Slip Sliding Away: The Risk Factor Goes Up As 2020 Census Funding Goes Down

Editor’s note: This blog post was revised on July 11 to reflect more detailed information released by the Appropriations Committee.

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

I’m starting this blog post with one of my famous census headaches.

That’s because House appropriators are driving the wrong way — downhill and backwards — on the up ramp to Census 2020. I see a collision in the not too distant future: Congress doesn’t want to pay a lot for the next census, but it won’t put gas in the tank to keep the Census Bureau from stalling on the road to achieving that goal.

The Census Bureau is trying to wrap up its research and testing phase for 2020. Fundamental reforms in methodology and technology are on the table as the agency strives to curtail the big-ticket enumeration items, especially universal canvassing to confirm the address list and reliance on paper forms for every household in the nation. The bureau had hoped to select a design framework in 2014 so it could move forward with operational and systems development; now that’s not going to happen until 2015.

This year (FY2013), lawmakers cut the bureau’s budget request by 11 percent (more if you count another sneaky transfer of money from the Working Capital Fund). And now the House Appropriations Committee is taking another whack at the budget for Fiscal Year 2014; the Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee allocated just $845 million in its “committee mark” today, $44 million less than current year funding. The president requested $982 million, only a hair over his request for FY2013. That’s a cut of $137 million, or 14 percent, in discretionary spending.

Talk about rolling backwards down the hill… can I have another Excedrin, please?

Call me crazy (maybe it’s just the pulsing in my temples), but it almost looks like Congress has decided we really don’t need to plan for the next constitutionally prescribed decennial census — coming to a neighborhood near you in less than seven years. The Census Bureau can just envision ways to cut the cost of counting, cross its fingers, and hope for the best.

Field tests scheduled for 2013? A 28 percent funding cut forced the Census Bureau to cancel some and delay others, including key tests of strategies to encourage and facilitate electronic response in ways that preserve public confidence and ensure data security. An Internet response option could save big bucks during the census, but the methodology is far from simple. Do you send a letter to each household first, with a unique code for answering online, or could people somehow “pre-register” to receive a code for online participation? Should you mail a questionnaire if a household doesn’t answer online by a certain date, or just send an enumerator to the door? Would Americans welcome or reject text messages and emails from the Census Bureau, urging them to be counted, and how can everyone avoid the inevitable phishing schemes from false census.gov addresses (I’ve received two myself already)? I can’t answer these questions, and neither can the Census Bureau without thorough evaluation.

Possible changes to census questions? The American Community Survey is a cost-effective test-bed for proposed revisions, but the 2013 funding shortfall will push back a key content test from 2015 to 2016, which — in my opinion — is getting too close for comfort to the statutory April 1, 2017, deadline for submitting census topics to Congress.

The Census Bureau has made the hard choices for 2013: moving some research from the field to a desk; pushing back deadlines; reevaluating projects planned for next year. It is moving forward, for now, with research into a potentially big money-saver: using administrative records to identify possible undercounts and add people who might be missed during the census. But with the National Security Agency data mining program looming large in the American consciousness, that research must be thorough and robust before the Census Bureau can even hope for buy-in from lawmakers and the public. Important research into public trust and confidentiality concerns has been pushed back already. Without a funding increase in 2014, the agency won’t even be able to cover its staffing costs.

The risk of an unacceptably costly or unacceptably inaccurate census, or both, continues to go up as Congress continues to squeeze the Census Bureau’s budget during the critical research, testing and development phases of our decennial enumeration. The census is a 10-year program. Congress can invest in planning now, to keep the life-cycle cost of the enumeration in check ($13 – $18 billion, depending on the design, according to independent auditors), or keep letting the car roll backward — and dig itself out of a census ditch for $30 billion in a few short years.