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!

Let Them Count Fish!

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

My life as a census advocate just got infinitely easier.

The House of Representatives is considering the FY2015 Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations bill, which includes funding for the U.S. Census Bureau. And through a series of late-night amendments, lawmakers stole so much money from the account that funds the 2020 Census and American Community Survey (ACS), to pay for other pet programs, that subcommittee Chairman (and bill manager) Frank Wolf (R-VA) finally pointed out the obvious: If we keep taking money from the Census Bureau, he said, we won’t have a census in 2020.

Well, that might be an exaggeration, because that pesky U.S. Constitution requires one. For the purpose of deciding how many members of Congress each state will have. And how the lines of each district are drawn. Details, details.

Now, Congress has already told the Census Bureau that it must conduct the 2020 Census for the same price tag as the 2010 Census: $13 billion. Proposed investments in research and testing of bold innovations and a redesigned census will help the Census Bureau achieve that goal, with potential savings of $5 billion in the lifecycle cost of the decennial enumeration. The research and testing phase ends next year; the bureau must figure out which new methods are sound enough to pursue in the systems and operational development phase.

But if Congress won’t invest in planning now, the Census Bureau will have no choice but to start preparing for a traditional — and far more costly — paper-and-pencil census. Of course, that design will cost about $18 billion, according to Census Bureau and GAO estimates. Let’s think about this for a minute. The bureau could start the enumeration in 2020, and then stop the count when it reaches its $13 billion limit — and then lawmakers can fight over whose districts disappear. Boy, this is kind of fun…

But maybe I’m just giddy because it’s approaching midnight as I write this (as debate on the House floor goes on and on). Seriously, the Census Bureau does have other, more sensible, choices if Congress decides to slash its funding by 20 percent. It could stop conducting the American Community Survey (ACS). Who needs all of those data on education, veterans, income and poverty, people with disabilities, housing conditions, commuting patterns, language spoken at home, and labor force characteristics, when you can just look it up on the World Wide Web (or survey your surroundings while you sit in traffic)? And think about how much money we would save, not allocating that $415+ billion annually in program funds to state and local governments that Congress bases on ACS data!

I know, I know: many of you really like the ACS. Do not fret; the Census Bureau could cancel the Economic Census (including final tabulation and dissemination of 2012 Economic Census data and the upcoming 2017 survey). Who needs to calculate the GDP anyway?

The House of Representatives should be embarrassed. Do the people we elect to represent us — umm, based on a decennial population count — really believe the Census Bureau can start planning to enumerate 330 million people, in 134+ million households, in, say, 2018? Do they really not understand that if they want to allocate funds based on population, income, commuting and other data, then we need to, ummm, collect those data? Two proposed amendments — one, to the tune of $110 million, offered by Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA); the other, for $3 million, by Rep. Jerry McNerney, (D-CA) — shift funds from the census programs to the ever-popular Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program in the Department of Justice. Now, I support the work of our men and women in blue as much as the next politician (my father was a police commissioner, for heaven’s sake). But isn’t it a little ironic that applications for COPS grants require data on poverty from the (you guessed it!) American Community Survey.

With a similar flash of foresight, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) stole $12 million from the census account to improve NOAA’s forecasting of severe weather events. Yes, our hearts go out to victims of tornadoes. But where do Oklahomans think their civic agencies get the data for disaster preparedness, evacuation and response? You don’t have to answer that, because if the House votes today to make ACS response voluntary, the Census Bureau might not be able to publish reliable data for about half of the Sooner State’s counties.

By the time I threw in the towel and turned in for the night, the House had cut $118 million from the Census Bureau’s Periodic Census and Programs account, with another $15 million facing roll-call votes in the morning. That’s on top of the $105 million (9 percent) the Appropriations Committee already cut from the bureau’s $1.2 billion budget request. I’m not great at math, but me thinks there is nothing left of the $212 million ramp-up in funding for the 2020 Census.

