The Case for a Mandatory ACS: Count on Americans to Get It Right

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

I have to start today’s census musing with an apology of sorts. It occurred to me, as I relay Appropriations Committee proceedings with tongue firmly in cheek, that some readers might think I do not like fish. Or, to be more precise, that I do not appreciate the importance of the fishing industry and coastal zone preservation. Au contraire, mon amis: I love the fishermen (oops, sorry; channeling you-know-who for a moment there), regularly consume fish, and live in a coastal state myself. It’s just that, when one is waiting patiently for a sign — any sign — that lawmakers appreciate the fundamental importance of a successful census and reliable data to the very foundation of our democracy, and the conversation keeps turning to counts of, um, fish, one can become despondent over the possibility that the nation’s largest, most inclusive, and most complex civic activity will get the short end of the budget stick. Again.

I had to get that off my chest before the Senate Appropriations Committee takes up the Census Bureau’s Fiscal Year 2017 funding bill (Commerce, Justice, and Science, or CJS) this week. As CJS Subcommittee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) helpfully noted when Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker testified in March, the largest chunk of new money for department programs is for 2020 Census planning.

The total request for the 2020 Census is $778 million; related activities, such as the new enterprise data processing system and geographic system updates, will support that effort. The Census Bureau also needs $251 million for the decennial census’ conjoined twin, the American Community Survey (ACS), to maintain a reliable sample size and continue researching new methods that will make it easier for the public to respond — a primary congressional goal.

Chairman Shelby told the Secretary that he is worried the Census Bureau is behind schedule in meeting its milestones to prepare for the census. Vice Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) reminded everyone that past enumerations have been plagued by “techno-boondoggles” (I did not make up that word), but that an accurate census remained the top goal. We will wait with baited (a fishing term!) breath to see how much money the committee is willing to spend on the bedrock of the nation’s democracy, but I find it hard to grasp how cutting the budget at this point will move the needle in the right direction.

At the March hearing, Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) engaged the Commerce chief in the most substantive discussion about Census Bureau programs. In 2012, then-Rep. Lankford helped steer his House colleagues off the cliff into a data black hole, by championing an amendment to eliminate the ACS entirely. His distaste for the survey — whose results help guide the allocation of billions of dollars through other parts of the same appropriations bill, she said without a hint of irony — seems not to have waned; he offered, and then withdrew, an amendment to make ACS response voluntary during consideration of last year’s CJS bill.

This year, the Senator pressed Secretary Pritzker for information on Census Bureau research into making the ACS a more pleasant experience for households fortunate enough to be selected for the nation’s premier survey on the well-being of our communities. Okay, he didn’t exactly say it that way. Nevertheless, we haven’t heard much about the “2015 Summer Mandatory Messaging Test,” so perhaps it would be helpful to consider the findings before lawmakers think again about relieving put-upon Americans of their duty to answer a few queries confidentially for the common good.

Using the September 2015 ACS sample as a test-bed, the bureau evaluated the consequences of several design and messaging changes to ACS materials (e.g. envelopes, questionnaire, reminder postcard, etc.). The modifications included “softening” (by wording choice, visually, or both) or even removing the mandatory response tagline (which currently reads, “Your response is required by law.”) from some or all of the mailings, and highlighting the survey’s importance and benefits.

But before we look at the results, let’s take a quick trip down memory lane, to when lawmakers first got the itch to let Americans opt out of a civic duty that helps ensure a fair, equitable, and informed society. In 2003, at the direction of Congress, the Census Bureau tested the implications of making the ACS a voluntary survey. The outcome was not pretty: mail response rates would plunge; costs — and, ironically, the burden on the public — would rise significantly ($90+ million/year, according to the latest estimate), due to greater reliance on more costly telephone and door-to-door follow-up and the larger sample size necessary to compensate for lower response; and data reliability for smaller communities (towns! neighborhoods! rural counties!) and smaller populations (people with disabilities! veterans! ethnic subgroups!) would drop, perhaps beyond the point of acceptability.

The findings were so stark that Congress barely said another word about mandatory response for almost 10 years. (Our Canadian friends, however, apparently didn’t get the memo. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party pushed through a bill to make their census long form voluntary. Predictably, the renamed 2011 National Household Survey was a data disaster for less populous and geographically smaller areas. The outcry from the business community, municipal officials, and policy researchers was loud enough to prompt a swift restoration of the mandatory survey when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office last fall.)

