Census Bureau budget indicates 2018 field tests of 2020 Census will be cut back

GOP Hocus Pocus in FY 2018 Census Budget

Last Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee voted to increase funding for the U.S. Census Bureau by only $37 million for FY 2018. That’s only a $10 million bump up from the original Trump administration budget request for the next fiscal year.

In its preliminary budget estimates for FY 2018 issued last fall, the Census Bureau said it would need an additional $300+ million for FY 2018 to fund an extensive End-To-End field test of 700,000 targeted households in rural West Virginia, urban Providence, Rhode Island, and suburban Washington state. The field test was intended to test a new IT-focused census and to test internet census-counting techniques for the first time in an extensive setting.

Now, because of budget cuts, the Census Bureau is dropping the West Virginia and Washington state test sites.

To say the least, this puts the 2020 Census in danger of a botched count.

In response, House Democrats on the Appropriations Committee offered an amendment to the spending bill increasing the FY 2018 census budget by more than $300 million to fully fund the 2018 field tests. The amendment was rejected by the committee on a party-line vote with all GOP members voting against the proposal.

Ironically the committee report which accompanies the approved committee FY 2018 budget (and which was written by the House Republicans) calls upon “the Census Bureau to reconsider its proposal to cancel two of the three test sites scheduled for 2018.” Committee member and U.S. Representative Grace Meng (D-NY) noted the report calls for something that the Appropriations Committee had just cut, funds necessary to implement its own budget!

The New York Times comments on these developments and others in an editorial today.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed detailing the effects on California of a failed 2020 Census.

House Subcommittee Adds Just $10 million to FY 2018 Census Budget

Last week, the first step toward the FY 2018 budget for the U.S. Census Bureau was taken by the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies as they “marked-up” their version of next year’s federal budget for the Census Bureau. The subcommittee added just $10 million to the Census Bureau’s FY 2018 budget.

According to census expert Terri Ann Lowenthal:

The FY 2017 budget request projected $1.53b for the Periodic Censuses account in FY 2018, a difference of $279m from the FY 2018 request. The Census Director has since acknowledged escalating costs for developing the massive IT system (CEDCaP) that will collect and process census responses. Furthermore, the proposed cuts to Current Surveys & Programs will degrade the reliability and timeliness of vital economic and demographic statistics. Therefore, the Census Bureau will need at least $303m more than the request ($279m + $24m), or at least $1.8 billion, in FY 2018, and possibly more, to maintain the quality of its programs and continue on a path to a fair and accurate 2020 Census.

The table below, also prepared by Lowenthal, traces the FY 2017 and FY 2018 appropriations process for the Census Bureau, including the 2020 Census.

FY2018-CensusSummaryTable -06 28 17

Senate Appropriators Discuss Census Funding Concerns with Commerce Secretary

By Howard Fienberg, director of government affairs, Insights Association

“Not only did the Government Accountability Office add the 2020 Census to its high-risk list, but a critical computer system was recently discovered to have surpassed its budget by $309 million. As the 2020 Census approaches, such news does not instill confidence in the Department’s preparation for this constitutional requirement.”

Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) opened discussion about the Census Bureau at a recent hearing reviewing the Department of Commerce’s FY2018 budget proposal with a bunch of concerns about the decennial Census and how to fund it. Shelby chairs the Senate Appropriations CJS Subcommittee, which determines funding for the Census Bureau.

The 2020 Census “is very important to this committee,” Shelby continued, “because this is a very expensive item” with a “ballooning cost.” He asked Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to prioritize “activities to reduce overall cost.”

”How,” Shelby asked, “does the 2020 budget request keep the budget on track to ensure that the 2020 census remains at or below the cost of the 2010 census,” and “are changes planned for the upcoming year that will affect current cost projections?”

Secretary Ross started with the resignation of Census Bureau Director John Thompson. “We have appointed a temporary replacement for him and are actively seeking a new permanent director of the census. We hope to have that completed as soon as we possibly can.”

The Census Bureau has “been a great concern” for Ross, specifically “making sure we do accurately count every person where that person normally lives” and doing so “as economically as we can.” He continued:

“Census as you know undertook a very large technological change in the way the Census is taken. Their hope in that is to preserve the accuracy and yet reduce the budgetary cost. My concerns about it have been the complexity of what they’re trying to do and the number of moving parts that have to be brought together at the right time under the right cost. I’m particularly concerned that many of the key contracts are on a time and material basis and that is a very dangerous way to do contracting in that it has an implied incentive for the contracting partner to perhaps use more time than one might if it were on a fixed-cost basis.”

