The Case for a Mandatory ACS: Count on Americans to Get It Right

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

I have to start today’s census musing with an apology of sorts. It occurred to me, as I relay Appropriations Committee proceedings with tongue firmly in cheek, that some readers might think I do not like fish. Or, to be more precise, that I do not appreciate the importance of the fishing industry and coastal zone preservation. Au contraire, mon amis: I love the fishermen (oops, sorry; channeling you-know-who for a moment there), regularly consume fish, and live in a coastal state myself. It’s just that, when one is waiting patiently for a sign — any sign — that lawmakers appreciate the fundamental importance of a successful census and reliable data to the very foundation of our democracy, and the conversation keeps turning to counts of, um, fish, one can become despondent over the possibility that the nation’s largest, most inclusive, and most complex civic activity will get the short end of the budget stick. Again.

I had to get that off my chest before the Senate Appropriations Committee takes up the Census Bureau’s Fiscal Year 2017 funding bill (Commerce, Justice, and Science, or CJS) this week. As CJS Subcommittee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) helpfully noted when Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker testified in March, the largest chunk of new money for department programs is for 2020 Census planning.

The total request for the 2020 Census is $778 million; related activities, such as the new enterprise data processing system and geographic system updates, will support that effort. The Census Bureau also needs $251 million for the decennial census’ conjoined twin, the American Community Survey (ACS), to maintain a reliable sample size and continue researching new methods that will make it easier for the public to respond — a primary congressional goal.

Chairman Shelby told the Secretary that he is worried the Census Bureau is behind schedule in meeting its milestones to prepare for the census. Vice Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) reminded everyone that past enumerations have been plagued by “techno-boondoggles” (I did not make up that word), but that an accurate census remained the top goal. We will wait with baited (a fishing term!) breath to see how much money the committee is willing to spend on the bedrock of the nation’s democracy, but I find it hard to grasp how cutting the budget at this point will move the needle in the right direction.

At the March hearing, Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) engaged the Commerce chief in the most substantive discussion about Census Bureau programs. In 2012, then-Rep. Lankford helped steer his House colleagues off the cliff into a data black hole, by championing an amendment to eliminate the ACS entirely. His distaste for the survey — whose results help guide the allocation of billions of dollars through other parts of the same appropriations bill, she said without a hint of irony — seems not to have waned; he offered, and then withdrew, an amendment to make ACS response voluntary during consideration of last year’s CJS bill.

This year, the Senator pressed Secretary Pritzker for information on Census Bureau research into making the ACS a more pleasant experience for households fortunate enough to be selected for the nation’s premier survey on the well-being of our communities. Okay, he didn’t exactly say it that way. Nevertheless, we haven’t heard much about the “2015 Summer Mandatory Messaging Test,” so perhaps it would be helpful to consider the findings before lawmakers think again about relieving put-upon Americans of their duty to answer a few queries confidentially for the common good.

Using the September 2015 ACS sample as a test-bed, the bureau evaluated the consequences of several design and messaging changes to ACS materials (e.g. envelopes, questionnaire, reminder postcard, etc.). The modifications included “softening” (by wording choice, visually, or both) or even removing the mandatory response tagline (which currently reads, “Your response is required by law.”) from some or all of the mailings, and highlighting the survey’s importance and benefits.

But before we look at the results, let’s take a quick trip down memory lane, to when lawmakers first got the itch to let Americans opt out of a civic duty that helps ensure a fair, equitable, and informed society. In 2003, at the direction of Congress, the Census Bureau tested the implications of making the ACS a voluntary survey. The outcome was not pretty: mail response rates would plunge; costs — and, ironically, the burden on the public — would rise significantly ($90+ million/year, according to the latest estimate), due to greater reliance on more costly telephone and door-to-door follow-up and the larger sample size necessary to compensate for lower response; and data reliability for smaller communities (towns! neighborhoods! rural counties!) and smaller populations (people with disabilities! veterans! ethnic subgroups!) would drop, perhaps beyond the point of acceptability.

The findings were so stark that Congress barely said another word about mandatory response for almost 10 years. (Our Canadian friends, however, apparently didn’t get the memo. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party pushed through a bill to make their census long form voluntary. Predictably, the renamed 2011 National Household Survey was a data disaster for less populous and geographically smaller areas. The outcry from the business community, municipal officials, and policy researchers was loud enough to prompt a swift restoration of the mandatory survey when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office last fall.)

The Census Bureau’s 2003 test and Canada’s experience provided consistent evidence of what Congress and the nation would lose if ACS response were voluntary. Never ones to be deterred by a universally panned idea, however, House Members voted three times to make ACS response optional; Senators, fortunately, refused to go along.