The Census Bureau’s 2003 test and Canada’s experience provided consistent evidence of what Congress and the nation would lose if ACS response were voluntary. Never ones to be deterred by a universally panned idea, however, House Members voted three times to make ACS response optional; Senators, fortunately, refused to go along.

The Census Bureau is taking congressional concerns about the ACS’s perceived intrusiveness seriously. It has consulted with the best survey experts in the business and is researching ways to replace some survey questions with data from other government datasets (administrative records) and ask others less frequently. Then there is last year’s test of design modifications and different ways to convey that response is mandatory.

And whadda’ya know? The experimental design that strengthened the mandatory message and added a plug about the importance of the survey yielded the best outcome in terms of response rates, data reliability, and cost, even compared with the current materials. Self-response and final response rates were “significantly” higher, leading the bureau to project cost savings of $7.3 million per year and better data reliability (i.e. reduced margins of error in the data, which is, after all, derived from a sample). In fact, if the bureau continued to spend the same amount of money on the survey, it could increase the sample size by 4.7 percent, thereby reducing margins of error even more. (If the bureau reduced the sample size but maintained current data reliability, costs would drop even further.)

On the flip side, experimental designs that diminished the emphasis on mandatory response yielded, almost across the board, “significantly” lower response rates. If that were to happen, the Census Bureau would have to decrease the sample size by up to 12 percent, resulting in worse data, or increase the sample size by up to 11 percent to maintain data reliability, at an additional cost of up to $42 million. In other words, pick your poison: pay more, or risk more unusable data, all in the name of keeping the survey mandatory but not letting Americans in on the secret.

Here’s what I think. Most Americans are willing to do their part in support of a strong democracy and good governance. Tell them clearly and honestly why what you’re asking them to do is for the public good, and demonstrate that you don’t take their cooperation lightly and will not abuse the privilege, by continuously innovating and having some faith in your most important customer — the American people.

Congress, are you listening?

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.

An ‘Opt-Out’ Democracy

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

In March 2000, with the nation’s crown jewel of civic activities in full swing, a certain candidate for president who would later call 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home, famously told a reporter that he wasn’t sure he would fill out the census “long form” if he received one. Then-Texas Governor George W. Bush suggested that the lengthier questionnaire sent to a sample of households might represent unwanted government intrusion into Americans’ personal lives.

Maybe there’s something in the water in Texas. Fast-forward 15 years, and another Lone Star politician believes even more firmly that the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) — the modern version of the long form — is an “invasion of privacy.” The head of the Appropriations panel that funds the bureau, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), thinks we should let Americans opt-out of this civic duty.

But I shouldn’t pick on Texas. Sen. James Lankford made his distaste for the ACS clear at a recent Senate oversight hearing on the 2020 Census. As the Oklahoma Republican described it, survey takers were all but stalking his constituents, door knocking incessantly and parked at the curb for hours, waiting for someone to come home and ask put-upon Sooners what time they leave for work (those would be the journey to work questions, folks). Scary stuff for a mother home alone with her kids, the senator said grimly. (We will pause here to consider whether answering the survey on-line or by mail when it first arrives with the message, Your response is required by law, might alleviate these spooky encounters. And then we will move on.)

Making response to the survey voluntary might not be a strong enough antidote for government nosiness and over-zealous survey takers in Sen. Lankford’s book. In 2012, while still in the House, he co-authored an amendment to nix the ACS altogether. A majority of his colleagues went along for the ride, largely along party lines. The Senate didn’t sign off on this rather drastic reaction to a vital survey that many U.S. households will never see. But the freshman senator now has a plum seat on the very panel that funds the Census Bureau. This story may not have a happy ending.

But maybe I can pick on Texas, because Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) just reintroduced his ACS opt-out bill (H.R. 2255). The congressman explained in an op-ed (The Humble Observer, Houston, May 15, 2015) that people are tired of government snooping into how many toilets and working sinks are in their homes. Perhaps people living in one of the nation’s largest metro areas are unaware that two percent of American homes, and more than three percent of Appalachian region homes, still lack full indoor plumbing. For 50 years, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) has used census “long form” and, now, ACS data to identify impoverished areas and upgrade housing quality across a 200,000 square mile area that is 42 percent rural. Making ACS response voluntary could eliminate reliable data for many rural areas. (We will pause once more to gently remind the Houston lawmaker that the ARC’s plumbing improvement and other anti-poverty efforts are ubiquitous in eastern Kentucky, whose representative in Congress, Rep. Harold Rogers, is grand pooh-bah of the all-powerful Appropriations Committee.)

