New Report on 2020 Census/Rural America

In a new report issued this week, demographer Bill O’Hare says “little has been written about the special challenges that will make some rural areas and populations difficult to enumerate accurately.”

Dr. O’Hare’s report notes five particular regions or populations in rural America that will be particularly hard to count in the 2020 Census:

  • Blacks in the South
  • Hispanics in the rural Southwest
  • American Indians living on reservations and Alaska Natives
  • Residents of deep Appalachia
  • Migrant and seasonal farmworkers

O’Hare’s report says a majority of Hard-To-Count (HTC) counties (79 percent) in the U.S. are rural areas. Overall, 16 percent of all the most rural counties fall into the HTC category.

“The heavy reliance on the internet in the 2020 Census may pose a special concern for rural residents,” O’Hare concludes. “Data show that good internet access is less likely to be available in rural areas and a test (in West Virginia) that might reveal difficulties has recently been cancelled.”

Trump Census Budget: Too Little, Too Late

Earlier this week the Trump administration released its FY 2018 census budget proposal to Congress. It wasn’t much better than the so-called “skinny budget” proposal released in April.

President Trump proposes just a $51 million increase in Census Bureau funding for FY 2018. But, next year’s census planning calls for a huge 700,000-household test in three states of the decennial count’s new census-taking techniques relying on the internet and IT to cut costs and provide for a fair and accurate census. It can’t be done by skimping on decennial planning funds.

The chart below shows how decennial planning money was allocated each year over the past 40 years. In each previous decennial census, a large ramp-up occurred in the “8” year of the decennial cycle.

A Census at Risk - Spending During Four Census Decades

If President Trump’s budget is enacted, the nation could be facing an historic census disaster. It’s up to Congress to save the 2020 Census!

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!

REALLY???

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

Sometimes, words escape me. (At least, words that are printable in a respectable, philanthropy-funded blog about the sacred foundation of America’s democratic system of governance, still the envy of the modern world, imperfect though it is.)

So let me just say this: Really, Congress?

The very first task the founding fathers gave you in the U.S. Constitution—to direct the taking of a census once every 10 years—and you kick the can down the road? With the decennial clock ticking and the window of opportunity to figure out how to make it all work for less money closing fast? Words are failing me.

Lawmakers are trying to wrap up a broad spending bill for fiscal year 2015, which started on Oct. 1, before a short-term funding measure runs out Thursday night. The draft bill, unveiled Tuesday, allocates $840 million for the account covering the 2020 Census, $123 million less than the budget request. Congress essentially is cutting the proposed ramp-up for decennial census planning by almost half. The Obama Administration’s proposed 28 percent funding boost might sound like a lot, but as Arloc Sherman of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities noted in a recent Huffington Post blog, mid-decade ramp-ups for the 2000 and 2010 Censuses were 30 percent or more.

Most of the increase the bureau requested relates to 2020 Census planning. 2015 is a pivotal year: the Census Bureau will conduct three major field tests to inform its selection of the 2020 Census design by next fall. A fourth test, scheduled for late summer, will evaluate revised questions on race, ethnicity and household relationship, as well as strategies for boosting Internet response and for helping language minorities participate.

Congress doesn’t want to pay more for the 2020 Census than it did for the 2010 count. The Census Bureau has to meet that goal while maintaining accuracy and trying to reduce the historic, disproportionate undercount of people of color, low-income households, rural residents and young children. It will take a big change in census methods to pull this off, as well as careful research, testing and preparation to be sure those reforms work. The payoff for investing in the groundwork now is significant: $5 billion in potential savings from automating response options and field work and from tapping government and commercial databases to update the address list and reduce costly door-to-door visits. All promising ideas, but we won’t know if they can produce a lower-cost and equally or more accurate census until we see and weigh the evidence.

