidential. You know, we can’t be sure of anything in this world (I know, except taxes and death). We can only consider the record and the odds. Here’s what we do know. The confidentiality safeguards in the Census Act (13 U.S.C. §9, §16, §214) are the strictest on the books. The Census Bureau can’t reveal your individual responses to any other agency or entity, for any purpose — not law enforcement, not legal proceedings (criminal or civil), not tax collection, not even national security — period. Punishment for breaching those protections is steep. The Census Bureau has never, to my knowledge, violated the terms of its authorizing statute.

After census stakeholders raised a collective chorus of objections (again!) to making the ACS a voluntary survey, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee cancelled the vote on H.R. 1078. Sometimes, reason prevails.

And sometimes the respite is brief. Another mark-up or an appropriations amendment could be just around the corner. At least we’ll be armed with the facts.

O, Canada! More Lessons From North of the Border

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

In my last post, I looked to our northern neighbor to see what lessons we might learn from Canada’s experience with a first-ever voluntary household survey to gather socio-economic data on all communities — data that are used, directly or indirectly, to guide much of public and private sector decision-making. The National Household Survey replaced the mandatory census “long form” after conservative leaders balked at the perceived invasion of privacy and governmental overreach. The result: Increased burden on the public (due to a larger sample size to compensate for falling response rates), increased costs, and no reliable data for a quarter of the country’s localities. This is not an outcome I’d wish upon our venerable democracy.

Canada also takes a census of population, with mandatory response, every five years. In 2011, Canadians answered 10 census questions, compared to the six Americans answered in the 2010 enumeration. Canada first offered the option of answering the census online in 2006; almost a fifth of Canadians did so, leading Statistics Canada (StatCan) to nudge 60 percent of households, via advance letter, to respond on the Internet in 2011. The remaining households received paper questionnaires in the mail or by hand (enumerator drop-off), similar to modified methods used here in rural and remote areas.

Internet response is a money-saver; there’s no scanning and data capture required, as StatCan points out on its website, and there are fewer missing (item non-response) or erroneous answers (yes, some people put down an age and birth date that don’t match, for example!). The U.S. Census Bureau is following suit, using the ongoing American Community Survey (ACS) as a rolling test-bed for Internet response in the 2020 Census. Half of households in the monthly ACS sample (the option became available in January) are ditching the paper form and submitting information online. A promising start, for sure, but the jury is still out on savings ($4 – $5 million a year, the bureau estimates), as more people call the telephone assistance lines for help. And electronic filing of census forms is not a silver bullet. People in low-income households and rural areas are less likely to have broadband access, and there are phishing scams and other data security issues to address. (I received two emails last week purporting to come from a address. Can’t fool me, but how many others might easily be scammed?)

In 2006, StatCan introduced another operational upgrade to decrease public burden: It asked people for permission to access their tax files for relevant information. Using administrative records is a key part of potential reforms for the U.S. census in 2020, but extensive research is required to overcome considerable hurdles, such as laws that prohibit sharing of personal information between agencies, the need to put people at a physical address (you can’t live in a post office box or with parents who claim you on their tax form if you’re in college), and missing demographic information such as race, age and gender in many databases. And we need to understand how Americans will view this sort of data-sharing — as a smart use of existing information or an example of big brother run amok?

My point here is that there are promising reforms for the 2020 Census, but the Census Bureau needs time and money to vet new methods thoroughly. Congress wants the next count to cost less — a lot less! — yet it is reluctant to invest adequate funds in research, testing and operational development now, so the Census Bureau can realize the significant (billions of dollars!) savings these new techniques will yield down the road, when the bureau starts the enumeration.

President Obama proposed a $983 million budget for the Census Bureau in fiscal year 2014, a small increase over his request for 2013. $245 million of that amount is for 2020 Census planning; another $242 million pays for the ACS, a vital factor in cost-effective 2020 testing. But sequestration and budget cuts set the agency back 11 percent this year, making the funding leap from one year to the next much larger than it should be. Congress needs to get its mind around the concept of ramping up for this uniquely cyclical federal undertaking soon, if it truly wants to see fundamental changes in the way we conduct this nation’s largest peacetime activity and still ensure an accurate count.