Speaking of Kentucky, Sen. Rand Paul (R), through his libertarian-colored glasses, has carried the “voluntary ACS” legislative banner for several years. He’s been a little busy running for president this year, though, and hasn’t reintroduced a bill to save Americans from the crushing (45 minute) burden of filling out a survey that helps legislators make smart decisions. (No, we will not stop here for a joke about how data for smart decision-making might be a wasted resource when it comes to Congress. Rather, we will contemplate what Sen. Paul might say if he were asked about answering ten census questions during a 2020, instead of 2016, presidential run.)

Perhaps other lawmakers would do well to consider the information vacuum north of the border before jumping into the data-less abyss. Canada, sophisticated in so many ways, decided to scrap its mandatory census long form in favor of a voluntary National Household Survey in 2011, succumbing to conservative hand-wringing over the longer questionnaire’s perceived manifestation of government overreach.

The results of this policy shift were predictable (and predicted; Canada’s chief statistician resigned in protest when Parliament passed the law). Response rates to the voluntary survey plummeted from 94 percent to 69 percent. The cost went up by $22 million in an effort to keep the survey representative by increasing the sample. But non-response remained unacceptably high among harder-to-count population groups, and Statistics Canada could not produce reliable socio-economic data for a quarter of all localities, mostly small communities and rural areas.

Canadian policymakers and businesses that rely on census data to assess the nation’s economic and social needs have had a few years to absorb fully the voluntary survey wreckage, and they don’t like what they see. Or, to be more precise, what they can’t see. The president of the Canadian Association of Business Economics wrote in a Toronto Globe and Mail op-ed (Nov. 5, 2014) that the highest non-response rates are in rural and low-income areas “where the need for robust data is arguably most pressing to support sound decision making.” Policymakers can’t compare conditions between towns, counties, and regions in many cases, while neighborhood comparisons simply are of “questionable feasibility,” Paul Jacobson observed. Toronto’s public health agency, tasked in part with improving health care for the city’s low-income residents, has stopped using the unreliable long form data altogether.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Restaurants Canada, Toronto Region Board of Trade, and other influential business groups are now pressing to restore the mandatory long form. Many of their U.S. counterparts are urging Congress not to make the same mistake Canada did.

Here’s what doesn’t sit right with me about the voluntary-ACS campaign: You can’t make participation in a portion of the decennial census optional, without somehow making democracy optional. We Americans have a lot of rights; whatever happened to our sense of collective responsibility for preserving our democratic ideals? You know, “Ask what you can do for your country.” Helping elected leaders spend public funds wisely through an objective data-lens, available for all to view, doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

So, ask not what your country can do for you… unless, of course, you are still sitting in traffic on US 290 in Houston. Then, by all means, claim your share of federal highway improvement funds — doled out, in part, based on ACS data — before you tell your government, as Rep. Poe patriotically put it, to leave you alone.

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.

Silver Bullets and Red Flags

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy 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!

Fly Me to the Moon

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

The Fiscal Year 2015 appropriations process is rolling merrily along.

Yesterday, the House Appropriations Committee approved the FY2015 Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) funding bill. The $51 billion measure covers everything from weather satellites, to space exploration, to crime prevention, anti-drug trafficking initiatives and prison reform, not to mention programs to boost global competitiveness, manufacturing, exports and tourism, neuroscience research and fisheries restoration. And, oh yes, the census.

Not that anyone was paying attention to the nation’s largest peacetime mobilization, the very foundation of our representative system of governance, embodied in the opening clauses of the U.S. Constitution. It’s hard for legislators to wrap their heads around the urgency of a statistical undertaking that is six years away. They do better with concrete activities — like “new interest among some members of Congress and others … in the possibility of … a crewed mission to the vicinity of Mars,” according to the committee report explaining the bill. Appropriators gave NASA $435 million (yes, with six zeroes) more than the Obama Administration requested for the space agency.

It didn’t take long for the Census Bureau to become a piggy bank for other agencies that clearly have champions and advocates in the spending committee. Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL) got the ball rolling with her proposal to pilfer $1 million (the pennies in your stash) from the Census Bureau to train our “wounded warriors” to fight online child exploitation through the HERO Program. (Geez, talk about a tug at the heart-strings.) But the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee — really? You’d think someone immersed in the partisan game of redistricting would appreciate the complexities of preparing for an accurate census. To use the language of millennials, smh (that’s, shaking my head).

