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.

The Lows (and the Highs)

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

I had to cut short my fishing trip last week to buy a new laptop. I am telling you this odd news for a reason, census fans. So please stick with me for a minute.

I am a technological Luddite. The thought of a new gadget or software program gives me heart palpitations. So yes, I had a meltdown in the Apple store, as I struggled to understand how to migrate the information from my old device to the new one. (“Migration:” Isn’t that a demographic trend that the U.S. Census Bureau measures?) I just need my Word documents and emails, I practically sobbed to the infinitely patient, but too-technically-savvy-for-me, sales person. And no interruptions in my work flow, because the Senate Appropriations Committee is taking up the Census Bureau’s FY 2016 funding bill. But I digress.

Back home, I started to regain my composure as the nice man from Microsoft remotely installed word processing software on my shiny new toy. And then I got to thinking about how fast the world is changing, and how hard it is to keep up with advances in social media and technology and new ways of snagging the services and goods we need. My age is getting the best of me, for sure.

But I also started thinking about some things in this world that are timeless. Take the U.S. census, for example. Sure, the way we go about it and the information we collect reflect, in the truest sense of the word, the transformation of society. But the goal remains fundamental to preserving our representative democracy: a fair and accurate count of everyone living in the U.S. (and where they live) on Census Day, every 10 years. We haven’t missed one yet, although heaven knows the census has missed millions of us over time. In fact, complaining about a census undercount is as old as President George Washington himself.

Speaking of George, it was the Founding Fathers who had the bright idea to vest the legislature with responsibility for overseeing the census. I wonder if James Madison and Thomas Jefferson are rolling over in their graves right about now. Because Congress (or, at least some of its members) apparently has decided that it can’t pay for a census that counts everyone in 2020. The proof, regrettably, is in the budget numbers.

In late May, the House of Representatives slashed President Obama’s FY 2016 budget request for the 2020 Census by more than one-third, approving the FY 2016 Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill (H.R. 2578) by a mostly party-line vote (242-183). Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee decided it also doesn’t want to spend the money to plan a proper census. Its version of the bill increases the account covering the 2020 Census by just $22 million over current year funding. To put that paltry sum in perspective, the president requested a ramp-up of $317 million for the 2020 Census alone. (The Periodic Censuses and Programs account also includes the American Community Survey and 2017 Economic Census, as well as key activities that support these cyclical programs, such as building the address list and digital mapping system.) You do the math. Because I can’t find enough money for the Census Bureau to pull off the census Congress wants. (Although we could cancel the entire ACS and Economic Census to save money. Please don’t fall off your chairs.)

Congress has said it wants to spend less on the 2020 Census than it did on the 2010 count (roughly $13 billion). It has instructed the Census Bureau to figure out how to offer and boost Internet response, use data gathered through other government programs to reduce the paper-pencil-brick-and-mortar-footprint, and contain costs. In response, the Census Bureau has embarked on an ambitious program of research, testing and development to bring these “modern” methods to fruition, without sacrificing accuracy.

And therein lies the literary rub: it costs money upfront to make sure these new operations work well and reach all segments of a culturally and geographically diverse population. What happens when the Census Bureau doesn’t have the money to figure it all out?

It could abandon most new initiatives, on the reasonable premise that it is too risky to deploy sweeping operational reforms without thorough evaluation and testing. Going back to the 2010 Census design will cost billions more. Which Congress has said it will not allocate. Do we abandon a robust communications campaign, in-language materials, local partnerships? Start counting and stop when the money runs out? Roughly one-quarter of all households don’t respond to the census upfront, if recent history is any guide. The most costly operation is tracking down the remaining, so-called “hard to count” residents, who disproportionately are people of color or live in low-income or limited English proficient households.

The bureau could “stay the course” and hope that fundamental reforms will work, without really knowing if those methods will count all segments of the population — especially historically undercounted groups — well. Trying to save money by replacing door-to-door visits with data from other government programs could leave out the very people who already are less connected to civic life, such as younger, unemployed singles and immigrants.

