Mid Life-Cycle Crisis

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

We’re halfway through the decade, which means that 99.9 percent of Americans are not spending their waking hours worrying about the nation’s next constitutionally mandated population canvass. (A similar percentage applies to esteemed members of the national legislature, most of whom couldn’t put planning for the census lower on their list of priorities if they tried. Rep. Ted Poe, however, apparently is losing a lot sleep over the census-related American Community Survey, which he is sure will be the death of liberty and the republic.)

Let’s face it: Congress doesn’t do long-term planning well. The 2020 Census is far beyond the horizon for most lawmakers. Although, strangely, the same subcommittee that funds the Census Bureau doesn’t seem to have trouble grasping, let’s say, the long haul required to put a manned spacecraft on Mars. Maybe that’s because the Johnson Space Center is in the neighborhood of the panel’s chairman, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX). There are tangible benefits to cranking up NASA’s budget, like jobs and contracting opportunities. I thought the Census Bureau was on to something when it announced that one of its two 2016 census field tests will be in Harris County, TX (the other site is Los Angeles County). But that didn’t stop the chairman from slashing the President’s FY2016 budget request of $663 million for 2020 Census planning by more than 30 percent, and then standing by while the full House cut another $117 million from the Periodic Censuses and Programs account, lest anyone think the census really mattered.

The Senate Appropriations Committee took a stab at a more rationale approach. It lauded the value of ACS data for decision-making. It acknowledged the early planning efforts for the 2020 count as “conscientious.” But then, whack!, down came the budget knife, potentially taking 15 percent of the ACS sample and timely development of 2020 Census IT systems, operational infrastructure, and promotion activities with it. The committee allocated a meager funding bump of $22 million for the entire Periodics account, despite the President’s proposed $320 million ramp-up just for 2020 Census planning. Committee Democrats called the funding level “irresponsible.” (The full Senate has not considered the Commerce Appropriations bill.)

Census managers seem remarkably calm about the whole funding crisis. They speak in soothing, measured voices and sound like civilian versions of military commanders planning a major tactical campaign. (Which they are, by the way. Trust me: there will be a war room at the Census Bureau in 2020.) Presentations at the 2020 Census Quarterly Management Review on July 10th were replete with impressive descriptions of the arduous, intricate planning required for a decennial census. The jargon is mind-boggling to a layperson, replete with phrases like “resource loaded” and “baselining the operational plan” and a “slide deck library” for each operation and “workload optimization.” Put it all together, and you’ve got the workings of the nation’s largest peacetime mobilization.

Maybe it’s just too much for Congress to wrap its head around. Maybe they’d rather wing it, Trump style. (Speaking of The Donald, let us pause to contemplate that the next president will preside over the 2020 count.) Given the lack of meaningful congressional oversight so far, and resistance to paying for a robust planning process, we might have to take a few cues from the Trump playbook to get through this decennial obstacle course.

Forget the complexity of operations that have to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle — or two or three jigsaw puzzles layered on top of each other. Just “deal with it.” Don’t worry: we’re going to get GREAT people who know what they’re doing! Concerned about the dearth of detailed race and ethnicity data in administrative records that might replace door-to-door visits to unresponsive households, the absence of which could hamper enforcement of civil rights laws? Too bad, people, because we’re tired of being politically correct.

What about census accuracy? If you’re plowing ahead Trump style, the numbers might be squishy. Case in point: the candidate claimed that 15,000 people attended his rally in a Phoenix convention center that holds 2,000, with fire marshals permitting up to 4,000. But, hey, who’s counting? (Pun intended.) Anyway, people in every state are incredible, and we love them (and they love us!), so we’re sure we’ll find all of them.

Why fork over money for the painstaking research and testing required to evaluate how the digital divide will affect Internet response rates, the ability of targeted address canvassing to spot housing changes in rural and dense inner-city communities, the workability of the operational control system across different electronic platforms, the materials needed to reach Americans whose primary language is not English? Trust me: we’ll get GREAT people who know what they’re doing! Believe me; this is going to be the GREATEST census this country has ever seen!

