By Terri Ann Lowenthal
Today, I am going to talk turkey.
No, not the Thanksgiving kind. I had my fill and besides, I am still focused like a laser on the 2020 census. Which, if I haven’t mentioned recently, is only five years away.
That means it’s time to get down to the nuts and bolts. Today’s fascinating topic: multiple response options.
Ladies and gentlemen, the cyber-census is here. Internet response! Email and text message reminders to answer the census! Smartphone apps to fill out your questionnaire! Twitter will be abuzz with daily response rates. It all seems so… so… 21st century! Well, at least more up-to-date than relying solely on paper forms sent and received via U.S. mail. And really, it’s a tad embarrassing that Girl Scouts will get to sell their cookies on the web before our nation’s largest peacetime activity goes high-tech, don’t you think?
Congress is on board with the new approach. Visions of saved dollars are dancing in lawmakers’ heads. So much so that Congress thinks the Census Bureau has it all figured out. Flip the switches and watch the Internet light up with a population count. Why bother with research and field tests and focus groups, when it seems like everyone is plugged in these days. Those activities cost money, and Congress doesn’t seem inclined to pony up a lot of dough to make sure we can do this right.
Truly, the thought of the 2020 Census running as smoothly as the click of a mouse (or tap of a finger) is bliss. (We will not dwell here on the initial failures of healthcare.gov, which crashed under the weight of a few million inquiries, but had a few months breathing room for the first enrollment period while experts fixed the bugs. Because, really, the Census Bureau anticipates up to 8 million hits a day on the 2020 Census website, and the window of opportunity for self-response is a mere several weeks. What could possibly go wrong?)
Congress is so convinced that a cyber-census is a silver bullet to check rising costs, it doesn’t see the wisdom of fully investigating this radical departure from previous counting methods. In their first crack at the FY 2015 Commerce Department funding bill last spring, House members—anointed by the Constitution as the primary beneficiaries of an accurate census—knocked out the entire requested budget increase for 2020 Census research and testing.
I hate to be a glass-half-empty person, but I’m thinking that Congress doesn’t do long-term planning well. Maybe it could start with a report the Census Bureau itself issued last month: Computer and Internet Use in the United States: 2013. About three-quarters of American households have an Internet connection. But that is for the population as a whole. Only 60 percent of black households and 66 percent of Hispanic households have Internet access. The figure drops to under 60 percent for the over-65 crowd. Less than half of households with incomes under $25,000 have home Internet access. The digital divide also affects households led by individuals without a college education and with limited English language proficiency, and those in nonmetropolitan areas.
And then there’s the small matter of cyber-security. People are a little freaked out by the drip, drip, drip of news about data breaches at major U.S. companies— Target, JPMorgan Chase and Home Depot, to name a few—and the hacking of government agency systems (the White House and State Department are the latest apparent victims) and Hollywood conglomerates (Sony). Call me paranoid, but experience tells me that it could take only a whiff of a problem to throw the best census operational plans off track. (As Exhibit A, I give you the 1990 Census, when the U.S. Postal Service returned several million questionnaires to the Census Bureau as “undeliverable” because housing units, primarily in rural areas, received their mail at a P.O. Box, not the street address on the census form. The extensive media coverage—this, when we still received our news slowly, from TV, radio and newspapers—shook public confidence and sent the bureau into full damage control mode.) Picture the consequences in 2020 of even a handful of census phishing scams or, heaven forbid, a cyber-attack on the Census Bureau’s massive digital database, with news pinging around the Internet at lightening speed.
So where Congress sees a silver bullet, I see red flags. Yes, of course there should be an Internet response option for the 2020 Census. Otherwise, we might as well send the marshals out on horseback again. But can the Census Bureau save enough money to keep 2020 costs at or below the 2010 Census budget, as lawmakers have directed, and still produce an accurate count, especially in communities with historically higher undercount rates? I think Congress has its eye on the goalpost without thinking through the plays it will take to get there and score.
This is how I see it. First, at the risk of sending you to bed with nightmares, I will gently remind everyone of the tech failure that added $2 billion to the 2010 Census cost and dashed hopes of sending census takers door-to-door with nifty handheld electronic devices to count reluctant households. If there is a better reason to invest in careful planning, I can’t think of one right now.
And I’m worried about the quarter or more of households that won’t respond in the initial phase of the count. Let’s not pull any punches: most of the people who are more likely to be missed in the census are less likely to have the means to respond electronically. Furthermore, the characteristics of households with lower rates of computer usage (including handheld devices) and Internet access parallel those of households with “low self-response scores” in the Census Bureau’s newly updated planning database. That means many households that don’t respond via the Internet won’t mail back a paper questionnaire either, especially if the strategies for boosting self-response aren’t thoroughly vetted. (In the 2014 Census Site Test, only 3 percent of households that were asked about their preferred method of advance notification chose the email or text option over mailed materials. I’m guessing Americans are wary of electronic messages from unknown sources, as they should be.)
And here’s where the budget comes into play again. Congress wants the Census Bureau to wave a magic wand and plan a census that costs a lot less, without giving the bureau enough resources to make it all work or conducting the informed oversight needed to make sure that it will. What happens to the households that don’t self-respond? Tracking them down is the costliest part of the census, and the bureau is exploring ways to streamline that operation, with fewer boots on the ground and fewer knocks on each recalcitrant door. Congress is pressing the agency to rely more on data the government has already collected through programs such as Social Security, food stamps and Medicaid. The FY 2015 census tests will start to shine a light on whether administrative records can replace much of the pre-census neighborhood address canvassing and some of the door-to-door visits. But with Congress capping the 2020 Census budget in advance—something it has never done in modern census history—the Census Bureau might have no choice but to fill in the blanks with data that are neither acceptably accurate nor sufficiently comprehensive.
That’s a topic for another day. But I see lawmakers chasing a lot of silver bullets when they should be biting the bullet, to make sure the ammunition hits its target. In the meantime, I’ll keep waving the red flags. Maybe Congress will notice before it’s too late.
And with that, we wish our readers and census groupies everywhere a happy, peaceful holiday season. Thanks for being a part of our coalition. See you next year!