I think Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) finally captured the insanity — inadvertently, no doubt — of the slow but steady draining of the Census Bureau’s piggybank, when he started talking about the importance of counting salmon, to explain why he wanted $3 million more for fisheries management. (For the record, Chairman Wolf finally put his foot down, and the McDermott amendment went down on a voice vote.) We may not be able to count people in 2020, but we sure as heck want to know how many salmon are swimming upstream. Long live the Republic!

 

Raiding The Census Piggy Bank

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

With the smell of turkey and sweet potato pie in the air, Congress finally approved funding for the U.S. Census Bureau for the fiscal year that started seven weeks earlier. The so-called “mini-bus” appropriations bill — encompassing three of 12 federal appropriations accounts — allocates $943 million for the nation’s largest number-crunching agency (H. Rpt. 112-284).

Well, sort of. The bureau actually will receive $888 million in direct appropriations. Congress decided to dip into the little-known Working Capital Fund (WCF) for the remaining $55 million the Census Bureau needs to pull off the 2012 Economic Census, albeit a scaled-down version. More on that in a moment.

Not familiar with the WCF? For starters, it’s not really a fund. Rather, it’s a revolving account that is used to manage many of the Census Bureau’s core functions. Half of the account represents money from other federal agencies for reimbursable work, such as surveys. In other words, it’s not the Census Bureau’s money. The other half pays for what can loosely be termed “overhead” — that is, basic but essential operations that support all programs. Things like IT systems; the budget, human resources and communications offices; and salaries for the director and other managerial staff.

Appropriators decided that the Census Bureau could spare $55 million from this pot of money, so they wouldn’t have to find more discretionary funding to pay for essential census and survey activities. Last year, Congress permanently torpedoed $50 million of the WCF and pretended it had reduced federal spending by that much. Does anyone else detect a pattern here?

I worked in Congress for 14 years. It is with utmost respect for those who toil in legislative obscurity that I say, “People, the Working Capital Fund is not an appropriator’s piggy bank.” Yes, I am aware of the new Government Accountability Office report (GAO-12-56) suggesting that the Census Bureau allow more sun to shine on the WCF and establish operational performance measures to promote efficiencies. The congressional auditors also noted that dramatic fluctuations in spending on the decennial census require the bureau to save money in the WCF for a rainy day through an operating reserve. Which is now $50 million smaller.

But really, what part of its overhead should the Census Bureau sacrifice to come up with this large sum? The communications office annual budget is less than half that amount. Shut down its congressional liaison activities? Ditch the press releases that inform the media and stakeholders about data products? Congress doesn’t seem to grasp the connection between Census Bureau data and the myriad policy decisions the public and private sectors make on a daily basis, so why bother? Cut back on protecting confidential information from 40,000 daily cyber attacks? Better yet, why not shut down the website entirely, thereby negating the expense of maintaining an Internet presence and defending against hackers — a sort of two-for-one reduction?

Frankly, given the country’s dire economic straits, I think we need to be really creative. Why don’t we furlough the entire senior Census Bureau staff (including the director), and then bring them all back in five years so Congress can blame the agency for not trying hard enough to design a simplified, less costly 2020 Census. Speaking of which…

Have I mentioned that Senate appropriators smartly challenged the Census Bureau to take the 2020 census for the same amount of money it spent on Census 2000, without adjusting for inflation? I’m all for saving money. The Census Bureau must bring the per-household cost of the decennial enumeration under control. In fact, the census director took the unusual step of announcing the closure of half of the bureau’s 12 regional offices, without a nudge from Congress, in a preemptive move to bring costs down.

But to go from spending $13 billion (in current dollars) to take the 2010 census, to counting 10 percent more people for a third of that amount eight years from now? I’m not feeling it yet.

But I digress. Things could be worse for the Census Bureau. It could be languishing under a temporary spending measure (the insufferable Continuing Resolution) with the many agencies that couldn’t get on board a little bus to 2012 funding certainty. House appropriators proposed cutting 21 percent from the bureau’s budget request, potentially dooming the quinquennial detailed measurement of the nation’s economic activity. Cooler congressional heads prevailed in the final hour, offering enough money to proceed with core Economic Census functions. But the Survey of Business Owners is on the chopping block — the only source of data on business ownership by people of color, women and (yes!) veterans.