I can’t figure out what kind of census Congress thinks it will get without investing enough money in planning and preparation. The Senate Appropriations Committee graciously explained in its report on the funding bill that the Census Bureau had made a “conscientious decision” to start 2020 Census planning much earlier in the decade than in census cycles past. Nevertheless, the majority report said, the bill allocates 34 percent more money than at the same point in the 2010 Census cycle, and the committee expects a return for its investment in the form of cost savings. There is no mention of accuracy, or of efforts to achieve an inclusive census in hard-to-count communities. The timeless goal of ensuring a solid foundation for our democracy has taken a back seat to pressing fiscal concerns.

Committee Vice Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) was having none of it, calling the committee funding level “inadequate and irresponsible.” She proposed a $360 million boost for the Census Bureau; her amendment (which proposed funding increases for several agencies in the massive bill) failed on a party-line vote.

There wasn’t much discussion about the census during the committee’s meeting on the FY 2016 Commerce bill, which allocates $1.13 billion overall for the Census Bureau, compared to the president’s request of $1.5 billion and $992 million approved by the House. But senators spent a lot of time debating the merits of industrial hemp and federal enforcement of anti-marijuana laws in states that allow people to smoke pot for medical and, um, other purposes. I guess that was the high point of an otherwise dismal morning for the 2020 Census.

What Price Democracy?

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

The Census Bureau was off to a relatively good start this year in the mysterious and powerful world of those who hold the purse strings, known fondly to many of us as the House and Senate appropriations committees. Or so I thought.

Last week, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker took the hot seat before the Senate panel that funds the federal government’s commerce, justice and science programs. This would be the subcommittee (albeit, with several new members) that barely acknowledged the existence of a census at last year’s budget hearing. The panel is heavily populated by lawmakers from coastal states, who apparently have nightmares about uncharted weather catastrophes and depleted fishing stocks.

But the 2020 Census got their attention this year, maybe because the Obama Administration requested a 91 percent funding increase to ramp up planning in Fiscal Year 2016 for the next decennial count. Which, if I haven’t mentioned recently, will be in full swing five years from now.

Panel Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) actually led off his opening statement and questioning with census-related concerns. He noted matter-of-factly the need for a significant funding increase to double-down on 2020 Census planning, and he cautioned the secretary to closely watch preparations to avoid future cost-overruns that could leave less money available for other Commerce Dept. programs. The subcommittee’s senior Democrat (and former chairwoman), Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), briefly mentioned the technology “boondoggle” before the 2010 Census, and that was it. On to New England fisheries, support for U.S. manufacturers and that pesky “polar gap” in weather satellite coverage.

But things went downhill for the Census Bureau from there. The new chairman of the House Commerce/Justice/Science spending panel doesn’t much care for the American Community Survey (ACS), the modern version of the census long form. It’s “intrusive,” he told Secretary Pritzker when she appeared before his subcommittee this week, and the government doesn’t have a right to ask about anything other than the number of people in a household… or ancestry. Ancestry? Where did that come from?

But let’s move on. Ever since the Census Bureau wrapped up the last decennial census, appropriators have indicated that they aren’t willing to spend more on the 2020 Census than they did on the 2010 count. The lifecycle cost of the last population canvass was roughly $13 billion. The Census Bureau thinks it can meet that goal if all of the sweeping reforms it is considering work as envisioned. That’s a big “if,” what with budget shortfalls delaying, cancelling or streamlining critical research and testing of these new initiatives over the past few years. We simply don’t know yet if a markedly redesigned census can ensure an accurate count, especially in historically undercounted communities, and produce the detailed race and ethnicity data needed to implement the Voting Rights Act, as a threshold matter.

But Rep. Culberson apparently isn’t satisfied with those cost-saving efforts. “We don’t have $13 billion to spend on a census,” the chairman told Secretary Pritzker. The congressman wanted to know if the Census Bureau is ready to use Internal Revenue Service records and other government databases to help bring down census costs. The secretary gamely tried to emphasize the importance of testing, testing, testing, to see if that idea, which of course is under consideration, is a viable option. But I’m not sure the chairman has thought this through. If the Census Bureau doesn’t have enough money to thoroughly vet the use of administrative records to supplement or replace direct address canvassing and door-to-door visits, the 2020 Census could cost $1 or $2 billion more than the congressman says we can’t afford to spend. Nevertheless, Rep. Culberson again made it clear that “we won’t have the money next year” to meet the Census Bureau’s budget request.