In response, the Commerce Department finance staff have partnered with OMB staff “to do a crash review of what has been going on and why there was suddenly this 47% surprise overrun, what are the implications for the relationships between the census department and these contractors going forward, and what may be the maximum possible cost we could encounter should we continue with the full technological effort underway, or should there be some modification.”

Ross indicated that he did not “have a high degree of confidence in the budget” request from the White House for FY18, but he promised the subcommittee “that when we come back, it will be a number we can stand behind.”

For more background, see the Insights Association 1-pagers on Census funding and the American Community Survey (ACS).

. . .

This article was originally posted on the Insights Association’s website on June 20.

Census Director Resigns, Trouble Ahead

By Phil Sparks

You would not have thought that the same week Washington-based media was focused on the firing of FBI Director Comey, the abrupt resignation of Census Bureau Director John Thompson would have garnered much press attention – but it did!

In editorials and news articles, the media decried the Thompson resignation, rightfully so.

Director Thompson’s sudden resignation leaves the Census Bureau leaderless just as Congress has dramatically underfunded the FY 2017 census budget, and as the Trump administration only proposes increasing the bureau’s FY 2018 budget by $30 million.

Let’s hope reality sets in with the Trump administration. As the Washington Post editorial concludes, “the 2020 Census will begin in April of that year – right in the middle of the primary season. The bureau’s troubles pre-date Mr. Trump’s ascension but the census is happening on his watch. If it fails, he will own it.”

The Tangle of the Census Budget

At an oversight hearing of the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies this week, it was clear that there are two conflicting views of preparations for the 2020 Census. Republicans on this central committee, which controls the purse strings in the House, are concerned about overruns in 2020 Census budget planning. Meanwhile, Democrats on the committee are concerned about underfunding the next decennial census.

Chairman John Culberson (R-TX) sharply criticized Census Bureau Director John Thompson for announcing that the price tag for the overall 2020 Census had increased by more than $300 million because the IT components of the plan had been underpriced.

Committee member and Representative Matt Cartwright (D-PA) said continued underfunding of 2020 Census planning was “penny wise and pound foolish.” In fact, he partially blamed the cost overruns on the lack of previous funding in the census budget to get the job done at a reasonable price. He warned that similar, future budget cuts could lead to the same result.

While the policymakers on the subcommittee wrangle, Congress itself is set to approve a FY 2017 census budget that is a historically low appropriation at this point in decade cycle.

The Census Project believes the upcoming FY 2018 census budget represents the last, best chance for congressional policymakers and the Trump administration to get things right for the critical 2018 End-to-End field test of all components for the new, innovative 2020 Census.

Stand by!

Deadline for Census Funding Approaches

By Phil Sparks

Over the past two months, the Census Project’s stakeholders and allies have visited scores of key congressional offices to talk to members of Congress and their aides about the upcoming 2020 Census budget crisis.

2020 Census Funding Lagging at Critical Phase

 

As the chart above shows, the planning and execution of each decennial census runs on a 10-year cycle. Funding ramps up for a field test of new census counting techniques in each year ending in 8, leading up to the decennial.

But, Congress has provided woefully inadequate funding for the 2020 Census over the past few years as compared with previous decades.

Now, Congress and the new Trump administration must find the funds to properly fund the 2020 Census. In three separate letters to Congress, organized by the Census Project, a diverse group of organizations — ranging from governors and mayors to business groups like realtors and home builders to civil rights groups like the NAACP — each urge Congress to properly fund planning for the 2020 Census.

Soon, because of the pending April 28 federal budget deadline, Congress must act!

March Madness

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

What is it about March? We have Super Tuesday (more than one!), the Sweet Sixteen, and the Final Four. In like a lion and out like a lamb. And then there’s the Ides…

Four years from now, to this March Madness, add the start of the 2020 Census. Kansas (pop. 2,911,641)! North Carolina (pop. 10,042,802)! Kentucky (pop. 4,425,092)! Connecticut (pop. 3,590,886)! Wait — did one of these teams bust thousands of brackets already? Anyway, everyone counts, even if your cagers disappoint in the tournament.

