The American Community Survey: Blessed by the Founding Fathers

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

I’ve been losing sleep ever since several members of Congress (including a former judge!) posited at a congressional hearing last month that the Census Bureau was overstepping constitutional bounds by requiring people to answer questions on the American Community Survey (ACS).  The ACS relieved the decennial census of its long-form burden after Congress urged the Census Bureau to streamline the decennial count and provide policymakers with more timely information.  But more on that in a moment.

Now, I’m an advocate of informed decision-making.  I think we Americans have a duty to help our nation understand its collective condition and shared future direction.  But an unconstitutional government intrusion into our private lives?  Not on my watch.  The idea that our census agency has been violating fundamental tenants of our treasured founding blueprint since the nation … well, became a nation … has been keeping me up at night.

Fortunately, none other than “Father of the Constitution” James Madison has come to my rescue.  When the House of Representatives debated the very first census bill in 1790, this founding patriarch and primary author of the Bill of Rights observed that lawmakers now had “an opportunity of obtaining the most useful information for those who should hereafter be called upon to legislate for their country if this bill is extended so as to embrace some other objects besides the bare enumeration of the inhabitants; it would enable them to adapt the public measures to the particular circumstances of the community.  In order to know the various interests of the United States, it was necessary that the description of the several classes into which the community was divided, should be accurately known; on this knowledge the legislature might proceed to make a proper provision for the agricultural, commercial, and manufacturing interests, but without it they could never make their provisions in due proportion.”  (As cited in Government Accountability Office, Legal Authority for American Community Survey, B-289852, April 4, 2002)

I couldn’t have said it better myself (though heaven knows I’ve tried).  But let me translate into 21st century English.  The census gives us a chance, Madison said, to collect data that lawmakers can use to make informed decisions that meet the needs of the nation’s people and communities — decisions related, for example, to the agricultural, business, and manufacturing sectors.  A range of data beyond the number of people in each household, which backers of a voluntary ACS suggest is the only constitutionally permissible purpose of the census, would ensure that Congress allocated resources based on actual conditions.  Imagine that!

As for the ACS, it was Congress, starting in 1991, that not-so-gently nudged the Census Bureau to give up the traditional vehicle for collecting demographic and socio-economic information — known as the “long form” — and to continue its “embrace … of other objects” (to quote the oh-so-eloquent James M.) on a more frequent basis from a sample of households spread out across more years.  Congress never suggested that the ACS would not continue to be a part of the census, perhaps knowing full well that lawmakers had tied half a trillion dollars annually in domestic program funding to the results.

Of course, Congress has been known to pass legislation that doesn’t quite pass constitutional muster.  That’s why we have the Supremes, who determined in 1870 that Congress has unquestionable power to require both a population count and the collection of additional statistics in the decennial census.  (The Legal Tender Cases, Tex.1870; 12 Wall., U.S., 457, 536, 20 L.Ed. 287)  It’s just what our fourth president envisioned to help the legislature, of which he was then a part, make wise decisions.  Whew!

I’m sleeping better already.  Sweet dreams!

An Internet Census and the Digital Divide

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

In my last post, I gave a shout-out to my father, who I fear could be overlooked by a largely electronic census, given dad’s likely nonagenarian status in 2020. Older Americans uncomfortable with today’s gadgets are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to population groups that the Census Bureau might have difficulty reaching through the Internet.

It does seem like everyone is walking around with a smartphone glued to their ear, or reading their news or the latest Stephen King novel on a tablet. But the hard facts — gleaned from a Census Bureau survey on Internet usage — tell a different story.

In Exploring the Digital Nation: Home Broadband Internet Adoption in the United States, the Commerce Department reported that more than three-fourths (77 percent) of U.S. households own a computer, be it handheld or sitting on a desk or lap. But computer ownership and broadband adoption are not spread evenly across household income levels, race and ethnicity, age, level of education, disability status, and geographic location.

Consider a few of the reports specific findings:

  • Seventy-three percent of urban (metropolitan area) households use the Internet, compared to 62 percent in rural (non-metropolitan area) households. Seventy percent of urban households have broadband access; 57 percent of rural households do.
  • More than four-fifths of Asian households and roughly three-quarters of non-Hispanic White households use the Internet. Less than 60 percent of Black, American Indian and Alaska Native, and Hispanic households can access the Internet at home.
  • Forty-six percent of households with incomes below $25,000 have home Internet access, compared to 84 percent of households in the $50,000 – $75,000 income bracket. There also are significant broadband adoption differences by household income: Nearly 90 percent of households in the $75,000 – $100,000 income range access the Internet using broadband; only 43 percent of households in under-$25,000 group do.
  • Less than half of household heads with a disability use the Internet, compared to three-quarters of those without a disability.