And that tells me just about everything I need to know. Because if Congress can’t spend $13 billion over the course of a decade to carry out its very first obligation under the U.S. Constitution and to ensure fair political representation for all communities, no matter how difficult to count, then we might have to kiss our storied democracy good-bye and book a seat on that one-way mission to Mars. After all, the Johnson Space Center is pretty darn close to Chairman Culberson’s Houston district. I’m thinking some of that census money will end up fueling a mission to outer space.

It’s a Horse Race

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

And… they’re off!

First out of the gate: President Obama, who unveiled his Fiscal Year 2016 budget request for the federal government last week. The commander-in-chief took office a mere year before the start of the last census and promptly asked Congress for an extra $1 billion to shore up hiring and promotion for the decennial count, after plans to automate door-to-door interviewing in the 2010 census went down the drain. Lawmakers, ever mindful that they really really really should pay attention to the census in the home stretch, ponied up.

It’s sort of a perennial decennial habit of the legislative branch. Congress Rip-Van-Winkles through much of each decade, finding better uses for money that the Census Bureau says it needs to get a head start on the nation’s largest peacetime activity. This time around, the bureau is trying hard to save a lot of money (as much as $5 billion over the census lifecycle) by investing early in research, testing and development of new methods and technologies. Lawmakers, especially in the House, haven’t quite grasped the “pay now or pay later” concept. Or the “test drive before you buy” principle.

Anyway, the Obama Administration is pressing ahead, requesting $1.5 billion for the Census Bureau in FY 2016, including $663 million (+$317M over FY 2015) for the 2020 Census and $257 million (+$15M) for the American Community Survey (ACS). Lawmakers no doubt will cast a skeptical eye on the 91 percent increase for 2020 Census planning. The next census isn’t even on their radar screen, and fiscal austerity is a badge of honor for many legislators. It’s like asking your boss to double your salary, while trying to convince her that burning the midnight oil now to revamp the company website, marketing materials and customer service protocols will bring in huge profits down the road. Gotta be brave to make that case.

But, time for our annual cataloguing of what the Census Bureau plans to do with all that extra 2020 Census money. For starters, it has to get moving on the technology front. Remember, you heard it here first: the “cyber-census” is coming. That is, if Congress forks over enough funding to build production systems in 2016 (and 2017) to execute the 2020 Census design, in preparation for a big operations-readiness test in 2018. Major tests this spring (as well as the one last fall)—of high-tech, streamlined field work; use of “big data” to update the address list and government records to count unresponsive households; targeted digital advertising; and flexible Internet response options—will determine which sweeping new initiatives are worth pursuing. The fall 2015 National Content Test will inform final questionnaire changes—including the closely watched decision on whether to combine the race and Hispanic origin questions—which the agency must nail down by 2017.

The Census Bureau also will be playing catch-up next year. Congress cut $124 million from its budget request for the current year (FY 2015); the agency shaved $100 million of that amount from census planning and another $15 million from the ACS. For 2020, that means development of partnership activities, language translations, research on how the public views data privacy (think that one is getting any easier?), and other vital components of a successful census are again on the back burner. For the ACS, the so-called 3-year estimates are toast. That’s right: no more data averaged over 3-years (for example, 2012-2014, originally scheduled for release this fall) for places with populations of 20,000 or more. Going forward, jurisdictions under 65,000 population, which includes more than three-quarters of all counties, will have to rely solely on the 5-year estimates (e.g. 2010-2014). A lot can happen economically, socially and demographically in five years, possibly making this dataset less precise for many uses. The Office of Management and Budget has to approve the Census Bureau’s final 2015 spending plan, and chatter I’ve heard among data users suggests they may not give up these estimates without a fight. Budget-cutters in Congress, many of whom represent areas that will lose a valuable data source, might want to think twice before wielding the ax again in 2016.