Now the Census Bureau is really in a bind. It is wrapping up the first test, which focused on administrative records, aerial imagery and other governmental and commercial sources to update the master address list and digital mapping system. Preparations are underway for two tests—one in Maricopa County, Ariz.; the other in the Savannah, Ga., media market—with a “Census Day” of April 1. These are crucial research opportunities in census-like environments: the bureau will evaluate the use of administrative records to streamline and reduce the cost of door-to-door follow-up visits; targeted digital advertising to boost self-response among hard-to-count demographic subgroups; ways for people to respond via the Internet without a pre-assigned identification number that links them to a specific address; and new contact and notification strategies to cut down on paper communications and encourage prompt participation.

These initiatives aren’t incremental improvements on traditional census methods. They are significant departures from the tried-and-true mail and door-knocking design. They might work. They might not. But the Census Bureau can’t wait another two or three years to figure that out. It has one year to decide which methods hold enough promise for saving money without sacrificing the accuracy of the count and the quality of the data, in order to move ahead with IT systems and operational development. The decision is already a year overdue, thanks to previous budget cuts and sequestration.

Delaying or streamlining the 2015 tests would put effective 2020 Census reform in serious jeopardy. If the bureau pushes ahead with the full testing schedule, something else has to give. The Census Bureau can’t put off systems development; the risk of failure is too great. Other vital components of a successful census—the Partnership Program and advertising campaign— could be put on the back burner.

Other programs funded through the same account might take the brunt of the budget cut. The bureau could trim American Community Survey coverage of group facilities such as college dorms, military barracks and nursing homes, or cut out data products; it could slow down planning for the 2017 Economic Census. It could ditch its new initiative to build an enterprise system for data collection and processing, which it hopes will replace numerous (and costly) survey-specific systems.

I don’t know what hard choices the Census Bureau will make in the coming weeks and months. But here’s what I do know: Congress is responsible for a fair and accurate decennial census. The Constitution says so. And right now, it is really blowing it.

My Lucky Day (A real ACS household in the family!)

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

I’m so excited; I might jump right out of my skin!

My dad just called from Connecticut. “Terri,” he said breezily. “We just got something in the mail from the Census Bureau. It’s called the… let’s see… the American Community Survey.” My heart soared!

Dad (age 83) seemed to appreciate the importance of the mailing they received. But I launched into my speech anyway. I described how special my parents were — one of only 295,000 households in the whole country to get the world’s premier survey each month. How the data are used by businesses, their local and state governments, federal policymakers. Everyone! Okay, he really didn’t need much convincing, but I had to practice my pitch.

“The ‘postcard’ I have says we can do this online,” dad said. He, who has never used a computer in his life (doesn’t even have a cell phone), started reading off the URL. I confirmed that would probably be the easiest way to respond; mom (age 81) is quite computer-literate. Sensing my glee at encountering a real, live ACS household, dad suggested they could wait until I came home for Passover in two weeks, so I could enjoy the experience with them. “NOOO!!! You really should do it now,” I counseled, explaining how the Census Bureau would have to send another letter, perhaps with a paper form, or even telephone for their responses, if they waited too long.

“Okay, well, your mother is busy tomorrow, but we’ll set aside some time the next day to do this.” Such a civic-minded person, my father.

There was one more question: “So, if we do this on the computer, how do they know that it’s us entering the information?” Good question, dad-with-the-engineer’s-mind. I ticked off facts about unique identifiers, barcodes and geo-coding each address to an exact location, which in the low-tech speak for which I am well known probably amounted to, “Trust me, they know what they’re doing.”

I can’t wait to hear about their survey-responding experience when I see them in a couple of weeks. But if they start complaining about nosy or ridiculous questions, I’m sending them straight to the Census Bureau’s new (relatively) Respondent Advocate. (I’m looking at you, Tim Olson.)

As I hung up the phone, I thought back to when my then 11-year-old daughter was crushed when we didn’t get the 2000 Census long form. Probably the only person in the entire U.S. of A. to feel let down by this omission. (“No, we can’t trade with a neighbor who might have received one.”)