The Census Bureau is taking congressional concerns about the ACS’s perceived intrusiveness seriously. It has consulted with the best survey experts in the business and is researching ways to replace some survey questions with data from other government datasets (administrative records) and ask others less frequently. Then there is last year’s test of design modifications and different ways to convey that response is mandatory.

And whadda’ya know? The experimental design that strengthened the mandatory message and added a plug about the importance of the survey yielded the best outcome in terms of response rates, data reliability, and cost, even compared with the current materials. Self-response and final response rates were “significantly” higher, leading the bureau to project cost savings of $7.3 million per year and better data reliability (i.e. reduced margins of error in the data, which is, after all, derived from a sample). In fact, if the bureau continued to spend the same amount of money on the survey, it could increase the sample size by 4.7 percent, thereby reducing margins of error even more. (If the bureau reduced the sample size but maintained current data reliability, costs would drop even further.)

On the flip side, experimental designs that diminished the emphasis on mandatory response yielded, almost across the board, “significantly” lower response rates. If that were to happen, the Census Bureau would have to decrease the sample size by up to 12 percent, resulting in worse data, or increase the sample size by up to 11 percent to maintain data reliability, at an additional cost of up to $42 million. In other words, pick your poison: pay more, or risk more unusable data, all in the name of keeping the survey mandatory but not letting Americans in on the secret.

Here’s what I think. Most Americans are willing to do their part in support of a strong democracy and good governance. Tell them clearly and honestly why what you’re asking them to do is for the public good, and demonstrate that you don’t take their cooperation lightly and will not abuse the privilege, by continuously innovating and having some faith in your most important customer — the American people.

Congress, are you listening?

Down the Drain

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

Dear American Community Survey (ACS) data users:

Have you recovered yet from the loss of the 3-year estimates, which offered reliable data for places with populations of 20,000 or more, often capturing trends that one-year estimates for larger places (65,000 population and above) can’t document as well? (Just to refresh your memories, we can chalk up the elimination of that dataset to budget cuts in the current fiscal year.)

I hope so. Now, get yourself another stiff drink, because the path Congress is following for next year’s budget (Fiscal Year 2016) could set the survey back even further.

Let’s start with the House of Representatives. Last month, Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) rallied his colleagues to turn the nation’s premier survey into an optional exercise, lest the government ask too much of its citizens in furtherance of democracy. By “rallied,” I mean his amendment to make ACS response voluntary passed the chamber at 10:37 p.m. with only the appropriations subcommittee chairman and ranking member on hand to listen or muster an “aye” or “no” (otherwise known as a voice vote).

The congressman’s proposal was no surprise. Over the past month, he’d taken to news outlets in his Houston district to rail against “government overreach at its worst.” The ACS question on flush toilets in the home really rankled him, so he will be tickled to know that the question is going down the drain next year.

This is the third time the House approved a “voluntary response” amendment to the Census Bureau’s annual funding bill. Let’s hope it’s not the charm. Because based on Canada’s recent experience with a voluntary census “long form” (the equivalent of our ACS), the result would be plummeting response rates, significantly higher costs, and loss of reliable data for small and less populous areas, as well as small population groups. Canada couldn’t produce data for a quarter of its places after the 2011 National Household Survey.

But maybe senators will save the day! In fact, the Senate Appropriations Committee seems to rather like the ACS. In its report on the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) funding bill (H.R. 2578), the panel was full of praise for the nation’s premier survey. That show of support apparently was enough to deter Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) from pressing ahead with his amendment to let Americans opt-out of the ACS (he “offered and withdrew” it), saying only that he hoped House and Senate negotiators would resolve the issue down the road. In other words, he hasn’t given up the fight.

A shout-out to CJS Subcommittee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) is in order, for seeing the light on the importance of the ACS. But don’t raise a toast to the Senate just yet. Because appropriators weren’t in the mood to put their money where their mouths are.

Yes, data for “small towns and rural areas” are important! Yes, the ACS is “often the primary or only source of data for States, localities, and Federal agencies” on many policy topics! But, we regret to inform you that we just don’t have the money to sustain the ACS sample size, which is necessary to produce high-quality estimates for neighborhoods, small counties, American Indian reservations, race and ethnicity subgroups, veterans, people with disabilities.

Okay, the committee didn’t actually say that. But cutting the Periodic Censuses and Programs account budget request by 30 percent is bound to weaken the survey significantly, at least for the foreseeable future, while the bureau scrambles to research ways to bring down data collection costs. Those 5-year estimates, which average enough data to produce reliable estimates for small areas? They just might turn into 6-year estimates, making the measurements less timely and stable. The committee’s senior Democrat, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), summed up the proposed funding level in one word: irresponsible.

