American Planning Association Blog Post on 2020 Census

Inadequate Funding Imperils a Fair and Accurate 2020 Census

By Jason Jordan, director of policy, American Planning Association, and Trevor Grady, government affairs associate, American Planning Association

In less than three years the 2020 U.S. Census will be conducted. While that might seem like a long time, the reality is that the next months are critical to a successful decennial count. And there are significant reasons to be concerned about the upcoming census.

Many census experts are worried that the run-up preparation for Census 2020 is being seriously underfunded. The Census Project, an advocacy coalition of which APA is part, has charted the 10-year funding cycle for past decennial censuses. In each of the past four decades, there was a marked increase in years seven and eight to fund a comprehensive field test and develop new techniques. That isn’t happening this time around.

The recently completed final FY 2017 federal spending agreement saw funding at $164 million below the level called for by the Census Bureau. The news for FY 2018 is potentially much worse.

While in past years Congress would be using this year to ramp up for the coming count, the budget proposed by the Trump administration would be essentially flat from 2017 to 2018. In a statement, the Census Project said the budget is “woefully underfunding preparations for the next census at a critical phase in the planning process.”

A Census at Risk - Spending During Four Census Decades
Chart of census spending through four decades by The Census Project. Census 2020 is at the bottom. Sources: Congressional Research Service, courtesy Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.). *2018 figure from Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as reported by the Washington Post.

Yesterday advocates and census experts convened during a briefing with congressional staff to discuss funding issues and the growing concerns about preparations for the census.

Shortfalls in resources for 2020 preparations would also likely have negative implications for other census tools, such as the American Community Survey, because those programs would face a squeeze with resources potentially diverted to deal with mounting costs for decennial preparation. ACS could also face damaging amendments when Congress considers new appropriations legislation.

At this pivotal time, the Census Bureau is also without key leadership.

Earlier this month, Census Bureau Director John Thompson unexpectedly stepped down. His decision to leave the agency was in part a result of Trump administration’s lack of support in the budget. The resignation helped highlight the potential crisis. APA joined partner organizations concerned about vital federal data in calling for the Trump administration to swiftly appoint a well-qualified new leader for the Census Bureau.

Yesterday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was set to testify before a House Appropriations Subcommittee. Census issues are sure to be a big part of the discussion. Now is an important time for planners to engage with legislators about the critical value of census data and the need to ensure both solid leadership at the Census Bureau and full funding for both an accurate 2020 count and essential data tools for local decision making like ACS.

APA has made the defense of federal data a major priority for advocacy and will continue working with partners to support funding for vital data programs. Federally funded data underpin good local and regional plans, so it’s essential that we push Congress now to support the Census Bureau.

This article was originally posted on the American Planning Association’s website on May 26.

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!

Deadline for Census Funding Approaches

By Phil Sparks

Over the past two months, the Census Project’s stakeholders and allies have visited scores of key congressional offices to talk to members of Congress and their aides about the upcoming 2020 Census budget crisis.

2020 Census Funding Lagging at Critical Phase

 

As the chart above shows, the planning and execution of each decennial census runs on a 10-year cycle. Funding ramps up for a field test of new census counting techniques in each year ending in 8, leading up to the decennial.

But, Congress has provided woefully inadequate funding for the 2020 Census over the past few years as compared with previous decades.

Now, Congress and the new Trump administration must find the funds to properly fund the 2020 Census. In three separate letters to Congress, organized by the Census Project, a diverse group of organizations — ranging from governors and mayors to business groups like realtors and home builders to civil rights groups like the NAACP — each urge Congress to properly fund planning for the 2020 Census.

Soon, because of the pending April 28 federal budget deadline, Congress must act!

Losing Sleep (While Counting Sheep)

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Census stakeholders, my head is spinning with thoughts of 2020 census planning.

