Back to the Census Future

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

I have snapped out of my daydream of a Trump-like path to the 2020 Census, where everything is easy and will end up just fine because, you know, we’ll get great (not stupid!) people and take an amazing census. A headline blaring from the front page of the The New York Times woke me up.

Cut In Budget May Hamper 2000 Census

Oh, wait. Wrong year; wrong census. That was 1995! Yes, it’s census déjà vu all over again. No wonder I can’t sleep at night.

Twenty years later, Congress once again has failed to grasp the concept of ‘invest now, save later.’ This would be the same Congress that wants government to run more like a business: to think and act proactively; to take bold action to contain costs without sacrificing quality.

Except some lawmakers seem to think that the Census Bureau can wave a magic wand and change the game plan it’s followed since 1970. Generate administrative records to replace more costly door-to-door visits! Produce materials in more than 50 languages! Conjure up a nimble communications plan to convince every household in the world’s melting pot to participate! Build a secure IT infrastructure that can handle 8 million hits a day and process 140+ million cases! Cue the light saber, because that’s what we’ll need when the money isn’t there.

Earlier this year, the House of Representatives decided it believes in fairy godmothers. The Appropriations Committee capped Fiscal Year 2016 spending on 2020 Census planning at $400 million, less than two-thirds of the President’s $663 million request. Even that was too much for the full House, which cut another $117 million from the Periodic Censuses and Programs account, with a significant chunk presumably eating away further at 2020 Census funding.

Senate appropriators were marginally more generous, increasing the Periodics account by $22 million over Fiscal Year 2015. That would be for the entire account, which also includes the 2017 Economic Census, American Community Survey, and vital activities that support the census, such as the geographic framework and enterprise-wide data processing system. I’m not good at math, but I don’t think that leaves much of a ramp-up for the 2020 Census,

There is some good news, though. The FY2016 budget process broke down completely after that, with the White House and congressional Democrats objecting to the spending caps (sequestration) put in place by a grand budget deal two years ago. (You know you’re living in a parallel universe when Congress’ inability to fund the federal government on time is something to cheer about.) Congress bought time with a temporary spending bill (Continuing Resolution) that runs through December 11th.

Last week, lawmakers and the President finally brokered a deal that boosts overall spending on non-defense discretionary programs in FY2016 by $33 billion. Appropriators must now divvy up that windfall among the twelve annual funding bills (including the Commerce, Justice, and Science measure that covers the Census Bureau) and agree on final budgets for agencies and programs.

Meanwhile, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a joint subcommittee hearing this week on the progress of 2020 Census planning, with a focus on IT systems. Lawmakers are spooked by the ghost of the Census Bureau’s costly failure to equip census takers with mobile devices in the 2010 Census, and they want assurances that a vastly larger plan to automate the 2020 Census won’t fall flat.

But I am equally worried by what I didn’t hear at Tuesday’s session: how will sweeping reforms to the census process address the historic, disproportionate undercount of people of color, young children, limited English proficient and low-income households (both rural and urban)? No one asked a question that would illuminate the answer, although a few Members highlighted the need for adequate funding to prepare for the census.

The Census Bureau has a lot of work to do — and a lot of questions to answer —between now and late summer of 2017, when the 2018 End-to-End Readiness Test (with an April 1, 2018 “Census Day”) begins. Without sufficient funding, it will focus its efforts on building a basic framework for 2020 — IT systems, the mailing package and questionnaire, office locations, reasonable address list improvements. Elements that get to the heart of a fair count — targeted advertising; language assistance; partnerships with trusted voices in hard to count communities; thorough evaluation of administrative records; even development of statistical tools to measure accuracy — will continue to get short shrift.

There will be a lot of competition for that extra money in the Omnibus FY2016 spending bill.

Congress has a second chance to show that it cares not just about a cost-effective census, but an accurate one. Let’s hope it uses that opportunity wisely.

Postscript: O Canada! In 2010, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party majority in Parliament decided to let Canadians opt-out of the quinquennial (still love that word!) census long form, the equivalent of our American Community Survey (ACS). When the voluntary 2011 National Household Survey failed to produce reliable data for a quarter of all places and some key socio-economic indicators (such as household income), data users — from business leaders, to municipal governments, to researchers — were wringing their hands.

Earlier this year, Conservatives blocked a bill sponsored by Liberal Party MP Ted Hsu to restore the mandatory long form. But now-Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party vowed to restore the mandatory long form, if elected. And wouldn’t you know, within days of taking office, Trudeau did just that, with two Cabinet Ministers making the announcement today. The Toronto Globe and Mail even reported that the former Conservative Party MP who pushed the voluntary long form now says he “would have done it differently” and asked more thoughtful questions in trying to determine how best to protect privacy and ensure data security. Are you listening, U.S. Congress?

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.