By Terri Ann Lowenthal
Happy 2015, census fans!
I have great news. According to the Census Act (Title 13, United States Code), we could be getting ready to launch a census. That’s right: lawmakers, way back in the radical 1970s, thought it would be a neat idea to survey the population not just once every 10 years, but every five years. So Congress authorized a mid-decade census to serve every useful purpose the decennial census does—like, um, measuring the characteristics of our population and housing, to see how well we’re doing and to address societal needs—except congressional reapportionment.
I know what you’re thinking. Did I miss something? Have I been asleep at the switch every spring during a calendar year that ends in “5” and neglected to fill out my mid-decade census form? Rest easy, civic-minded readers. Congress had a good idea (at the time), but lawmakers never wanted to pay for it. Wait. That sounds familiar! But, back to our story.
Of course, the universally popular American Community Survey has since eclipsed the idea of a mid-decade census. (Are you chuckling just a little?) The modern version of the census long form produces updated information about our communities every year, made all the more useful by advances in technology that allow us to access the data quickly and (relatively) easily. As our world seems to spin ever faster, the Census Bureau churns out objective facts and figures to help us make sense of it all.
You might be feeling comforted right about now, knowing that census data, as a public good, are available to everyone who wants to understand the world around them and have the tools both to improve their communities and to hold their civic leaders accountable. Well, please don’t lean back and take a nap just yet.
The new chairman of the Census Bureau’s U.S. House oversight committee doesn’t much care for the ACS. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) co-sponsored legislation to make ACS response voluntary (H.R. 1078, 113th Congress) and voted to ax the survey altogether in 2012. I think it’s fair to say that Chairman Chaffetz isn’t a big fan of data at all; he lent his name to a bill to get rid of all censuses and surveys, save the decennial population count (H.R. 1638, 113th Congress).
In fact, as we reach the midpoint of the decennial cycle, and the Census Bureau launches the second phase of 2020 Census planning with operations and system development, the census seems to be fading from view altogether. The reorganized House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform no longer has a subcommittee with “census” in the title. The description on the committee’s website of the revamped Subcommittee on Government Operations doesn’t mention the census at all (so you’ll have to take my word for it that this panel is the right one!). It isn’t much of a stretch to conclude that timely and thorough oversight of the nation’s largest peacetime mobilization of people and resources will be sitting on a back burner for a while.
I know that everyone’s issue is important. It’s a jungle out there in the policy world; everyone has to fight to be heard. But, I’m thinking that a mention in the very first lines of the Constitution might give the census a profile boost of some sort. You know, the very first responsibility—to oversee the population enumeration—the Constitution bestows upon the legislature (Article I, section 2). The raison d’etre that 435 members of the 114th Congress are sitting in their seats today. You’d think the activity that defines our democratic system of representation would garner a little more attention than its perennial role as piggybank for other programs during appropriations season. Maybe lawmakers haven’t had time to brush up on the nation’s founding document in a while.
Speaking of appropriations, the House Commerce, Justice and Science Subcommittee is in new hands. Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) now leads the panel that funds everything from weather satellites to fisheries to export and manufacturing initiatives to community policing, counterterrorism and cyber-security programs to neuroscience and STEM education research. The Census Bureau is somewhere in that mix. So is NASA. Rep. Culberson is from Houston, home of the Johnson Space Center. Does anyone else hear that piggybank cracking open again? As if this picture isn’t looking scary enough to census fans, the new chairman also co-sponsored the voluntary ACS bill in the last Congress.
Across Capitol Hill, new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was an original co-sponsor of a voluntary ACS response bill sponsored by fellow Blue Grass State Sen. Rand Paul in the last Congress (S. 530, 113th Congress). The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, with legislative responsibility for the Census Bureau, has a new chairman: Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI). It appears that the full committee will exercise primary responsibility for oversight of the Census Bureau and federal statistical system.
But maybe ACS critics will reconsider their philosophical angst about requiring a few minutes of individual civic duty for the greater societal good when they see what happened to Saskatchewan. After Canada opted for a voluntary census long form in 2011 (the head of Statistics Canada resigned in protest), almost half of the territory sort of disappeared from the map. Seems that response rates dropped so steeply, the survey couldn’t produce reliable data for rural and less-populous areas.
U.S. lawmakers representing smaller counties might want to consider a stateside scenario. Self-response nosedives when the bureau can’t say, “Your response is required by law,” according to analysis of Census Bureau field-testing of the idea in 2003. It’s too expensive to make up for lower response rates with a larger sample or more phone calls and door-knocks. (ACS critics, please don’t humor me with assurances of funding the extra $100 million a year needed to overcome the response problem. Really? Have you been reading my blog?) The sample for rural and remote communities becomes too small and insufficiently representative to yield valid estimates. The Census Bureau can’t publish critical socio-economic data for jurisdictions with populations under 20,000, which require five years of accumulated sample (the so-called “5-year ACS estimates”). Poof! Half the counties in Utah and Kentucky could be wiped off the data map. I kind of like those census maps with all the little county squares in different colors. A lot of black would ruin the effect.
Maybe there’s another glimmer of hope. The new chairman of the House census oversight subcommittee, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), didn’t co-sponsor the optional ACS response legislation in the 113th Congress. Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-VA) was the ranking Democratic member of the Government Operations Subcommittee in 2013-14; he could pull the same duty this time around. Rep. Connolly earned my admiration when he pointedly told his colleagues, during consideration of the Census Bureau’s appropriations bill last spring, that an amendment he was offering, to increase funding for specialized veterans treatment courts, did not raid the statistical agency’s budget for money. At least someone gets it.
But I’m not closing my eyes for a snooze right now. I’m keeping a wary eye on the 114th Congress, which looks challenging, to say the least.