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?

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.

REALLY???

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.

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

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cycle of Life: Pay Now Or Pay Later

By Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Lifecycle.

Probably makes you contemplate caterpillars and butterflies as spring blossoms start to appear. Or, maybe babies and grandparents; The Lion King.

Me? As usual, I’m wringing my hands about the lifecycle of a census. The planning, preparation, promotion, implementation, numbers crunching. The census lifecycle goes up and it goes down — and then up again — but there is no plateau.

Research and test; develop methodology, operational plans and systems; prepare to launch; execute; tabulate and publish data. Repeat every 10 (the constitutionally required decennial census) or five (the legally required Economic Census and Census of Governments) years.

2020 seems light-years away. But consider the following:

  • A mere seven years from now, census forms will be in the mail (or online or your smartphone or whatever latest gadget I’ll be too old to master).
  • In six years, field workers will be canvassing the nation’s streets, rural roads and remote dirt lanes to be sure all addresses are in the system.
  • Just five years down the road, the Census Bureau will submit the 2020 Census questionnaire to Congress; in four, it will send lawmakers the topics it will include on the form — both submissions are required by law.
  • In three years, Census staff will be mired in final, targeted research and testing of the 2020 design (using the American Community Survey, if lawmakers haven’t pulled the plug, as a primary cost-effective test-bed), operations development, and complex IT systems testing.
  • Next year (that’s 2014, folks), the agency will choose the basic design for the 2020 population count.

My, my… where does the time go?

Here’s the rub: there is little flexibility in the lifecycle; no “down time” to push back decision-making; no “give” in the schedule without risky and often costly delays down the road. Census planning and preparation are up against two immutable deadlilnes: Article I, section 2, of the U.S. Constitution, and a codified census date — April 1, 2020.

There’s no putting it off. There are no do-overs. The Census Bureau has to get it right the first time, on time.

Let’s stipulate that putting the 2020 Census on a 2010 Census design path will cost too much money — $30 billion, according to government agency watchdogs. That’s why major design changes are in the works now. By the end of next year, the Census Bureau must have a framework for 2020 that will allow development and thorough testing of multi-mode response options (but my dad, who will then be 88, will still fill out his paper questionnaire, I promise!), IT platforms to support appropriate use of existing data sources (also known as administrative records), evolving communications strategies to reach a diverse (age, race and ethnicity, type of community, language) population, and streamlined field operations overseen by six, not the previous 12, regional offices. Investing now in this essential planning will yield a census lifecycle cost of $13 – $18 billion, depending on the design chosen. Hey, now we’re talking real savings!

It all seems like a logical means to a rational end, except Congress doesn’t seem to get this lifecycle thing yet. For the current fiscal year (2013), the president had requested $970.4 million for the Census Bureau, including $711.3 million for the account covering the 2020 Census and ACS. The House slashed $75.6 million from the 2020 Census planning pot in its first stab (and I do mean that figuratively and literally) at the Commerce Department funding bill last May, even deciding to axe the ACS altogether. The Senate was more generous in its first go-round, although it couldn’t resist dipping into the Working Capital Fund again to come up with the money. But as Congress struggled (and struggled) to avoid sequestration (unsuccessfully) and then enact a final funding measure as the fiscal year clock ticked away, the Census Bureau lost a few tens of millions here and a few tens of millions there — and before you could say “prudent investment,” the need for a modest budget ramp up of 3 percent had become a budget cut of roughly $126 million, or 13 percent.

The hapless 2012 Economic Census — you know, the one that yields little secrets, like how well the economy is doing — really took it on the chin. FY2013 is the peak year in its short five-year lifecycle; now there’s not enough money to produce key economic data on time. The administration requested an exception from forced spending cuts, probably figuring it might be nice to know about payrolls, business investment and industry competitiveness when economic recovery is front and center, but Congress wouldn’t go along. Another likely casualty is the Survey of Business Owners, an add-on to the quinquennial (I love that word!) Economic Census which produces the only information on women-, minority- and veteran-owned businesses. We’re not just cutting budgets anymore; we’re losing information that helps us spend the money we do have wisely.

Tomorrow the president will unveil his budget request for FY2014. And it seems to me that Congress has a choice: it can pay now, to reduce total census costs conceivably by half — or it can pay later. More; much, much more.