By Terri Ann Lowenthal
No, I’m not going to pay homage to the late, great Joan Rivers today, but hopefully I now have your attention.
Truth is, I am having a mid-decade crisis and need to share. (This should not be confused with a mid-life crisis. Been there; done that.)
Congress has emerged from its summer slumber and will try to keep the government running past Sept. 30, when the current fiscal year ends, before heading home soon to campaign again.
Meanwhile, I am looking into my census crystal ball and contemplating the outcome of the 2020 population count. I’m anxious about what I see. I know it’s early to sound the alarm, but the pieces of the puzzle are not fitting together neatly in my vision of the future. Best not to bear the anguish alone, no?
Why the angst? First of all, Congress isn’t paying much attention to 2020 Census planning. Granted, it isn’t paying much attention to anything at all, save the midterm elections. But even if lawmakers get their act together when a new Congress reconvenes next winter, opportunities to plan and carry out four major field tests that will inform the design framework for the 2020 Census, will be slip-sliding away like much of the country during the predicted repeat polar vortex.
Congress, in fact, is so disinterested in the census that House members turned “raid the Census Bureau piggy-bank” into a virtual sport last spring, stopping their bipartisan target practice only after Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) lamented that there wouldn’t be a census in 2020 if lawmakers kept at it. Rep. Wolf, by the way, is retiring from the “do nothing” Congress to, presumably, do something else. But I digress.
Senate appropriators have been putting relatively more money into census research and testing, with the caveat that the Census Bureau’s spending limit for the next enumeration is the same (or less) than the 2010 Census budget (roughly $13 billion), without adjusting for inflation. They have been pushing the bureau to move forward quickly with new initiatives. For example, the committee noted (S.Rept. 113-181) that the bureau could save a lot of money by using existing government databases to update the master address list and to reduce costly visits to unresponsive households. But it fretted that the bureau hasn’t figured out whether and how it can get its hands on these administrative records. No one seems concerned yet about the quality of the data for census purposes. Instead, the bureau should work “expeditiously” to get administrative records from federal, state, local, and Tribal agencies, appropriators said.
And that takes up-front money for research and testing. On tap for next spring is a field test that will help determine if administrative records can substitute for door-to-door visits to households that didn’t respond by mail or Internet. Let’s think about that possibility for a minute.
The census wants to know who lives in a home on a specific date: April 1, 2020. It asks how everyone in the household is related to each other. It collects detailed information on race and ethnicity; revised questions aim to increase the granularity of those data. Field tests will better illuminate the self-response universe, but let’s stipulate—based on experience—that the nonresponders are more likely to be in low income urban and rural households, people of color, and immigrants with limited English proficiency. (Remember, one-quarter of all households did not respond by mail in 2010; there was no Internet option.) Young children and young minority men are most likely to be overlooked, even in households that are otherwise counted. Will administrative records tell us who usually lived where on Census Day? How people in so-called complex households are related to each other? Whether a person is Mexican American or Vietnamese American or Afro-Latino? (And, at the risk of waving a red flag over the bayou, government databases aren’t likely to cover the undocumented population. Just saying.)
Stakeholders will want to see solid evidence that administrative records can match the quality and detail of data collected through in-person interviews, before the Census Bureau commits to such a sweeping design change. I’m not saying I oppose the use of administrative records in the census. The Census Bureau must find bold ways to keep costs in check, even as the population grows and diversifies. I’m saying, test thoroughly and proceed with caution. Congress needs to make that happen with adequate funding now.
The president requested $963.4 million for the account that covers 2020 Census planning and the American Community Survey (ACS). The Senate Appropriations Committee coughed up $896.7 million, a seven percent cut. Which, of course, is generous compared to the House-passed funding level of $725.4 million for the same account. In a nutshell, the $238 million House cut (20 percent) wiped out the “ramp up” for 2020 Census planning. (To be fair, the House Appropriations Committee recommended a funding level of $858.5 million for Periodic Censuses and Programs.)
And now we’re headed down the up-ramp. Any day now, Congress will pass a temporary spending bill that funds most of the government at current year (FY2014) levels through December 11. So far, the House has added a 0.06 percent across-the-board cut (H.J. Res. 124). The first major FY2015 2020 Census field test—to assess the use of state, local, and commercial databases to update the master address file and allow for targeted, pre-census address verification only—has started, but most spending for that activity happens in October and November. The Census Bureau is already gearing up for two critical tests with an April 1, 2015 “Census Day,” one of which involves the aforementioned use of previously collected government data to count nonresponding households.
If the lame-duck Congress extends the Continuing Resolution into the second fiscal quarter or (worse), if the next Congress sticks with the current funding levels for the entire year (a real possibility if control of the Senate changes hands), without carving out an exception for 2020 Census funding, the spring tests could be toast.
Then what? Continue limping along through the systems and operational development phase, preparing for a census that incorporates complex new procedures that haven’t been fully vetted and may not meet stakeholder expectations? Pray that 2020Census.gov doesn’t crash when eight million people a day log on to answer the questionnaire? Fall back on tried-and true-methods developed for a time gone by, and costing billions of dollars more, hoping future Congresses and the next Administration care enough about an accurate, comprehensive census to pay for it?
I hope I’m wrong. I hope I wake up in 2020, and the census gods are smiling. That people are lounging in the park in the early spring warmth, answering census questions on their smartwatches in English, Korean or Spanish. Enumeration nirvana! But I’m tired of holding my breath every year. Stakeholders, it’s time either to pray or mobilize. A little of both probably wouldn’t hurt.