I know I’m getting a bit worked up over a measly $1 million. But after the CJS subcommittee chairman and ranking Democrat graciously accepted the funding shift without batting an eyelash (the wheels are greased on most amendments in advance), sophomore Rep. Jamie Herrera Beutler (R-WA) courageously offered her first appropriations committee amendment ever and snatched another $10 million from the Census Bureau for the Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery Fund. Her colleagues lauded the economic benefits of the salmon industry and approved the funding swap by voice vote. (Did I not tell you in my April 11 post to keep an eye on those coastal lawmakers? Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-ME, reminded colleagues that coastal management is vital because 75 percent of Americans will live within 50 miles of a coast by 2025. Wait! How do we know that?)

And just like that, the Census Bureau lost $11 million. Oh, did I forget to mention that the committee’s draft bill had already shaved $94 million from the agency’s budget request? Maybe it’s just me, but I sense a serious incongruity between ramp up to the next census and a nine percent budget cut. One of those trains is on the wrong track.

Since not one panel member said a word about or in defense of the Census Bureau’s work during a three-hour meeting, we can safely assume that this piggy bank will be cracked wide open when the commerce funding bill hits the House floor.

The interest in space travel has left me wondering, though: if Americans are on Mars when a census rolls around, do we count them at their ‘home of record’ using administrative data, as we do military personnel stationed overseas, or treat them like civilians living abroad, who aren’t enumerated? I mean, it’s not like you can take a 10-day vacation to the red planet. An amendment to boost the Census Bureau’s funding to study this important dilemma might pique congressional interest. I’m on it.

From the Ashes… The Poe Bill Rises Again

House Committee to Vote on Voluntary American Community Survey Bill Next Week

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

This week, the College Board announced that it would overhaul the dreaded SAT test, to reflect more realistically the knowledge that students acquire in high school and the skills they will need to succeed in college. In that spirit, let me pose a strategic-thinking question:

Let’s say you’re a member of Congress. A committee on which you serve holds a hearing on a bill making response to a unique, irreplaceable and vital government survey voluntary, because the sponsor believes the government has no business collecting data on the characteristics of the nation’s population or households. Every witness at this hearing, other than the bill’s sponsor himself, opposes the bill. Those speaking against the proposal include a conservative think tank, a major housing industry association, and a leading business sector organization from the sponsor’s own home town; other diverse stakeholders submit their objections in writing.

The top agency official responsible for the survey tells your panel that making response optional would have serious, adverse consequences for a data source used by state and local governments, business and industry, transportation planners, school boards, advocates for veterans and people with disabilities, higher education systems, emergency preparedness agencies, community nonprofits — yes, the list goes on and on. He points to a congressionally-mandated field test showing that survey response rates, especially by mail, would plummet, and costs would rise by nearly a third (+$66 million dollars) at a time when Congress is squeezing the agency’s budget. The agency would no longer be able to produce essential demographic, social and economic estimates for less-populous areas of the country, including 41 percent of U.S. counties, small cities, villages, towns, many school districts, neighborhoods and American Indian reservations. “Modern societies rely on accurate statistics, and the ACS is a cornerstone of our country’s statistical infrastructure,” the agency director concludes.

Taking all of this information into account, your next logical step as an elected representative is to:

A: Conclude that the bill is misguided and would not serve the interests of the nation, or even the branch of government of which you are a member.

B: Ask the agency that administers the survey to ensure that it only collects data required to implement federal laws, establish eligibility for formula grants, and allocate federal program funds — all of which Congress directed.

C: Hold a future oversight hearing to explore ways the agency can improve the questionnaire, minimize burden on the public by re-engineering field procedures, and address concerns about privacy in an information-dependent era.

D: All of the above.

E: Two years later, schedule a vote on the bill anyway because, hey, who cares if no one thinks the bill has any merit; we’re Congress, and no one thinks anything we do makes sense! Plus, mid-term elections are around the corner.

If you selected answers “A,” “B,” “C,” or “D,” do not fret. The College Board announced that, as part of its overhaul, it will not penalize wrong answers! But if you still think you deserve credit, you might write to members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which will vote next week (Wednesday, March 12) on H.R. 1078, a bill sponsored by Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) to make response to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (part of the decennial census) optional.

And if you’re still looking for irony, consider this: Then-Census Director Robert Groves, testifying before the committee on March 6, 2012, noted that The College Board uses ACS data in their efforts to increase the number of students who graduate from college, especially those from high-poverty communities.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to lie down with a cold pack on my forehead (again).

###

Editor’s Note: For more information, please read: