The American Community Survey: Blessed by the Founding Fathers

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

I’ve been losing sleep ever since several members of Congress (including a former judge!) posited at a congressional hearing last month that the Census Bureau was overstepping constitutional bounds by requiring people to answer questions on the American Community Survey (ACS).  The ACS relieved the decennial census of its long-form burden after Congress urged the Census Bureau to streamline the decennial count and provide policymakers with more timely information.  But more on that in a moment.

Now, I’m an advocate of informed decision-making.  I think we Americans have a duty to help our nation understand its collective condition and shared future direction.  But an unconstitutional government intrusion into our private lives?  Not on my watch.  The idea that our census agency has been violating fundamental tenants of our treasured founding blueprint since the nation … well, became a nation … has been keeping me up at night.

Fortunately, none other than “Father of the Constitution” James Madison has come to my rescue.  When the House of Representatives debated the very first census bill in 1790, this founding patriarch and primary author of the Bill of Rights observed that lawmakers now had “an opportunity of obtaining the most useful information for those who should hereafter be called upon to legislate for their country if this bill is extended so as to embrace some other objects besides the bare enumeration of the inhabitants; it would enable them to adapt the public measures to the particular circumstances of the community.  In order to know the various interests of the United States, it was necessary that the description of the several classes into which the community was divided, should be accurately known; on this knowledge the legislature might proceed to make a proper provision for the agricultural, commercial, and manufacturing interests, but without it they could never make their provisions in due proportion.”  (As cited in Government Accountability Office, Legal Authority for American Community Survey, B-289852, April 4, 2002)

I couldn’t have said it better myself (though heaven knows I’ve tried).  But let me translate into 21st century English.  The census gives us a chance, Madison said, to collect data that lawmakers can use to make informed decisions that meet the needs of the nation’s people and communities — decisions related, for example, to the agricultural, business, and manufacturing sectors.  A range of data beyond the number of people in each household, which backers of a voluntary ACS suggest is the only constitutionally permissible purpose of the census, would ensure that Congress allocated resources based on actual conditions.  Imagine that!

As for the ACS, it was Congress, starting in 1991, that not-so-gently nudged the Census Bureau to give up the traditional vehicle for collecting demographic and socio-economic information — known as the “long form” — and to continue its “embrace … of other objects” (to quote the oh-so-eloquent James M.) on a more frequent basis from a sample of households spread out across more years.  Congress never suggested that the ACS would not continue to be a part of the census, perhaps knowing full well that lawmakers had tied half a trillion dollars annually in domestic program funding to the results.

Of course, Congress has been known to pass legislation that doesn’t quite pass constitutional muster.  That’s why we have the Supremes, who determined in 1870 that Congress has unquestionable power to require both a population count and the collection of additional statistics in the decennial census.  (The Legal Tender Cases, Tex.1870; 12 Wall., U.S., 457, 536, 20 L.Ed. 287)  It’s just what our fourth president envisioned to help the legislature, of which he was then a part, make wise decisions.  Whew!

I’m sleeping better already.  Sweet dreams!

Know Your Customers (All of Them)

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

Earlier this fall, business watchers were abuzz about the fallout from Netflix’s decision to separate its Internet streaming and DVD services into two distinct accounts. “How Netflix Lost 800,000 Members, and Good Will,” screamed a New York Times headline (10/24/11). “Netflix prides itself on its analytical, data-driven approach to making decisions,” the article explained. “But it made a classic business misstep. In its reliance on data and long-term strategy, the company underestimated the unquantifiable emotions of subscribers who still want those little red envelopes, even if they forget to ever watch the DVDs inside.”

That got me to thinking about the Census Bureau’s road from mail to cyberspace, a path which is now inevitable, given stern directives, coupled with tight budget reins, from Congress.

Netflix’s CEO reportedly told shareholders he was not sure if focus groups reviewed the proposed account changes before the company unveiled them. The New York Times article later opined, “How Netflix came to be so out of touch with its customers is a cautionary tale for other companies that try to transform to new media from old.”

Federal lawmakers have concluded that Americans will embrace electronic response to the next census with a vengeance, with traditional mail or hand-delivery almost an afterthought. Of course, Congress sometimes — how shall I put this tactfully? — gets it wrong. And the people’s representatives haven’t exactly been generous with funding to ensure appropriately comprehensive research and testing of how Americans of all ages, races and ethnicities, incomes, and places of abode feel about the pending changes.

My father is 80, retired, active on boards and in community and political affairs. Given the family genes, he’s likely to be around for the next population tally. But email? Can you spell F-A-X? He swears by it. Cell phone? Never had one. In March 2020, Dad had better get a nice white envelope bearing the official seal of the U.S. Census Bureau in his traditional silver suburban mailbox, along with a postage-paid return envelope. Otherwise, he might miss being counted in his ninth decennial enumeration.

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Up next: An Internet Census and the Digital Divide

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 to Get Down to (Census) Business

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

Is anyone else weary of handicapping the Republican presidential field, or hearing about Amanda Knox (I’m glad she’s home) and Dr. Conrad Murray (MJ and I were born six weeks apart, so you know where my sympathies lie)? Good. Time to start thinking about Census 2020 planning instead.

At a Senate hearing last spring, Census Director Robert Groves laid out the agency’s guiding principles for designing the next decennial count. At the core of all of them is the stark fiscal reality facing the country: the Census Bureau will have to do more with much less. As in far fewer dollars to spend. More people, more housing units, more complex household structures, more language and cultural diversity. All for less money than in 2010. Have I mentioned that Senate appropriators think the Census Bureau could do the job for the price of the 2000 model (without adjusting for inflation)? Good luck with that.

Anyway, over the coming months, I’ll take a look at the eight guideposts Dr. Groves said are based on lessons learned from the 2010 count, offering some historical context and thoughts on key issues the bureau should consider in pursuing each goal. I’ll start today by repeating the underlying point from my post on Sept. 28: No matter how little it is willing to spend on the 2020 census over the long haul, Congress must invest some money upfront for research, testing and design development. The alternative will tie the agency’s hands behind its back until it is too late for meaningful innovation, end-to-end testing to support outcome-based decisions, and timely interaction with community-based partners.

I’ll close for now with another news headline of greater import to the census. As I write this blog post on my iPad and contemplate the untimely passing of Apple’s Steve Jobs, I am reminded of the speed with which technology has evolved and improved in only the last decade. Apple unveiled the iPhone in 2007, a mere four years ago. Is it just me, or does it seem like that gadget has been around forever? Director Groves has rightly highlighted the need for a multiple-mode 2020 census, expanding enumeration methods beyond the traditional (since 1960) “mail, hail, or fail” playbook. His Senate testimony (April 6, 2011) notes that response options must “reflect the communication platforms that people are using.” Well said, but difficult to actualize when you consider that my iPad was overrun by iPad2 within a year. Congress must give the Census Bureau sufficient resources to have technology visionaries in the room as planning for 2020 unfolds.

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?

Back to the Census Future?

[Ed. note: Welcome back to the Census Project Blog, which will resume occasional posting on several critical census issues over the coming months.]

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

Federal statistics: They don’t get no respect!

Last week, Senate appropriators, mindful of the cutthroat competition to slash federal programs more than the next guy, thoughtfully suggested that the U.S. Census Bureau could design, plan and execute the 2020 census for the amount it spent on the 2000 count. Yes, you read that correctly. While keeping costs in line with the just-completed 2010 enumeration would be good, the appropriations panel wrote in its explanation of the Fiscal Year 2012 Commerce Department spending bill (S. Rpt. 112-78), paring the price tag to match 2000, without adjusting for inflation, would win a gold star.

The 2000 census cost almost $7 billion. My economist friends tell me the Senate directive would only give the Census Bureau the equivalent of $4 billion in 2000 dollars, 43 percent less than the Census 2000 budget, to enumerate 60 million more people and 22 million more housing units than it did 20 years earlier. (The 2010 count, which battled the symptoms of a punishing recession and post-9/11 world, cost $13 billion in current dollars.)