House appropriators, on the other hand, were perfectly happy to let us know how much they dislike that “burdensome” survey. In fact, majority members were downright “disappointed” that the Census Bureau dropped only one question (medical or business office on property) from the survey so far, as part of an in-depth content review; they directed the agency to find other nonessential questions to ax post haste.

Then, they drove the point home with a 20 percent cut to the ACS budget, capping spending for next year at $200 million. And that was before the full House slashed another $117 million from the account covering the ACS and 2020 Census planning. “Completely shortsighted” was how the committee minority described the Census Bureau’s funding level, saying the data are needed to “better understand and predict changes in the American economy and the health of American communities, which in turn helps inform good public policy.” Imagine that.

People, I don’t know if you are shaking your heads, throwing your hands up in the air, or heading back to the liquor cabinet right about now. But maybe you should whip out your laptops and fire off a message to your elected representatives, letting them know that plunging the nation into data darkness will not enhance their reputations as enlightened lawmakers.

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up!

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

Sometimes, my blog practically writes itself. I mean, it’s hard to make this stuff up!

Take, for example, the recent census hazing in the House of Representatives. As lawmaker after lawmaker rose to offer amendments chipping away at the Census Bureau’s budget — already down 9 percent coming out of committee — I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Or maybe visit an otolaryngologist; the hearing is one of the first things to go at my age.

Anyway, most offenders took pains to convince colleagues (really, who else but a few fellow census junkies and I would be watching this stuff on C-SPAN when the sun was already rising over Moscow?) that their census piggybank raid was only a teensy percentage of the agency’s budget. Apparently, they forgot the well-known analogy that if everyone in the office sneaks one cookie from the box in the communal kitchen, there won’t be any Thin Mints left when the boss comes in to satisfy his sweet tooth. Okay, I made that up, but you see where this is going. First, $110 million, then $4 million, $3 million here, $12 million there, and soon you’re talking about the entire 2015 “ramp up” for 2020 Census planning.

Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its version of the FY2015 Commerce, Justice, and Science funding bill (S. 2437) last week. Discipline reigned — Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Ranking Minority Member Richard Shelby (R-AL) run a tight ship — with nary a raiding amendment to be heard during the entire markup. Senate appropriators deserve some credit; their spending measure includes $1.15 billion for the Census Bureau, with a $66.7 million cut to the account that covers the 2020 Census and ACS (compared to a $238 million cut in the House; the Senate bill reduced President Obama’s total Census Bureau request by $62.5 million, adding $4 million to the request for the Current Population Survey in the second agency account).

But the Senate isn’t cutting the Census Bureau any slack. The committee reminded everyone that the 2020 Census should cost less than the 2010 count, not adjusting for inflation. And then it prodded the agency to secure administrative records from federal, state and local agencies pronto, to help reach that goal. As if datasets are primed, consistent, thorough and ready for transfer at the click of mouse. I have a nagging feeling that lawmakers have not come to grips with the complexity of redesigning the census.

But, back to our friends in the House, whose very membership in that august chamber depends on an accurate census (she said without a trace of irony). The drip-drip-drip actually started in the House Appropriations Committee, with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-CA) pilfering $1 million from the census account to help disabled veterans and exploited children. Hard to point the finger there. Except, you can’t open the floodgates and then say you didn’t realize the water would pour out. Sure enough, coastal fisheries soon snapped up another $10 million. And when no one thought to ask whether the Census Bureau might need money to plan for the nation’s largest peacetime mobilization or produce the data that actually guide program dollars to the home district, lawmakers quickly caught on that census funding was theirs for the taking. The madness stopped only after the subcommittee chairman did the math on the House floor and concluded that we might not have a census in 2020.

Truth be told, it’s easy for legislators to draw a straight line between, say, Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grants (funded through the same bill as the Census Bureau) and more cops on the street, crime prevention, and drug treatment centers in their backyards. The press release just rolls off the tongue. But the fact that these very grants are allocated based on a state’s share of violent crime and population (equally weighted), with population calculated to the hundredth of a percent?Now, that’s getting into the formula weeds, and Congress doesn’t do nuance very well. It’s a press secretary’s nightmare.

And so we have the Senate Appropriations Committee summary of its funding bill, highlighting the $376 million allocated for Byrne grants and other programs that help “fight violent crime, gangs, and terrorism” and “keep our communities safe.” The nation’s primary source of information about its well-being, progress and needs? Didn’t even warrant a footnote in a seven-page press release.

It’s on to the full Senate, and then negotiations to iron out differences between the two measures. Now, if we can only fend off those Alabama red snappers, Pacific coast salmon and Maryland crabs when the bill hits the Senate floor in the coming weeks.