A more fine-grained analysis of the data revealed greater variability by socio-economic characteristic; the department reported, for example, that less than 30 percent of Black rural homes whose head of household lacked a high school diploma use a computer. Commerce Under Secretary (and Deputy Secretary-designate) Rebecca Blank told reporters at a press briefing (11/8/11) that the large gaps in access to broadband and Internet use were “striking and not something we expected to see.”

For census apostles, the most worrisome aspect of the disparate access to computers and reliable Internet is that, to a significant degree, many population groups lagging behind technologically are historically harder to count in the census and prone to disproportionate undercounts. Furthermore, a quarter of households without Internet access cite affordability as a major barrier to this service. Current economic trends do not favor better financial circumstances for lower income households.

Earlier this fall, I mused about the lightening pace of technological change, which will present significant challenges for the Census Bureau as it designs a less-costly enumeration for 2020 over an eight-year span. No doubt, access to computers and the Internet will increase across all demographic subgroups with time. But as new technologies emerge, differential access to those tools is likely to persist.

All of these factors pose significant challenges for the Census Bureau, as it tries to balance the obvious advantages technology offers for ease of participation, operational efficiency and cost containment, with the need to count people who cannot or will not respond electronically. (To complicate the census planning process, U.S. Postal Service budget woes might slow the delivery of first-class mail across the country; Saturday delivery might also be a historical footnote by decade’s end.)

So, yes, I agree with Census Director Robert Groves that 2020 must be a “multi-mode census. … We must move beyond the mailback questionnaire and the personal interview … to ensure that the response options for the census reflect the communication platforms that people are using.” (Testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services, and International Security, April 6, 2011.) But some of those modes will be more costly and traditional than others, and Congress must be mindful of the digital divide as it decides how much money to spend on planning and execution of the next decennial count.

 # # # 

From the Census Project family to yours:
Happy holidays and best wishes for 2012!
(REMEMBER: The next census is only eight years away!)

Raiding The Census Piggy Bank

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

With the smell of turkey and sweet potato pie in the air, Congress finally approved funding for the U.S. Census Bureau for the fiscal year that started seven weeks earlier. The so-called “mini-bus” appropriations bill — encompassing three of 12 federal appropriations accounts — allocates $943 million for the nation’s largest number-crunching agency (H. Rpt. 112-284).

Well, sort of. The bureau actually will receive $888 million in direct appropriations. Congress decided to dip into the little-known Working Capital Fund (WCF) for the remaining $55 million the Census Bureau needs to pull off the 2012 Economic Census, albeit a scaled-down version. More on that in a moment.

Not familiar with the WCF? For starters, it’s not really a fund. Rather, it’s a revolving account that is used to manage many of the Census Bureau’s core functions. Half of the account represents money from other federal agencies for reimbursable work, such as surveys. In other words, it’s not the Census Bureau’s money. The other half pays for what can loosely be termed “overhead” — that is, basic but essential operations that support all programs. Things like IT systems; the budget, human resources and communications offices; and salaries for the director and other managerial staff.

Appropriators decided that the Census Bureau could spare $55 million from this pot of money, so they wouldn’t have to find more discretionary funding to pay for essential census and survey activities. Last year, Congress permanently torpedoed $50 million of the WCF and pretended it had reduced federal spending by that much. Does anyone else detect a pattern here?

I worked in Congress for 14 years. It is with utmost respect for those who toil in legislative obscurity that I say, “People, the Working Capital Fund is not an appropriator’s piggy bank.” Yes, I am aware of the new Government Accountability Office report (GAO-12-56) suggesting that the Census Bureau allow more sun to shine on the WCF and establish operational performance measures to promote efficiencies. The congressional auditors also noted that dramatic fluctuations in spending on the decennial census require the bureau to save money in the WCF for a rainy day through an operating reserve. Which is now $50 million smaller.

But really, what part of its overhead should the Census Bureau sacrifice to come up with this large sum? The communications office annual budget is less than half that amount. Shut down its congressional liaison activities? Ditch the press releases that inform the media and stakeholders about data products? Congress doesn’t seem to grasp the connection between Census Bureau data and the myriad policy decisions the public and private sectors make on a daily basis, so why bother? Cut back on protecting confidential information from 40,000 daily cyber attacks? Better yet, why not shut down the website entirely, thereby negating the expense of maintaining an Internet presence and defending against hackers — a sort of two-for-one reduction?

Frankly, given the country’s dire economic straits, I think we need to be really creative. Why don’t we furlough the entire senior Census Bureau staff (including the director), and then bring them all back in five years so Congress can blame the agency for not trying hard enough to design a simplified, less costly 2020 Census. Speaking of which…

Have I mentioned that Senate appropriators smartly challenged the Census Bureau to take the 2020 census for the same amount of money it spent on Census 2000, without adjusting for inflation? I’m all for saving money. The Census Bureau must bring the per-household cost of the decennial enumeration under control. In fact, the census director took the unusual step of announcing the closure of half of the bureau’s 12 regional offices, without a nudge from Congress, in a preemptive move to bring costs down.

