Back Here On Earth…

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

It’s time to come back down to earth, after the madcap, pre-Christmas scramble on Capitol Hill to pass a mammoth FY2016 spending bill on time, which in congressional-speak means “before the second quarter of the fiscal year begins.”

Or maybe not. Come back down to earth, that is.

I recently watched a rerun of CNN’s “The Sixties” segment on the race into space. Being of a, ahem, certain age, I vividly remember watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s grainy first steps onto the lunar surface almost a half century ago. It’s hard not to be thrilled by space adventures — men and women of uncommon courage, fortitude, and smarts, floating in near solitude thousands of miles above the Earth, the only planet teeming with life of which we are currently aware…

Oh, sorry. This is a blog about the U.S. census. It’s just that, as luck would have it, funding for the Census Bureau falls under the same Appropriations subcommittee as — you guessed it — NASA. And last year, the helm of that panel passed to Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), whose Houston district is perilously close to the — right, again! — Johnson Space Center.

Chairman Culberson really, really loves space exploration! In an interview last month with Science magazine’s Jeffrey Mervis, the congressman seemed positively giddy over the additional $175 million he snagged to accelerate a mission to Europa. Which, for those unfamiliar with planetary jargon, is not a sexy reference to our allies across the Atlantic, but one of Jupiter’s moons. NASA didn’t ask for that much money, Mr. Mervis reported, but that didn’t deter the chairman from increasing the administration’s request almost six-fold. “The only way to confirm there’s life in the oceans of Europa is to land on the surface and sample the ice,” Rep. Culberson told Science. Can’t argue with that logic.

This is exciting stuff, people. Far more thrilling than, let’s say, figuring out how to count 330 million Americans and put each of them at a specific address on April 1, 2020. Or translating census forms into 60 languages. Or testing whether check-boxes or write-in lines yield the most accurate data on racial subgroups.

The chairman is “passionate” about the Europa mission. Finding life on a Jovian moon will be, he told Science, a “transformational moment in human civilization.” Unlike, say, pulling off a census that doesn’t undercount some population groups — people of color, young children, low income households, immigrants — at higher rates than others (non-Hispanic Whites), which would help us achieve our democracy’s promise of equal representation and fair distribution of hundreds of billions of dollars in government aid. Oh, is that snoring I hear?

Let’s be frank. Outside of our spirited universe of census fans, the decennial population count does not set too many hearts a-flutter. You cannot gather ‘round the family television, watching wide-eyed as census takers amble door-to-door, mobile devices in hand … for weeks on end. A stab at census humor won’t impress the guy next to you on the pub barstool. “Hey, here’s a great joke: Knock, knock. Who’s there? Ma’am, I’m with the U.S. Census Bureau …” You’re laughing, but no one else is. Trust me.

Meanwhile, back here on Earth, the Census Bureau is busy preparing for the 2016 Census Test in Los Angeles and Harris (TX) Counties, pursuing a contract for the 2020 Census communications campaign, analyzing results from the 2015 questionnaire content test, and finalizing rules that will determine where people — including prisoners — will be counted. After all, the agency has to take a census four years from now, using whatever resources and following whatever operational directives Congress deems appropriate. The Constitution says so.

The omnibus spending bill that funds the government in 2016 brought the Census Bureau back from the brink of fiscal disaster, after the House of Representatives cut the 2020 Census planning budget by upwards of 40 percent and the ACS budget by 20 percent. The final package reduced the requested funding level for each program by roughly 10 percent, enough money to keep primary planning activities on schedule and maintain the ACS sample size. Chairman Culberson told Science that the Census Bureau has the “support they need to complete their mission.” (I love how space enthusiasts refer to everything as a “mission”!) However, he still thinks Americans should be able to opt-out of answering the ACS, to guard against the Census Bureau “harassing American citizens or invading their privacy.” That didn’t work so well in Canada, but we Americans like to work things out ourselves.

The White House is tweaking President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget request, scheduled for release on February 9th. It’s a good thing the annual appropriations season kick-off isn’t a week earlier on Groundhog Day, because the Census Bureau can’t press the repeat button on funding when it’s ramping up for a decennial census. Planning activities in 2017 include submitting the 2020 Census question topics to Congress (by April 1st), testing the Census Questionnaire Assistance operation, overseeing development of the massive communications campaign, and starting the Local Update of Census Addresses (LUCA) program.

Expect another huge proportional bump in requested funding for the 2020 Census, and be prepared to fight for it, census Jedis.

 

Gone Fishin’ (Come find me in 2021)

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

I’m going fishing.

No, really, this makes perfect sense as I head into the twilight of my census advocacy career.

I’ve been listening to the House of Representatives consider the FY 2016 funding bill (H.R. 2578) that covers the U.S. Census Bureau and a whole lot of other, obviously more important, government activities. My ears perked up during opening debate, when I heard Rep. David Jolly (R-FL) emphasize the importance of “data collection” no less than 10 times. Then I realized he was talking about fishing stock assessments, conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), under the Department of Commerce… which houses the Census Bureau. See, sometimes you have to shift around life’s organization chart just a little, and the world is your oyster.

Anyway, the real reason I’m considering early retirement is because, by the time our esteemed lawmakers finish with this massive funding bill in the next day or so, there won’t be any money left to take a census in 2020. Or, at least, a very good one.

You’d have thought a cut of more than 30 percent to the president’s budget request for 2020 Census planning and the American Community Survey (ACS) in the committee-passed bill was embarrassing enough. But that would mean you didn’t read the final line of my last blog post.

Sure enough, just two amendments into the floor action, another $100 million was gone from the Census Bureau account covering these two parts of the decennial census. Reps. Dave Reichert (R-WA) and William Pascrell (D-NJ), with enthusiastic support from colleagues on both sides of the aisle, transferred the money to the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants program. No one winced at the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the Census Bureau wouldn’t have enough money to continue modernizing the 2020 Census or to preserve the current ACS sample size. (And never mind that the Byrne JAG program and community policing initiatives rely, at least in part, on census and ACS data to allocate funding, target human resources, and understand community dynamics.)

Then Rep. Richard Nugent (R-FL) scooped up $4 million for veterans’ treatment courts. Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) took another $17.3 million for programs that combat human trafficking, after solemnly assuring colleagues that the Periodic Censuses and Programs account did not pay for the constitutionally required population count, only the useless ACS. Um, whatever you say, congressman.

Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Culberson (R-TX) and Ranking Member Chaka Fattah (D-PA) did reject an amendment offered by Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-ME) to shift five percent of the Census Bureau’s budget to enforce fair trade laws. Apparently, logging companies in the congressman’s district are having a hard time competing with their counterparts north of the border. Congress has a “constitutional responsibility” to protect Americans from unfair trade practices, Rep. Poliquin intoned. Before withdrawing his amendment, he had this gem of a parting shot: “I think jobs are more important than counting people.” I cannot make this stuff up.

On the bright side (always looking for a ray of sunshine amid the annual storm), several Democratic members — including Reps. Mike Honda (CA), Barbara Lee (CA), Nita Lowey (NY), and Mr. Fattah —warned the House during general debate about the dangerously low funding levels for the Census Bureau. But the appropriations bill will head to the Senate with nearly half a billion dollars less than the Administration requested for the account that funds the 2020 Census and ACS. Like full committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY) said at the start of debate, we have to reduce funding for “lower priority programs.”

The fun isn’t over. Rep. Poe will be back on the floor as the bill wraps up, offering his amendment to make response to the American Community Survey voluntary. But I might be packing up my rod and tackle box and looking for a gurgling stream somewhere. Because there might not be enough money for a modern, less costly census, and Congress has already said it won’t pay for a more expensive one. Just don’t look for me in Maine.

Making a Molehill Out of a Mountain

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

Members of Congress have deserted the Capitol for a holiday respite in their home districts. This is a good development, people. Lawmakers sometimes need a time-out… um, sorry, time off.

I am hoping some of them take a few minutes to brush up on the U.S. Constitution. Article I establishes the Legislative branch, and just a few sentences in, gives lawmakers their first responsibility: to oversee a count of the nation’s population every ten years. The census has to be as accurate as possible, because under the Fourteenth Amendment (which revised the original, flawed census clause), Americans have a right to equal representation — “one person, one vote.”

Despite the rather prominent constitutional placement of the census as a legislative duty, some lawmakers do not seem to think it is a priority. No, really, I am not making this up. For example, last week, the House Appropriations Committee considered the Commerce Department’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 spending bill. The draft bill, unveiled the previous week in the Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee, cut the president’s budget request for the U.S. Census Bureau account that covers 2020 Census planning and the related American Community Survey (ACS) by $374 million. The full committee further constrained spending for both of these programs in the report that accompanies the bill: $400m for the 2020 Census and $200m for the ACS.

Just to remind you of where we started: the President proposed a $1.5 billion budget for the Census Bureau next year. $920 million of that was for the decennial census, divided into $663 million for 2020 Census planning (+317M over FY2015) and $257 million for the ACS (+$15M). For the 2020 Census, the bureau must develop IT systems and the operational design in time for an end-to-end readiness test in 2018. It must contract for a vast communications campaign that can navigate an increasingly fragmented media landscape; start preparing for questionnaire assistance and language support efforts; and research the most effective ways to reduce undercounting, avoid duplications, and count special populations, such as prisoners and overseas military personnel. By the time Congress wakes from its census slumber, most major decisions will be locked-in.

(Other activities in the Periodic Censuses and Programs account that are vital to an accurate census, such as evaluating and processing address and geo-spatial data from external sources, also are short-changed. The Administration proposed a $21m increase for Geographic Support to ensure that capacity keeps pace with the workload; the committee bill does not fund this request.)

For the ACS, the bureau needs roughly $240m just to maintain the current sample size and coverage (for example, including group quarters, such as college dorms, military barracks, prisons, and nursing homes). But the committee’s report lambasted the Census Bureau for not moving quickly enough to streamline the survey and reduce respondent burden. Bemoaning the fact that only one question (business or medical office on the property) fell by the wayside in the latest content review, the committee ordered the bureau to cut more questions expeditiously. (Note to the 1,700 data users whose comments convinced the Census Bureau to retain queries on marital history and field of undergraduate degree: you might want to let Congress know how much you love those questions. Get my drift?)

Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, has been reading the Constitution. It has occurred to him that if Congress doesn’t invest in thorough planning, the 2020 Census could cost a lot more than lawmakers are willing to spend and could miss a lot of Americans who, historically, have been harder to enumerate. Those groups include people of color, rural and low-income residents, American Indians living on reservations, young children, and people whose first language is not English.

So, Congressman Honda offered an amendment in committee to increase Census Bureau funding to the President’s requested level. The agency is testing sweeping reforms to reduce costs and modernize methods, he noted, but without adequate funding, the bureau “may have to abandon plans for a modern census and go back to the outdated, more costly manual 2010 design.” The concept of a funding ramp-up for a cyclical program is not lost on Rep. Honda. “The underlying bill effectively flat funds the census, but the costs of preparing for, modernizing, and testing for the census are not flat.” The congressman may be stating the obvious, but clearly the committee needs a reminder.

Sophomore Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) endorsed the Honda amendment, highlighting the importance of ACS data to private industry, economic development, and veterans assistance programs. Rep. Rosa De Lauro (D-CT) raised her hand to speak in support of the census and ACS, but the chairman prematurely ended debate. It gets like that sometimes after a long appropriations session.

Subcommittee Chairman John Culberson (R-TX) was not amused. He opposed the amendment, he said, because it did not propose to pay for the Census Bureau’s increase with funds from other programs within the bill (called an offset), thus busting the sacred “caps” set for each appropriations bill. Fair enough, and Rep. Honda planned to withdraw his amendment for that reason anyway.

But Rep. Culberson went on to point out that, while the census is important, the subcommittee had to make difficult choices about which programs deserved the most money. There’s manned space flight to Mars (Houston, which I represent in Congress, we have a problem.), counter-terrorism and anti-crime initiatives, those erstwhile Pacific coast salmon, neuroscience, and manufacturing institutes. “We’ve had to prioritize within the bill,” the congressman concluded. In fact, full committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY), in his opening remarks, had already highlighted “savings” in the bill from “lower priority” programs in the massive appropriations measure. See, I did not make this up.

On the bright side, there were no raids on the Census Bureau’s budget piggy-bank this time. Maybe Representatives are starting to feel a bit chagrined that a proposed 91 percent funding boost for the 2020 Census, to help the bureau get up the mountain in time, turned into a 17 percent molehill. But there’s still plenty of time for the Legislative branch to embarrass itself again when the full House takes up the Commerce spending bill, possibly as soon as next week.

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.

Houston, We Have a (Traffic) Problem

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

Houston-area residents have been wasting a lot of time in traffic. Fortunately, Federal Highway Administration funds have helped expand the US 290/Hempstead Corridor, the major artery bringing commuters to and from their jobs in and around the Lone Star State’s largest city.

I know this because Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) highlighted the $267 million in federal grant money for this project on his congressional website. Rep. Culberson is the new chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that decides how much money the U.S. Census Bureau should get every year.

I don’t know a whole lot about the US 290 expansion project, but I instinctively like it. I’m impatient by nature, and there is nothing I dread more than sitting in traffic.

Right now, there are millions of Americans fuming in their cars and on crowded transit platforms and buses, wondering why their duly elected representatives can’t do something to ease the pain of their daily slog to work. Enter Congress, which helpfully authorizes and funds massive transportation programs to widen highways and improve public transit. Lawmakers could dole out highway and transit funds to the community whose commuters tweet the most curses per hour. But that would raise the national social media noise level considerably.

So Congress has taken a more reasoned approach. Localities must demonstrate their need for taxpayer dollars with data showing, for example, population growth (current and projected), commuting patterns, and road usage and capacity. Where do they get this information? A primary source is the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), the modern version of the census long form. The ACS asks a rolling sample of American households about “journey to work” and access to vehicles, among other questions that help policymakers assess community conditions and needs. Hey, I feel for my Houston brethren, but I want some assurances that they really need those road improvements before sending my hard-earned tax dollars their way. We’ve got traffic problems of our own on the East Coast, heaven knows.

Chairman Culberson doesn’t much care for the ACS. The survey is an invasion of privacy, he told the Secretary of Commerce at a hearing last month to review the department’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget request. In fact, the congressman doesn’t think the government has a right to ask Americans for any information beyond the number of people in their household. (He did helpfully suggest that the IRS already knows some things about us and that the Census Bureau could use those data instead. The bureau is exploring that possibility.)

The congressman’s distaste for the ACS is unfortunate. Maybe even a bit incongruous? He proudly points out that the U.S. 290 improvements will “attract new businesses to Houston.” The Greater Houston Partnership (the local Chamber of Commerce equivalent) is working hard to make that happen. In testimony opposing legislation to make response to the ACS voluntary in 2012, Vice President of Research Patrick Jankowski described how the GHP used ACS data on demographic diversity, commute times, occupation (engineers, scientists, etc.), and other socio-economic characteristics to help 34 companies relocate, expand, or stay in Houston, with investment commitments of nearly $750 million and creation of thousands of jobs. This is a wonderful thing, people. If I were the GHP, however, I’d be having nightmares about how to make the business case for Houston without comprehensive, neighborhood-level data — available only from the ACS — to show what the metro area has to offer. Equally important, the ACS lets Houston tout its advantages over other cities, because the survey produces comparable data for every community in the country. Without this universal information, Houston leaders might have to resort to a billboard alongside US 290, saying “Pick me, pick me!”

ACS critics suggest that the survey somehow violates an anti-tyrannical principle of our nation’s birth. But the Founding Fathers themselves envisioned the decennial census as a vehicle for gathering data that would inform prudent and fair governance. Then-Representative James Madison successfully argued that the first Census Act should authorize the collection of information beyond a “bare enumeration of inhabitants; it would enable them [legislators] to adapt the public measures to the particular circumstances of the community,” to enable “the legislature… to make a proper provision for the agricultural, commercial, and manufacturing interests” of the country.

Look, I value my privacy as much as the next guy. But I’m with Mr. Madison on this one: I value my right to know what’s going on in this complicated world just as much.

# # #

Author’s note: I note with sadness, but also with great admiration and fondness for a wonderful mentor, the passing of Dr. Janet Norwood, Commissioner of Labor Statistics from 1979-91. Her obituary in The Washington Post (March 31, 2015) ended with a quote from Dr. Norwood, “You can’t have a democratic society without having a good data base.” Thank you for the timely reminder, Janet.

What Price Democracy?

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

The Census Bureau was off to a relatively good start this year in the mysterious and powerful world of those who hold the purse strings, known fondly to many of us as the House and Senate appropriations committees. Or so I thought.

Last week, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker took the hot seat before the Senate panel that funds the federal government’s commerce, justice and science programs. This would be the subcommittee (albeit, with several new members) that barely acknowledged the existence of a census at last year’s budget hearing. The panel is heavily populated by lawmakers from coastal states, who apparently have nightmares about uncharted weather catastrophes and depleted fishing stocks.

But the 2020 Census got their attention this year, maybe because the Obama Administration requested a 91 percent funding increase to ramp up planning in Fiscal Year 2016 for the next decennial count. Which, if I haven’t mentioned recently, will be in full swing five years from now.

Panel Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) actually led off his opening statement and questioning with census-related concerns. He noted matter-of-factly the need for a significant funding increase to double-down on 2020 Census planning, and he cautioned the secretary to closely watch preparations to avoid future cost-overruns that could leave less money available for other Commerce Dept. programs. The subcommittee’s senior Democrat (and former chairwoman), Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), briefly mentioned the technology “boondoggle” before the 2010 Census, and that was it. On to New England fisheries, support for U.S. manufacturers and that pesky “polar gap” in weather satellite coverage.

But things went downhill for the Census Bureau from there. The new chairman of the House Commerce/Justice/Science spending panel doesn’t much care for the American Community Survey (ACS), the modern version of the census long form. It’s “intrusive,” he told Secretary Pritzker when she appeared before his subcommittee this week, and the government doesn’t have a right to ask about anything other than the number of people in a household… or ancestry. Ancestry? Where did that come from?

But let’s move on. Ever since the Census Bureau wrapped up the last decennial census, appropriators have indicated that they aren’t willing to spend more on the 2020 Census than they did on the 2010 count. The lifecycle cost of the last population canvass was roughly $13 billion. The Census Bureau thinks it can meet that goal if all of the sweeping reforms it is considering work as envisioned. That’s a big “if,” what with budget shortfalls delaying, cancelling or streamlining critical research and testing of these new initiatives over the past few years. We simply don’t know yet if a markedly redesigned census can ensure an accurate count, especially in historically undercounted communities, and produce the detailed race and ethnicity data needed to implement the Voting Rights Act, as a threshold matter.

But Rep. Culberson apparently isn’t satisfied with those cost-saving efforts. “We don’t have $13 billion to spend on a census,” the chairman told Secretary Pritzker. The congressman wanted to know if the Census Bureau is ready to use Internal Revenue Service records and other government databases to help bring down census costs. The secretary gamely tried to emphasize the importance of testing, testing, testing, to see if that idea, which of course is under consideration, is a viable option. But I’m not sure the chairman has thought this through. If the Census Bureau doesn’t have enough money to thoroughly vet the use of administrative records to supplement or replace direct address canvassing and door-to-door visits, the 2020 Census could cost $1 or $2 billion more than the congressman says we can’t afford to spend. Nevertheless, Rep. Culberson again made it clear that “we won’t have the money next year” to meet the Census Bureau’s budget request.

And that tells me just about everything I need to know. Because if Congress can’t spend $13 billion over the course of a decade to carry out its very first obligation under the U.S. Constitution and to ensure fair political representation for all communities, no matter how difficult to count, then we might have to kiss our storied democracy good-bye and book a seat on that one-way mission to Mars. After all, the Johnson Space Center is pretty darn close to Chairman Culberson’s Houston district. I’m thinking some of that census money will end up fueling a mission to outer space.

Welcome 114th Congress: No Time for a Nap

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director 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.