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?