I know I sound a little like Paul Revere: “The census is coming; the census is coming.” But, people, it is. If Congress doesn’t adopt the sense of urgency the census requires now, it will find its hoped-for reforms fading fast in the home stretch. And anyway, I needed a final horse analogy.


By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

Sometimes, words escape me. (At least, words that are printable in a respectable, philanthropy-funded blog about the sacred foundation of America’s democratic system of governance, still the envy of the modern world, imperfect though it is.)

So let me just say this: Really, Congress?

The very first task the founding fathers gave you in the U.S. Constitution—to direct the taking of a census once every 10 years—and you kick the can down the road? With the decennial clock ticking and the window of opportunity to figure out how to make it all work for less money closing fast? Words are failing me.

Lawmakers are trying to wrap up a broad spending bill for fiscal year 2015, which started on Oct. 1, before a short-term funding measure runs out Thursday night. The draft bill, unveiled Tuesday, allocates $840 million for the account covering the 2020 Census, $123 million less than the budget request. Congress essentially is cutting the proposed ramp-up for decennial census planning by almost half. The Obama Administration’s proposed 28 percent funding boost might sound like a lot, but as Arloc Sherman of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities noted in a recent Huffington Post blog, mid-decade ramp-ups for the 2000 and 2010 Censuses were 30 percent or more.

Most of the increase the bureau requested relates to 2020 Census planning. 2015 is a pivotal year: the Census Bureau will conduct three major field tests to inform its selection of the 2020 Census design by next fall. A fourth test, scheduled for late summer, will evaluate revised questions on race, ethnicity and household relationship, as well as strategies for boosting Internet response and for helping language minorities participate.

Congress doesn’t want to pay more for the 2020 Census than it did for the 2010 count. The Census Bureau has to meet that goal while maintaining accuracy and trying to reduce the historic, disproportionate undercount of people of color, low-income households, rural residents and young children. It will take a big change in census methods to pull this off, as well as careful research, testing and preparation to be sure those reforms work. The payoff for investing in the groundwork now is significant: $5 billion in potential savings from automating response options and field work and from tapping government and commercial databases to update the address list and reduce costly door-to-door visits. All promising ideas, but we won’t know if they can produce a lower-cost and equally or more accurate census until we see and weigh the evidence.

Now the Census Bureau is really in a bind. It is wrapping up the first test, which focused on administrative records, aerial imagery and other governmental and commercial sources to update the master address list and digital mapping system. Preparations are underway for two tests—one in Maricopa County, Ariz.; the other in the Savannah, Ga., media market—with a “Census Day” of April 1. These are crucial research opportunities in census-like environments: the bureau will evaluate the use of administrative records to streamline and reduce the cost of door-to-door follow-up visits; targeted digital advertising to boost self-response among hard-to-count demographic subgroups; ways for people to respond via the Internet without a pre-assigned identification number that links them to a specific address; and new contact and notification strategies to cut down on paper communications and encourage prompt participation.

These initiatives aren’t incremental improvements on traditional census methods. They are significant departures from the tried-and-true mail and door-knocking design. They might work. They might not. But the Census Bureau can’t wait another two or three years to figure that out. It has one year to decide which methods hold enough promise for saving money without sacrificing the accuracy of the count and the quality of the data, in order to move ahead with IT systems and operational development. The decision is already a year overdue, thanks to previous budget cuts and sequestration.

Delaying or streamlining the 2015 tests would put effective 2020 Census reform in serious jeopardy. If the bureau pushes ahead with the full testing schedule, something else has to give. The Census Bureau can’t put off systems development; the risk of failure is too great. Other vital components of a successful census—the Partnership Program and advertising campaign— could be put on the back burner.

Other programs funded through the same account might take the brunt of the budget cut. The bureau could trim American Community Survey coverage of group facilities such as college dorms, military barracks and nursing homes, or cut out data products; it could slow down planning for the 2017 Economic Census. It could ditch its new initiative to build an enterprise system for data collection and processing, which it hopes will replace numerous (and costly) survey-specific systems.

I don’t know what hard choices the Census Bureau will make in the coming weeks and months. But here’s what I do know: Congress is responsible for a fair and accurate decennial census. The Constitution says so. And right now, it is really blowing it.