People (all 309 million of you!), I know you are thinking one of two things. Have Senators lost their minds? Or, won’t all the new-fangled technology allow the Census Bureau to count people for a fraction of the cost? Let’s examine both propositions.

First, the state of mind of our distinguished elected representatives. To be fair, the budget process has become so convoluted and devoid of any logical progression that even the most levelheaded lawmakers can be excused for their nostalgia. But $4 billion? That was the price tag for the 1990 census. You know, the one with the highest recorded disproportionate undercount of Black Americans. The one with the lower-than-projected mail response rate, maybe thanks to a data processing machine-friendly questionnaire that looked (and read) like an SAT test. The first census to be measurably less accurate than the one before it. 1990 was the last census to advertise with 2:00 a.m. public service announcements; to ignore the vital role of community-based organizations in promoting participation; to build address lists without substantial input from local officials.

The Senate Appropriations Committee was actually off to a reasonably good start when it allocated $943 million for Census Bureau operations in the fiscal year that starts October 1. The amount is 8 percent ($81 million) below the president’s request but $89 million more than House appropriators deemed sufficient for the nation’s premier statistical agency. (A spokeswoman for House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers rebuked the Census Bureau for “just complet[ing] a costly census that was riddled with questionable management decisions,” saying the committee was saving money for “higher priority programs” (Huffington Post, 7/15/11). Meanwhile, the same committee applauded the bureau’s request to promote and market ongoing surveys, “given the successful use of these programs in the 2010 decennial census” (H. Rpt. 112-169). Go figure.)

Senators clearly heard the uproar from an impressive range of data users when the Census Bureau said it would cancel next year’s economic census if Congress doesn’t come up with more money than the House was considering. They directed the agency to maintain the quinquennial survey of business and industry while focusing reductions on “periodic censuses and agency-wide administrative cost savings.” Never mind that the economic census is a periodic activity or that the census director announced a money-saving move to close six of 12 regional census offices months ago. In other words, rob Peter to pay Paul, because you aren’t getting enough funding for both. Like I said, no respect.

Which leads us to our second question: Won’t the Internet or other technology-based options for answering the census and gathering data in the field bring down costs substantially? Undoubtedly, modernizing the enumeration will help the Census Bureau keep costs under control. The bureau is testing Internet response in the ongoing American Community Survey, with promising results so far. The Washington Post reported (4/5/11) that 20 percent of Canadians responded by Internet in that nation’s last census; statistical experts hope twice that many will use the Web in this year’s Canadian count to achieve a cost-savings.

But the Census Bureau will have to spend some money now to save money later. Census Director Robert Groves told a Senate oversight panel last spring that the agency “know[s] it must innovate if we are to remain useful and relevant to the country. [T]his innovation is not likely to be funded by added resources; we must become more efficient.” The bureau requested a reasonable $67 million in FY2012 to start a three-year research and testing initiative to modernize and streamline the 2020 census.

Yet the Senate is telling the agency to cut back on census activities other than the economic census. That pretty much leaves wrap-up of the 2010 count or research on improving methods for 2020 on the chopping block. The bureau could halt efforts to measure the accuracy of the 2010 census and end the program that allows challenges to a city’s housing and population numbers (which adds few changes to the results, but tell that to the mayors!). I am having trouble following the logic here, given that Senate funders want the Census Bureau to dramatically reduce the cost of planning the nation’s largest peacetime activity while exercising a “unique opportunity” to “streamlin[e] operations, eliminate[e] wasteful processes … and tak[e] better advantage of technology.” The Census Bureau last year proposed an initiative to update the nation’s address list throughout the decade, potentially saving the hundreds of millions of dollars it would cost to confirm 100 percent of addresses right before the next census starts. Congress won’t cough up the modest amount of money requested for the new program.

I think I’m getting one of my famous census headaches. Maybe I’ll channel Rip Van Winkle and wake up in time for the 2030 count.