Postscript: A Census Project Blog shout-out to Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Keith Ellison (D-MN), who circulated a Dear Colleague letter urging House members to reject cuts to the Census Bureau’s budget and proposals to make American Community Survey response voluntary; and to Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-VA), who made a point of telling his colleagues that an amendment he was offering, to increase funding for specialized veterans treatment courts, did not tap the Census Bureau for money.

A Sweet Pot of Honey

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

News flash: The 2020 Census was on the congressional radar screen — if only for a few brief, but shining, moments.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), who heads an appropriations subcommittee, opened his panel’s hearing this week on the Commerce Department’s FY2015 budget request by talking about the census. Eureka!

The Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee amicably discussed the Commerce Department’s funding needs with Secretary Penny Pritzker for two hours. The secretary gave a repeat performance the next day before Senate appropriators. As lawmakers took their turns questioning a personable and well-prepared Pritzker, I was all ears.

Chairman Wolf noted the Obama Administration’s proposed 28 percent funding increase ($754M) for 2020 Census research, testing and planning. (The 2020 Census includes the American Community Survey.) He hoped the cost of the next census wouldn’t exceed the $13 billion price tag for the last one. Which he then reminded everyone was the cost of a new weather satellite. Uh oh.

The National Weather Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, Satellite and Information Service, and their parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), got a lot of air-time at both hearings. There are sea bass fishermen in Rep. Andy Harris’ (R-MD) coastal Maryland district. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) is concerned about weather satellites. Ranking Member Chakah Fattah (D-PA) praised the weather agency for saving lives.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), ranking member on both the appropriations committee and subcommittee (translation: influential), schooled me in the challenges facing the red snapper industry. After learning about catch limits, stock assessments and curtailed fishing seasons, I shall henceforth view any selection of a fish entrée as a contribution to the nation’s economic engine. (Putting a positive spin on things, Secretary Pritzker noted that red snappers are getting bigger.)

But I digress. Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) (also of both the committee and subcommittee) reminded everyone several times that her panel was heavy on coastal representation. A virtual caucus of legislators knee-deep in the intricacies of the Commerce Department’s vast reach over everything marine, all under the auspices of NOAA. Which eats up more than 60 percent of the department’s budget. Did I mention that there is a “polar gap” in satellite coverage, which can affect livelihoods along our – um – coasts? When Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) highlighted the importance of disaster assistance for fisheries, the chairwoman practically said “amen.”

Speaking of the economy, I learned that Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) is responsible for doling out community rebuilding grants after a natural disaster. For example, after devastating tornadoes hit Alabama a few years ago. In the district of subcommittee member Rep. Robert Aderholdt (R-AL). Which is not on the coast, by the way.

Appropriators are very concerned about the economy, especially rebuilding the manufacturing sector, stopping unfair trade practices and boosting exports, creating jobs, and supporting innovation. That would be Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Manufacturing Extension Partnership, Minority Business Development Agency, International Trade Administration, Patent and Trademark Office, and National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Which brings me back to the Census Bureau, one of 11 major Commerce agencies. After my “eureka” moment at the start of the House hearing, I had to wait a good long while for the topic to come up again. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) finally weighed in, noting that the census needs to ramp up for 2020 and wondering if the Census Bureau would be ready. Cue the secretary’s talking points about a “timely, trusted, and accurate” census for a lower cost per household. Good, said Rep. Diaz-Balart, because after the 2010 Census, Miami-Hialeah area officials were shocked when their Community Development Block Grant funding went south. Something must have been wrong with the count, the congressman said; perhaps there were too many vacant high-rise units — symbols of the recession’s real estate bust — in the count? And after suggesting that the Census Bureau work more closely with local leaders, it was on to travel and tourism because, you know, Commerce houses the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries. Miami is a gateway to the U.S. for much of the world. It’s also on the coast.

Rep. Wolf did loop back around to the census during his closing set of questions. Recent data breaches at major retailers clearly were on his mind when he expressed doubt about using personal devices for door-to-door interviewing. Cyber-security is a top priority for the Census Bureau, the secretary assured him, pointedly emphasizing the need to test the “Bring Your Own Device” concept. NIST, by the way, is ground-zero for protecting the nation’s cyber-security infrastructure.

The chairman also sought assurances that the Census Bureau is taking seriously congressional concerns about the American Community Survey’s response burden on the public. Oh, and he questioned the administration’s proposal to cut $45 million from the National Weather Service’s budget.

The Census Bureau’s work barely crossed the Senate radar screen, save a couple of references to the debacle with handheld devices before the 2010 enumeration. Sen. Mikulski did cheerfully inform the secretary that fishing is part of Maryland’s “psychic identity.”

The total request for the Commerce Department is $8.8 billion. That $1.2 billion for the Census Bureau in FY2015 is starting to look like one sweet pot of honey.