But to go from spending $13 billion (in current dollars) to take the 2010 census, to counting 10 percent more people for a third of that amount eight years from now? I’m not feeling it yet.

But I digress. Things could be worse for the Census Bureau. It could be languishing under a temporary spending measure (the insufferable Continuing Resolution) with the many agencies that couldn’t get on board a little bus to 2012 funding certainty. House appropriators proposed cutting 21 percent from the bureau’s budget request, potentially dooming the quinquennial detailed measurement of the nation’s economic activity. Cooler congressional heads prevailed in the final hour, offering enough money to proceed with core Economic Census functions. But the Survey of Business Owners is on the chopping block — the only source of data on business ownership by people of color, women and (yes!) veterans.

As for the rest of the bureau’s programs, I suspect managers spent the holiday weekend scouring their budgets for additional expendable activities. The agency can’t cut $55 million from overhead and function effectively, so programs such as 2010 census evaluations and data products, 2020 census planning, the American Community Survey, and other periodic functions must absorb some of the pain.

The real problem is that, in order to yield savings anywhere near the magnitude of those money-green sugarplums dancing in lawmakers’ heads, the Census Bureau must invest modest but consistent resources now to research and test forward-looking methods that will expand response options for increasingly complex household structures. Cutting the agency’s budget to the bare bones won’t generate the level of scientific foresight necessary to tackle the depth of challenges inevitable in a society as culturally, ethnically and politically diverse as ours.

Memo to Census Director Robert Groves: Hold on tight to that piggy bank next year!

Time Flies

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

When the House Appropriations Committee slashed the Census Bureau’s FY2012 budget request by 21 percent in July, a spokesperson for the chairman defended the steep cut by noting that the next census is nine years away (Huffington Post, 7/15/11). This astute observation reminds me of Hurricane Irene.

Readers, please bear with me. There is an important census point in here somewhere, I promise. A month ago, the storm was headed straight for my home state of Connecticut. Red Cross poster child that I am, I scurried around the house on a Saturday as landfall approached, filling buckets with water, lining up candles, bringing plants in from the porch, pulling out my three flashlights.

I checked the batteries. Darn, they all had expired last year, as had the extra ones in my attic stash. Now, I tend to be a Type A, “the sky is falling” kind of person. How had I ended up with a pile of batteries at the end of their useful life?

Like many of you (I’m sure), I had purchased super-saver packs of batteries eons ago, noting with satisfaction the ridiculously distant expiration dates. The kind of time gap that makes you smug about your foresight, storing emergency batteries for almost a decade to come. I mean, 2010 was so… far away. Those little copper-tops even made the move with us from Washington, D.C., to Connecticut, where I’ve used my flashlights just once in four years, during a raging Nor’easter.

But now a hurricane was headed straight at us. And that previously distant use-by date had somehow flown by unnoticed. Now it was too late: There was not a “D” battery to be found in all of New England. Sure, most of my expired batteries still worked, but for how long?

On Sunday, with Irene howling outside my townhouse, I awoke to find the lights still on. That I had dodged a bullet was more a result of luck than anything else. I wouldn’t have to rely on 10-year-old batteries, praying they would hold out for the five days much of my city was in the dark.

You see where I’m going with this, right? Nine years can slip by faster than you can secure the jib and batten down the hatches as the perfect storm rolls in. We can blithely dismiss the 2020 census as way too far in the future. There are higher priority programs to fund. There are too many issues that deserve our attention and demand our energy. Lawmakers can’t think beyond the next election.

But that same legislative body will turn around in 2017 and wonder why the 2020 plan looks suspiciously like the mail-and-knock design that has formed the core of census-taking since 1960. Without adequate time and resources to research emerging methods and test new operations, we will be stuck with outdated ideas that might accomplish some of the work, but won’t prepare us fully for the challenge and will cost the nation a pretty penny. Did I mention that some stores reportedly were charging $20 for one of those “D” babies during Hurricane Irene?

So it’s time to buckle down, census fans. Let your elected representatives know that research and testing are important steps on the road to 2020. That we can’t wait until 2017, or even 2014, to make modest but essential investments in planning to count a growing population for 30 percent of the cost of the last census, if wisdom Senate appropriators imparted in their FY2012 Commerce Department funding report [.pdf] is any guide. The havoc of a hurricane might pale in comparison to the inevitable chaos of counting 340 million people with outmoded methods and technologies.

Are you with me, storm chasers?

Back to the Census Future?

[Ed. note: Welcome back to the Census Project Blog, which will resume occasional posting on several critical census issues over the coming months.]

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

Federal statistics: They don’t get no respect!