Sure, you might think the next census is too far in the future to keep you up at night. (Plus, I bet most of you would rather let me do the worrying.) But let me quote the Census Bureau’s new counter-in-chief, John Thompson, who told a House subcommittee at a September 11 hearing, “budget uncertainty is causing significant concerns for the 2020 census program as we enter that period during which it is crucial to conduct tests so that we can begin applying new technologies and methods … We have already delayed planned research and testing activities to later years … We cannot further delay critical research that will help us make critical design decisions for those systems.”

Let’s stipulate to one shared goal: The 2020 census can’t look like the 2010 census. For one thing, the nation can’t afford the $30 billion price tag of repeating an outdated census design. Equally important, the way we communicate with each other has changed rapidly.

Automation is the buzzword for 2020, but despite the fact that many of us live on our gadgets, a cyber-census (you heard it here first!) isn’t as simple as it might seem. Will data be secure if census-takers bring their own devices (BYOD)? Can we design a questionnaire that people can navigate as easily on a smartphone as on a computer and that works across all operating systems (the ones we use now and the ones that Google, Microsoft and Apple have yet to dream up)? Will people welcome emails, text messages and cell phone calls from the Census Bureau (where did they get my information — from the NSA?)? And what about people who want to respond online without a unique code tying them to a specific address? The challenges are broad and deep.

There could be significant savings (up to $2 billion, the agency says) if the bureau tapped into demographic, housing and geographic information already in the hands of other government agencies. These administrative records could, potentially, eliminate the need for a universal sweep of the nation’s addresses before the census starts; identify vacant homes, to avoid costly follow-up; determine the best days and times to call or visit unresponsive homes; identify households that might have neglected to report every resident; and yes, even to add people to the count without knocking on their door.

But the Census Bureau must work out separate deals with each federal agency and state holding useful records; much of this data-sharing could require changes in federal or state laws. And each dataset has its strengths and weaknesses — Medicaid records, for example, do not have names or street addresses, only social security numbers and birth dates — which could require linking one set of records to another.

I know I sound like a broken record, but the Census Bureau needs money to figure all of this out in time. The bureau can execute a fundamentally redesigned 2020 census for the 2010 census price tag (plus inflation), Director Thompson says. Invest now, save later — that’s the bottom line.

So let’s review where things stand for the fiscal year (FY2014) that begins today. For starters, we can flip the calendar back to FY2013 for a while. The Census Bureau must make do with last year’s funding level, which was 13 percent below its budget request, while Congress figures out how to … ummm … get its act together. Then we hold our breath while lawmakers decide whether to slide backwards another $45 million (courtesy of House appropriators; H.R. 2787), give the agency most of what it needs (thanks to far-sighted Senate appropriators; S. 1329), or settle on some amount in between.

The census is a 10-year process, a cyclical activity that starts small and builds to the grand finale of enumerating every household in a vast, diverse nation. There is a ramp-up to that denouement, one that starts modestly and escalates as we hurtle towards the “zero” year. But the direction, once planning starts, has to be up.

Wikipedia describes a “ramp up” as the period between product development, and maximum capacity utilization, characterized by product and process experimentation and improvements. Sounds like a logical business practice, right? (Think of the time and investment in research it takes to bring new prescription drugs to the market.) You would think lawmakers would want the Census Bureau to operate like an efficient corporation. But long-term fiscal planning isn’t Congress’ strong suit, now, is it?

The Census Bureau needs $245 million in FY2014 to keep 2020 census planning on track; the House bill cuts that amount by more than a third ($91 million). Already delayed by a year are all of the tests scheduled for this year and next; some tests have been cancelled. The bureau has pushed back the field test of the 2020 Census form to FY2016, which is getting uncomfortably close to the April 1, 2017, and April 1, 2018, deadlines for submitting topics and questions, respectively, to Congress. Perhaps most troubling, the Census Bureau won’t nail down a design framework until late FY2015, a year behind schedule, leaving less time to develop systems and operations.

Did I mention that the next census starts in less than six years? The Census Bureau can do a lot of things, but it cannot stop the clock. I bet Director Thompson is having a few sleepless nights, too.