As for the rest of the bureau’s programs, I suspect managers spent the holiday weekend scouring their budgets for additional expendable activities. The agency can’t cut $55 million from overhead and function effectively, so programs such as 2010 census evaluations and data products, 2020 census planning, the American Community Survey, and other periodic functions must absorb some of the pain.

The real problem is that, in order to yield savings anywhere near the magnitude of those money-green sugarplums dancing in lawmakers’ heads, the Census Bureau must invest modest but consistent resources now to research and test forward-looking methods that will expand response options for increasingly complex household structures. Cutting the agency’s budget to the bare bones won’t generate the level of scientific foresight necessary to tackle the depth of challenges inevitable in a society as culturally, ethnically and politically diverse as ours.

Memo to Census Director Robert Groves: Hold on tight to that piggy bank next year!

Time Flies

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

When the House Appropriations Committee slashed the Census Bureau’s FY2012 budget request by 21 percent in July, a spokesperson for the chairman defended the steep cut by noting that the next census is nine years away (Huffington Post, 7/15/11). This astute observation reminds me of Hurricane Irene.

Readers, please bear with me. There is an important census point in here somewhere, I promise. A month ago, the storm was headed straight for my home state of Connecticut. Red Cross poster child that I am, I scurried around the house on a Saturday as landfall approached, filling buckets with water, lining up candles, bringing plants in from the porch, pulling out my three flashlights.

I checked the batteries. Darn, they all had expired last year, as had the extra ones in my attic stash. Now, I tend to be a Type A, “the sky is falling” kind of person. How had I ended up with a pile of batteries at the end of their useful life?

Like many of you (I’m sure), I had purchased super-saver packs of batteries eons ago, noting with satisfaction the ridiculously distant expiration dates. The kind of time gap that makes you smug about your foresight, storing emergency batteries for almost a decade to come. I mean, 2010 was so… far away. Those little copper-tops even made the move with us from Washington, D.C., to Connecticut, where I’ve used my flashlights just once in four years, during a raging Nor’easter.

But now a hurricane was headed straight at us. And that previously distant use-by date had somehow flown by unnoticed. Now it was too late: There was not a “D” battery to be found in all of New England. Sure, most of my expired batteries still worked, but for how long?

On Sunday, with Irene howling outside my townhouse, I awoke to find the lights still on. That I had dodged a bullet was more a result of luck than anything else. I wouldn’t have to rely on 10-year-old batteries, praying they would hold out for the five days much of my city was in the dark.

You see where I’m going with this, right? Nine years can slip by faster than you can secure the jib and batten down the hatches as the perfect storm rolls in. We can blithely dismiss the 2020 census as way too far in the future. There are higher priority programs to fund. There are too many issues that deserve our attention and demand our energy. Lawmakers can’t think beyond the next election.

But that same legislative body will turn around in 2017 and wonder why the 2020 plan looks suspiciously like the mail-and-knock design that has formed the core of census-taking since 1960. Without adequate time and resources to research emerging methods and test new operations, we will be stuck with outdated ideas that might accomplish some of the work, but won’t prepare us fully for the challenge and will cost the nation a pretty penny. Did I mention that some stores reportedly were charging $20 for one of those “D” babies during Hurricane Irene?

So it’s time to buckle down, census fans. Let your elected representatives know that research and testing are important steps on the road to 2020. That we can’t wait until 2017, or even 2014, to make modest but essential investments in planning to count a growing population for 30 percent of the cost of the last census, if wisdom Senate appropriators imparted in their FY2012 Commerce Department funding report [.pdf] is any guide. The havoc of a hurricane might pale in comparison to the inevitable chaos of counting 340 million people with outmoded methods and technologies.

Are you with me, storm chasers?