Last week, Senate appropriators, mindful of the cutthroat competition to slash federal programs more than the next guy, thoughtfully suggested that the U.S. Census Bureau could design, plan and execute the 2020 census for the amount it spent on the 2000 count. Yes, you read that correctly. While keeping costs in line with the just-completed 2010 enumeration would be good, the appropriations panel wrote in its explanation of the Fiscal Year 2012 Commerce Department spending bill (S. Rpt. 112-78), paring the price tag to match 2000, without adjusting for inflation, would win a gold star.

The 2000 census cost almost $7 billion. My economist friends tell me the Senate directive would only give the Census Bureau the equivalent of $4 billion in 2000 dollars, 43 percent less than the Census 2000 budget, to enumerate 60 million more people and 22 million more housing units than it did 20 years earlier. (The 2010 count, which battled the symptoms of a punishing recession and post-9/11 world, cost $13 billion in current dollars.)

People (all 309 million of you!), I know you are thinking one of two things. Have Senators lost their minds? Or, won’t all the new-fangled technology allow the Census Bureau to count people for a fraction of the cost? Let’s examine both propositions.

First, the state of mind of our distinguished elected representatives. To be fair, the budget process has become so convoluted and devoid of any logical progression that even the most levelheaded lawmakers can be excused for their nostalgia. But $4 billion? That was the price tag for the 1990 census. You know, the one with the highest recorded disproportionate undercount of Black Americans. The one with the lower-than-projected mail response rate, maybe thanks to a data processing machine-friendly questionnaire that looked (and read) like an SAT test. The first census to be measurably less accurate than the one before it. 1990 was the last census to advertise with 2:00 a.m. public service announcements; to ignore the vital role of community-based organizations in promoting participation; to build address lists without substantial input from local officials.

The Senate Appropriations Committee was actually off to a reasonably good start when it allocated $943 million for Census Bureau operations in the fiscal year that starts October 1. The amount is 8 percent ($81 million) below the president’s request but $89 million more than House appropriators deemed sufficient for the nation’s premier statistical agency. (A spokeswoman for House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers rebuked the Census Bureau for “just complet[ing] a costly census that was riddled with questionable management decisions,” saying the committee was saving money for “higher priority programs” (Huffington Post, 7/15/11). Meanwhile, the same committee applauded the bureau’s request to promote and market ongoing surveys, “given the successful use of these programs in the 2010 decennial census” (H. Rpt. 112-169). Go figure.)

Senators clearly heard the uproar from an impressive range of data users when the Census Bureau said it would cancel next year’s economic census if Congress doesn’t come up with more money than the House was considering. They directed the agency to maintain the quinquennial survey of business and industry while focusing reductions on “periodic censuses and agency-wide administrative cost savings.” Never mind that the economic census is a periodic activity or that the census director announced a money-saving move to close six of 12 regional census offices months ago. In other words, rob Peter to pay Paul, because you aren’t getting enough funding for both. Like I said, no respect.

Which leads us to our second question: Won’t the Internet or other technology-based options for answering the census and gathering data in the field bring down costs substantially? Undoubtedly, modernizing the enumeration will help the Census Bureau keep costs under control. The bureau is testing Internet response in the ongoing American Community Survey, with promising results so far. The Washington Post reported (4/5/11) that 20 percent of Canadians responded by Internet in that nation’s last census; statistical experts hope twice that many will use the Web in this year’s Canadian count to achieve a cost-savings.

But the Census Bureau will have to spend some money now to save money later. Census Director Robert Groves told a Senate oversight panel last spring that the agency “know[s] it must innovate if we are to remain useful and relevant to the country. [T]his innovation is not likely to be funded by added resources; we must become more efficient.” The bureau requested a reasonable $67 million in FY2012 to start a three-year research and testing initiative to modernize and streamline the 2020 census.

Yet the Senate is telling the agency to cut back on census activities other than the economic census. That pretty much leaves wrap-up of the 2010 count or research on improving methods for 2020 on the chopping block. The bureau could halt efforts to measure the accuracy of the 2010 census and end the program that allows challenges to a city’s housing and population numbers (which adds few changes to the results, but tell that to the mayors!). I am having trouble following the logic here, given that Senate funders want the Census Bureau to dramatically reduce the cost of planning the nation’s largest peacetime activity while exercising a “unique opportunity” to “streamlin[e] operations, eliminate[e] wasteful processes … and tak[e] better advantage of technology.” The Census Bureau last year proposed an initiative to update the nation’s address list throughout the decade, potentially saving the hundreds of millions of dollars it would cost to confirm 100 percent of addresses right before the next census starts. Congress won’t cough up the modest amount of money requested for the new program.

I think I’m getting one of my famous census headaches. Maybe I’ll channel Rip Van Winkle and wake up in time for the 2030 count.