It’s going to be amazing. Heck, maybe we can get Mexico to pay for it.

Houston, We Have a (Traffic) Problem

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

Houston-area residents have been wasting a lot of time in traffic. Fortunately, Federal Highway Administration funds have helped expand the US 290/Hempstead Corridor, the major artery bringing commuters to and from their jobs in and around the Lone Star State’s largest city.

I know this because Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) highlighted the $267 million in federal grant money for this project on his congressional website. Rep. Culberson is the new chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that decides how much money the U.S. Census Bureau should get every year.

I don’t know a whole lot about the US 290 expansion project, but I instinctively like it. I’m impatient by nature, and there is nothing I dread more than sitting in traffic.

Right now, there are millions of Americans fuming in their cars and on crowded transit platforms and buses, wondering why their duly elected representatives can’t do something to ease the pain of their daily slog to work. Enter Congress, which helpfully authorizes and funds massive transportation programs to widen highways and improve public transit. Lawmakers could dole out highway and transit funds to the community whose commuters tweet the most curses per hour. But that would raise the national social media noise level considerably.

So Congress has taken a more reasoned approach. Localities must demonstrate their need for taxpayer dollars with data showing, for example, population growth (current and projected), commuting patterns, and road usage and capacity. Where do they get this information? A primary source is the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), the modern version of the census long form. The ACS asks a rolling sample of American households about “journey to work” and access to vehicles, among other questions that help policymakers assess community conditions and needs. Hey, I feel for my Houston brethren, but I want some assurances that they really need those road improvements before sending my hard-earned tax dollars their way. We’ve got traffic problems of our own on the East Coast, heaven knows.

Chairman Culberson doesn’t much care for the ACS. The survey is an invasion of privacy, he told the Secretary of Commerce at a hearing last month to review the department’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget request. In fact, the congressman doesn’t think the government has a right to ask Americans for any information beyond the number of people in their household. (He did helpfully suggest that the IRS already knows some things about us and that the Census Bureau could use those data instead. The bureau is exploring that possibility.)

The congressman’s distaste for the ACS is unfortunate. Maybe even a bit incongruous? He proudly points out that the U.S. 290 improvements will “attract new businesses to Houston.” The Greater Houston Partnership (the local Chamber of Commerce equivalent) is working hard to make that happen. In testimony opposing legislation to make response to the ACS voluntary in 2012, Vice President of Research Patrick Jankowski described how the GHP used ACS data on demographic diversity, commute times, occupation (engineers, scientists, etc.), and other socio-economic characteristics to help 34 companies relocate, expand, or stay in Houston, with investment commitments of nearly $750 million and creation of thousands of jobs. This is a wonderful thing, people. If I were the GHP, however, I’d be having nightmares about how to make the business case for Houston without comprehensive, neighborhood-level data — available only from the ACS — to show what the metro area has to offer. Equally important, the ACS lets Houston tout its advantages over other cities, because the survey produces comparable data for every community in the country. Without this universal information, Houston leaders might have to resort to a billboard alongside US 290, saying “Pick me, pick me!”

ACS critics suggest that the survey somehow violates an anti-tyrannical principle of our nation’s birth. But the Founding Fathers themselves envisioned the decennial census as a vehicle for gathering data that would inform prudent and fair governance. Then-Representative James Madison successfully argued that the first Census Act should authorize the collection of information beyond a “bare enumeration of inhabitants; it would enable them [legislators] to adapt the public measures to the particular circumstances of the community,” to enable “the legislature… to make a proper provision for the agricultural, commercial, and manufacturing interests” of the country.

Look, I value my privacy as much as the next guy. But I’m with Mr. Madison on this one: I value my right to know what’s going on in this complicated world just as much.

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Author’s note: I note with sadness, but also with great admiration and fondness for a wonderful mentor, the passing of Dr. Janet Norwood, Commissioner of Labor Statistics from 1979-91. Her obituary in The Washington Post (March 31, 2015) ended with a quote from Dr. Norwood, “You can’t have a democratic society without having a good data base.” Thank you for the timely reminder, Janet.