Five reasons a robust decennial census benefits all Americans

This blog was originally posted on Urban Wire on December 18. 

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By Diana Elliott, Senior Research Associate, Urban Institute 

The past year has brought a flurry of news stories about the 2020 decennial census that reflect uncertainty about its success. Stories suggest several concerns, including persistent underfunding, the director’s unexpected resignation, challenges implementing technological innovations under budget constraints, and the potential appointment of a controversial leader.

This year and the next are critical for the planning and success of the decennial census, as field operations gear up nationwide for an effort so large that it increases the country’s labor force participation every decade. Recent events—including funding shortfalls, schedule delays, cancellation of key tests, and methodological concerns—have caused many to worry about the 2020 census, including the commerce secretary and the Government Accountability Office, which added the census to its “High Risk List” of government-wide programs in jeopardy.

The lack of appreciation for the importance of a robust and well-executed decennial census is also troubling. Declining response rates are one of the major drivers of escalating costs for conducting the decennial census. While some people are legitimately hard to count—because they live in remote areas, are transitory, or have language barriers, for example—others do not complete the questionnaire. If we all had a deeper appreciation for the census, it might face fewer challenges.

Here are five reasons a well-funded, robust, and apolitical decennial census is an important American asset, not just for researchers, but for all Americans.

1. It is a foundational tenet of our democracy.

The decennial census is mandated in article 1, section 2 of the US Constitution to ensure that “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers.” The founders of our country knew that a fair democracy was based on an accurate population count.

The decennial census is one of our country’s longest-standing legacies. It has been conducted every 10 years since 1790, and the rigor of its data has been a cornerstone for fair representation throughout the nation’s history.

2. It determines how to allocate spending for many federally funded programs.

In 2015, states received nearly $590 billion from 16 large federally funded programs, the allocation of which was determined by 2010 census counts. Programs covering health (Medicaid), infrastructure (Highway Planning and Construction), education (Head Start), and food security (National School Lunch Program) were among the allocations.

Research shows that certain groups—including people of color, renters, and young children—are more likely to be undercounted. Residents of every state have a vested interest in ensuring that their counts, including those typically undercounted, are as accurate as possible to receive a fair allocation of federal resources and to ensure civil rights.

3. It determines legislative districts and ensures accurate representation in Congress.

The decennial census is the basis for political redistricting and the apportionment of representatives across the 50 states. It also helps jurisdictions comply with the Voting Rights Act, which ensures that all voters have access to language assistance, if needed, when they cast votes in an election. Data collected in the decennial census ensure that democratic representation is fairly allocated.

4. It is the foundation for important data products and projections for the rest of the decade.

Census counts are the base population for national and state population projections, which are created for years between decennial censuses. Such projections constitute our country’s official population counts. Census counts are a key component of the weighting process for the American Community Survey (ACS) and ensure that those who participate in the survey adequately represent the American public. A rigorous decennial census matters for the total count of the population in 2020 and the accuracy of the data for the following decade, too.

5. It is a key information source for all groups and stakeholders.

Although only legislatively mandated questions are included on the decennial census (and ACS), the data collected are crucial not only for research institutions, but also for the business community, state and local governments, and historians and archivists. For example, commercial databases benchmark to population counts from the decennial census. Such data are then used by the business community to make better strategy, marketing, and development decisions. Without accurate census counts, decisionmakers would be hamstrung in their planning and development.

In our democracy, there are various ways to show up and be counted. When we cast a ballot in an election, our choice of leadership is counted. When we engage with leadership and political institutions, our voices and opinions are heard. When we complete our decennial census—whether by mail, online, or with an enumerator at our door—who we are is counted.

Demographics and our place of residence are the facts that undergird an accurate representation of our country and a fair allocation of resources. In an era when facts and data are threatened, maintaining the integrity of the decennial census should be front of mind for all Americans.

Politicization of the 2020 Census?

Numerous stories appeared in the media last week about the possible appointment of Professor Thomas Brunell, a GOP redistricting expert with no known management experience, to be deputy director of the Census Bureau.

Professor Brunell would be a political appointment replacing a career employee in the chief day-to-day operations job at the bureau. Several articles spell out the consequences of such an appointment by the Trump administration:

 

 

Radio Silence

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

It must have been spring fever. In a flurry of activity in May and June, House and Senate appropriators dutifully considered and approved their respective bills to fund Commerce Department (and many other) agencies next year, including a reader favorite: the U.S. Census Bureau. The House of Representatives went one step further, burning the midnight oil to pass the Fiscal Year 2015 Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill (H.R. 4660) over a two-day period.

But now it’s mid-July. You’ve been sitting at the edge of your seats, waiting anxiously for the next episode of the Census Bureau funding soap opera, ready to swing into action to save 2020 Census innovations and reliable ACS data from death by a thousand budget cuts. Or maybe you haven’t been thinking about this at all; a good book at the beach sounds like way more fun. But on the off chance you’re wondering about the radio silence since the Senate stood poised to tackle its version of the Commerce spending bill (S. 2437) more than a month ago, let me fill you in what you missed. Nothing.

In fact, the Senate couldn’t even muster the votes to start debate on the bill. The minority leader balked over an issue, completely unrelated to the bill, that no one quite recalls anymore. (I think it had something to do with coal.) Now, everyone seems to have thrown their hands up in the air and started counting down the days until a blissfully long August recess, after which it will be time to wipe the mothballs off the ineradicable Continuing Funding Resolution.

And here’s where you need to put your book aside and roll out of your lounge chair. Because if you thought the House’s $238 million raid on the Census Bureau’s budget spelled deep trouble for 2020 Census planning and other core surveys, think about the consequences of no funding increase at all for the nation’s premier cyclical program. As the name implies, a continuing resolution (CR) funds federal agencies at this year’s levels. Not exactly an ideal situation for a 10-year activity that must “ramp up” to stay on schedule, with immutable deadlines looming. Chief among those are required reports to Congress on the topics (April 1, 2017) and questions (April 1, 2018) for the 2020 Census (including the American Community Survey, the modern version of the census long form); Census Day (April 1, 2020); population totals used to reapportion the House of Representatives (December 31, 2020); and detailed population data to redraw congressional districts (March 31, 2021). Oh, the irony.

The Census Bureau, already behind schedule due to previous budgets cuts and funding delays, has four major 2020 Census field tests planned for FY 2015. Under the microscope will be cost-saving innovations and questionnaire updates: the feasibility of replacing universal pre-census address canvassing with targeted updating; using automation, real-time data and administrative records to manage and streamline costly follow-up with unresponsive households; new strategies to boost self-response, especially on the Internet, as well as methods for pre-registration and processing electronic responses that lack unique identifiers; revised questions on race and ethnicity; assistance for non-English speakers; and improving estimates of mail, online and telephone response. By the end of 2015, the Census Bureau must lock in a design for the next census and begin systems and operational development.

What to do, people? Time for what Washington-insiders quaintly call an “anomaly,” more easily understood as an exception to flat-line funding in the CR. Without one, either the 2015 census tests will start falling like dominos, jeopardizing the reforms needed to modernize the headcount, or the bureau will have to scale back other surveys to pay for them. The 2020 Census isn’t the only cyclical program at risk; planning starts next year for the quinquennial (still love that word!) 2017 Economic Census.

An anomaly for the Census Bureau in the all-but-inevitable FY 2015 CR seems like a no-brainer. Whether Congress will come to its census… er, senses… remains to be seen.