Data geeks will point out that I referenced 2015 population estimates from the Census Bureau. Please give me a break; I cannot predict the outcome of the next population count. Although I think my home state Huskies will still be at the top of their game in 2020…

Okay, enough mixed March metaphors. For the U.S. Census Bureau in 2020, the month comes in like a lamb and out like a lion. Picture it, people. On top of endless presidential election intrigue and heart-pounding college hoop rivalries, we’ll have this: 2020 Census postcards and questionnaires in the mail! Catchy ads filling the airwaves and TV and smartphone screens! Eight million-plus Internet hits a day! Daily self-response rate tweets from competitive mayors! Census takers searching for homeless people on “street and shelter night.” (Memo to Census Bureau staff: that is still way catchier than Enumeration of Transitory Locations).

Hagase contar! America’s future depends on your vote! Damn, there goes my bracket! I feel faint just thinking about the cacophony to come in March 2020.

Actually, the fun will start in February. Super Bowl 50 has come and gone, but when the 54th super game rolls around, pay close attention to the commercials. If history is any guide, the Census Bureau will kick off (pun intended!) its national advertising campaign for the 2020 Census. Five million buckaroos for a 30-second ad might sound pricey, but it will be small potatoes in a vast promotional nudge to the populace: Americans, get thyselves counted!

This August, the Census Bureau will award the multi-million dollar Integrated Communications and Partnership Campaign contract — just one piece of the 2020 Census puzzle contributing to a big ramp-up in annual funding over the next few years. Last month, President Obama sent his FY2017 budget proposal to Congress. The Census Bureau needs $778 million for 2020 Census planning, $182 million more than current year funding (FY2016). The 30 percent bump seems downright reasonable compared to the 91 percent increase on the table this time last year. The bureau is taking the whole “spend less money” mantra from Congress seriously.

Next year, in addition to the ginormous communications contract, the Census Bureau must oversee development of the Census Questionnaire Assistance operation; conduct census tests in rural and remote communities (so-called Update/Enumerate areas), including an American Indian reservation, and in Puerto Rico; start outreach to state and local governments for the Local Update of Census Addresses (LUCA) program; and finalize build-out of the IT architecture for data collection, processing, and storage, as well as automated field operations — all in time for an end-to-end readiness test (formerly known as a Census Dress Rehearsal) in 2018.

Both the House and Senate Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations subcommittees have held hearings on the Commerce Department’s FY2017 budget request, which includes money for the Census Bureau. Congress is trying hard to expedite action on the 12 regular annual spending bills, in light of a compressed election-year legislative schedule and in an effort to avoid the perennial omnibus appropriations bill in the fall.

Senate Subcommittee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Vice Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) finally acknowledged that the decennial census funding “ramp-up” will squeeze resources for the panoply of programs under their jurisdiction. Sen. Shelby questioned whether the Census Bureau would be ready for the 2020 count, while Sen. Mikulski cautioned against another “techno-boondoggle” and urged an accurate, cost-effective enumeration.

Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) reminded us, once again, that his constituents do not like the American Community Survey (FY2017 budget request: $251 million); he asked Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker for the results of research on reducing the survey’s burden on the public. The Secretary gamely defended the value of ACS data and even noted Canada’s disastrous experience with a voluntary census long form (the equivalent of our ACS), but somehow missed the opportunity to crow that our northern neighbor actually reinstated mandatory response to its survey to preserve reliable data.

The Lankford-Pritzker ACS exchange aside, there was still a lot of talk at the hearing about counting — fish, that is. Red snapper (Sen. Shelby)! New England groundfish (Sen. Collins, R-ME, and Sen. Shaheen, R-NH)! Pacific salmon (Sen. Feinstein, D-CA, and Sen. Murkowski, R-AK)! Shellfish (Sen. Murphy, D-CT)! Keep an eye out for a coastal lawmaker raid on the Census Bureau piggybank, to boost NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service.

By and large, House appropriators, who arguably have the most to gain or lose from an accurate census, also ignored the Census Bureau’s vital programs. The exception was CJS Subcommittee Acting Ranking Member Mike Honda (D-CA), who asked Secretary Pritzker about the long-term consequences of cutting the 2020 Census budget. The Commerce chief emphasized that significant lifecycle cost savings depended on spending money now for IT and operational development and research into the use of administrative records to reduce costly field work.

As the FY2017 appropriations bills emerge in the coming months and wind their way through “mark-ups” and floor debates, keep a wary eye out for the ubiquitous “voluntary ACS response” amendment. Limited-government lawmakers — many of whom have found a home in the House Freedom Caucus — don’t seem inclined to abandon their assault on knowledge-based policymaking. And as March gives way to April, let’s hope lawmakers shower the Census Bureau with adequate resources to keep the ball rolling towards an affordable and inclusive census.