Can We Talk?

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up!

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

Sometimes, my blog practically writes itself. I mean, it’s hard to make this stuff up!

Take, for example, the recent census hazing in the House of Representatives. As lawmaker after lawmaker rose to offer amendments chipping away at the Census Bureau’s budget — already down 9 percent coming out of committee — I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Or maybe visit an otolaryngologist; the hearing is one of the first things to go at my age.

Anyway, most offenders took pains to convince colleagues (really, who else but a few fellow census junkies and I would be watching this stuff on C-SPAN when the sun was already rising over Moscow?) that their census piggybank raid was only a teensy percentage of the agency’s budget. Apparently, they forgot the well-known analogy that if everyone in the office sneaks one cookie from the box in the communal kitchen, there won’t be any Thin Mints left when the boss comes in to satisfy his sweet tooth. Okay, I made that up, but you see where this is going. First, $110 million, then $4 million, $3 million here, $12 million there, and soon you’re talking about the entire 2015 “ramp up” for 2020 Census planning.

Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its version of the FY2015 Commerce, Justice, and Science funding bill (S. 2437) last week. Discipline reigned — Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Ranking Minority Member Richard Shelby (R-AL) run a tight ship — with nary a raiding amendment to be heard during the entire markup. Senate appropriators deserve some credit; their spending measure includes $1.15 billion for the Census Bureau, with a $66.7 million cut to the account that covers the 2020 Census and ACS (compared to a $238 million cut in the House; the Senate bill reduced President Obama’s total Census Bureau request by $62.5 million, adding $4 million to the request for the Current Population Survey in the second agency account).

But the Senate isn’t cutting the Census Bureau any slack. The committee reminded everyone that the 2020 Census should cost less than the 2010 count, not adjusting for inflation. And then it prodded the agency to secure administrative records from federal, state and local agencies pronto, to help reach that goal. As if datasets are primed, consistent, thorough and ready for transfer at the click of mouse. I have a nagging feeling that lawmakers have not come to grips with the complexity of redesigning the census.

But, back to our friends in the House, whose very membership in that august chamber depends on an accurate census (she said without a trace of irony). The drip-drip-drip actually started in the House Appropriations Committee, with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-CA) pilfering $1 million from the census account to help disabled veterans and exploited children. Hard to point the finger there. Except, you can’t open the floodgates and then say you didn’t realize the water would pour out. Sure enough, coastal fisheries soon snapped up another $10 million. And when no one thought to ask whether the Census Bureau might need money to plan for the nation’s largest peacetime mobilization or produce the data that actually guide program dollars to the home district, lawmakers quickly caught on that census funding was theirs for the taking. The madness stopped only after the subcommittee chairman did the math on the House floor and concluded that we might not have a census in 2020.

Truth be told, it’s easy for legislators to draw a straight line between, say, Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grants (funded through the same bill as the Census Bureau) and more cops on the street, crime prevention, and drug treatment centers in their backyards. The press release just rolls off the tongue. But the fact that these very grants are allocated based on a state’s share of violent crime and population (equally weighted), with population calculated to the hundredth of a percent?Now, that’s getting into the formula weeds, and Congress doesn’t do nuance very well. It’s a press secretary’s nightmare.

And so we have the Senate Appropriations Committee summary of its funding bill, highlighting the $376 million allocated for Byrne grants and other programs that help “fight violent crime, gangs, and terrorism” and “keep our communities safe.” The nation’s primary source of information about its well-being, progress and needs? Didn’t even warrant a footnote in a seven-page press release.

It’s on to the full Senate, and then negotiations to iron out differences between the two measures. Now, if we can only fend off those Alabama red snappers, Pacific coast salmon and Maryland crabs when the bill hits the Senate floor in the coming weeks.

Postscript: A Census Project Blog shout-out to Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Keith Ellison (D-MN), who circulated a Dear Colleague letter urging House members to reject cuts to the Census Bureau’s budget and proposals to make American Community Survey response voluntary; and to Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-VA), who made a point of telling his colleagues that an amendment he was offering, to increase funding for specialized veterans treatment courts, did not tap the Census Bureau for money.