People get excited for different reasons. Hey, whatever floats your boat!

2020 Or Bust: Halfway to the Next Count (No Fooling!)

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

I have seven words for Congress as it considers the president’s Fiscal Year 2015 budget request: Remember the Affordable Care Act website launch!

I know. You do not want to be reminded of that painful chapter in President Obama’s signature program. But didn’t someone once say, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it?” For some reason, I am stuck on historical quips today.

Six years from now, tens of millions of American households will be firing up their desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones to answer the census paper-free. And the 2020 Census website has to work like a charm. Right away. Because unlike the new healthcare law, there can be no deadline extensions, no months-long fixes, no do-overs, in the middle of a census. The more people that answer the census in the final weeks of March and first weeks of April, the more accurate the data — pegged to April 1, 2020 — will be.

If history is any guide, a third of us won’t respond on our own. Then begins the nonresponse follow-up slog, with an army of census takers knocking on doors and coaxing the forgetful, recalcitrant and fearful remainder into answering a handful of simple questions. In another decennial first, these temporary workers will record answers on electronic gadgets, either government-issued or their own.

A recent Time magazine cover story chronicled how a group of “high-tech wizards” came together last October to fix the troubled health care website in six weeks. That’s all well and good. But it can’t happen during a decennial census. How many people will say “the heck with this,” if the 2020 Census website balks when they try to log on and fill out their form? How many will shut the door if a census taker’s tablet goes on the fritz mid-interview? We don’t want to find out the hard way.

People lost confidence, for a good many months, in healthcare.gov and, by extension, the entire Affordable Care Act. They started returning to the website in larger numbers in the early months of 2014. (Nevertheless, as the deadline for enrollment loomed yesterday, “software bugs” took the website down temporarily again!) Confidence lost is hard — and costly — to win back. The Census Bureau will not have the luxury of rebound time.

The administration’s goal for ACA enrollees was 7 million in the first year. The Census Bureau has to count 130 million households — 330 million people — and tabulate the results for congressional reapportionment. In nine months. The Constitution requires it.

At this point, you might be saying to yourself that the Census Bureau has offered an Internet response option for the American Community Survey, an ongoing part of the decennial census, for over a year. More than 50 percent of households in the survey are now responding online — a hopeful sign, to be sure. But the ACS samples fewer than 300,000 addresses a month. A system that can handle 150,000 online forms doesn’t tell us what we need to know about one that will need to manage (if we’re lucky) upwards of 8 million hits a day during peak census operations. Talk about scaling up!

Did I mention telephone assistance? Anticipated call volume from the public and census staff, coupled with outgoing calls to conduct interviews, may overwhelm a centralized call center, the bureau says. It’s time to start hatching a “hybrid” or decentralized plan.

The mid-decade year marks the start of the operational development and systems testing phase for 2020. Contracting offices must be up and running in 2015, with research and development teams ready to define requirements for more than 30 interrelated IT systems needed to run the nation’s largest peacetime mobilization. Let’s not kid ourselves: the Census Bureau had trouble in this department during the last go-round, abandoning plans to use handheld devices in the field at the eleventh hour. Congress had to fork over an extra $2 billion. This time, the bureau has to get it right.

Greater use of technology is just one component of this decade’s major census-process overhaul. Previous budget cuts and sequestration delayed or cancelled field tests and research into innovative, but complex, counting methods and pushed back key design decisions. The clock is ticking, and time will not wait for the Census Bureau to catch up.

So, lawmakers can invest now in the testing and systems development (and more testing!) required to field a modern census on time and within budget. Or they can pinch pennies and say a prayer that the legislature in which they serve is reapportioned fairly and on time. The Census Bureau knows how to count people with paper and pencils; do you have $20 billion to spare? I didn’t think so. Halfway through the decade, $689 million seems like a reasonable stake in a more cost-effective census that works.