Inaccurate 2020 Census: Bad for Business

During his confirmation hearing several months ago, Commerce Secretary and former businessman Wilbur Ross said that he appreciated the data gathered by the decennial census and the companion American Community Survey and used it frequently in his own business.

Among the major stakeholders in the Census Project are the National Association of Realtors, the National Association of Home Builders and the International Council of Shopping Centers.

A recent article in Forbes details the stakes of an inaccurate 2020 Census for some in the business sector.

Senate Appropriators Discuss Census Funding Concerns with Commerce Secretary

By Howard Fienberg, director of government affairs, Insights Association

“Not only did the Government Accountability Office add the 2020 Census to its high-risk list, but a critical computer system was recently discovered to have surpassed its budget by $309 million. As the 2020 Census approaches, such news does not instill confidence in the Department’s preparation for this constitutional requirement.”

Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) opened discussion about the Census Bureau at a recent hearing reviewing the Department of Commerce’s FY2018 budget proposal with a bunch of concerns about the decennial Census and how to fund it. Shelby chairs the Senate Appropriations CJS Subcommittee, which determines funding for the Census Bureau.

The 2020 Census “is very important to this committee,” Shelby continued, “because this is a very expensive item” with a “ballooning cost.” He asked Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to prioritize “activities to reduce overall cost.”

”How,” Shelby asked, “does the 2020 budget request keep the budget on track to ensure that the 2020 census remains at or below the cost of the 2010 census,” and “are changes planned for the upcoming year that will affect current cost projections?”

Secretary Ross started with the resignation of Census Bureau Director John Thompson. “We have appointed a temporary replacement for him and are actively seeking a new permanent director of the census. We hope to have that completed as soon as we possibly can.”

The Census Bureau has “been a great concern” for Ross, specifically “making sure we do accurately count every person where that person normally lives” and doing so “as economically as we can.” He continued:

“Census as you know undertook a very large technological change in the way the Census is taken. Their hope in that is to preserve the accuracy and yet reduce the budgetary cost. My concerns about it have been the complexity of what they’re trying to do and the number of moving parts that have to be brought together at the right time under the right cost. I’m particularly concerned that many of the key contracts are on a time and material basis and that is a very dangerous way to do contracting in that it has an implied incentive for the contracting partner to perhaps use more time than one might if it were on a fixed-cost basis.”

In response, the Commerce Department finance staff have partnered with OMB staff “to do a crash review of what has been going on and why there was suddenly this 47% surprise overrun, what are the implications for the relationships between the census department and these contractors going forward, and what may be the maximum possible cost we could encounter should we continue with the full technological effort underway, or should there be some modification.”

Ross indicated that he did not “have a high degree of confidence in the budget” request from the White House for FY18, but he promised the subcommittee “that when we come back, it will be a number we can stand behind.”

For more background, see the Insights Association 1-pagers on Census funding and the American Community Survey (ACS).

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This article was originally posted on the Insights Association’s website on June 20.

American Planning Association Blog Post on 2020 Census

Inadequate Funding Imperils a Fair and Accurate 2020 Census

By Jason Jordan, director of policy, American Planning Association, and Trevor Grady, government affairs associate, American Planning Association

In less than three years the 2020 U.S. Census will be conducted. While that might seem like a long time, the reality is that the next months are critical to a successful decennial count. And there are significant reasons to be concerned about the upcoming census.

Many census experts are worried that the run-up preparation for Census 2020 is being seriously underfunded. The Census Project, an advocacy coalition of which APA is part, has charted the 10-year funding cycle for past decennial censuses. In each of the past four decades, there was a marked increase in years seven and eight to fund a comprehensive field test and develop new techniques. That isn’t happening this time around.

The recently completed final FY 2017 federal spending agreement saw funding at $164 million below the level called for by the Census Bureau. The news for FY 2018 is potentially much worse.

While in past years Congress would be using this year to ramp up for the coming count, the budget proposed by the Trump administration would be essentially flat from 2017 to 2018. In a statement, the Census Project said the budget is “woefully underfunding preparations for the next census at a critical phase in the planning process.”

A Census at Risk - Spending During Four Census Decades
Chart of census spending through four decades by The Census Project. Census 2020 is at the bottom. Sources: Congressional Research Service, courtesy Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.). *2018 figure from Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as reported by the Washington Post.

Yesterday advocates and census experts convened during a briefing with congressional staff to discuss funding issues and the growing concerns about preparations for the census.

Shortfalls in resources for 2020 preparations would also likely have negative implications for other census tools, such as the American Community Survey, because those programs would face a squeeze with resources potentially diverted to deal with mounting costs for decennial preparation. ACS could also face damaging amendments when Congress considers new appropriations legislation.

At this pivotal time, the Census Bureau is also without key leadership.

Earlier this month, Census Bureau Director John Thompson unexpectedly stepped down. His decision to leave the agency was in part a result of Trump administration’s lack of support in the budget. The resignation helped highlight the potential crisis. APA joined partner organizations concerned about vital federal data in calling for the Trump administration to swiftly appoint a well-qualified new leader for the Census Bureau.

Yesterday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was set to testify before a House Appropriations Subcommittee. Census issues are sure to be a big part of the discussion. Now is an important time for planners to engage with legislators about the critical value of census data and the need to ensure both solid leadership at the Census Bureau and full funding for both an accurate 2020 count and essential data tools for local decision making like ACS.

APA has made the defense of federal data a major priority for advocacy and will continue working with partners to support funding for vital data programs. Federally funded data underpin good local and regional plans, so it’s essential that we push Congress now to support the Census Bureau.

This article was originally posted on the American Planning Association’s website on May 26.

Census Project Wrong, Trump Right!

After last week’s Census Project blog post stated that the FY 2018 Trump administration budget request for the Census Bureau contained just a $51 million increase for the Census Bureau, several sharp-eyed project stakeholders sent us email saying we were too generous to the new administration.

They said that the FY 2018 proposal for the Census Bureau was tens of millions of dollars lower. According to the administration’s own congressional testimony last Thursday, our Census Project stakeholders were right and we were wrong!

In testimony before the House Appropriations Committee’s Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommittee, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said that the budget request from the Trump Administration was a skimpy $1.5 billion, or just a $27 million increase for the Census Bureau next year.

Something now must give. Congress has to save the 2020 Census. Otherwise, Census Bureau options could include: savaging other important survey programs like the American Community Survey (ACS) and the Economic Census to salvage at least part of the 2018 End-To- End field test; cutting back important components of the test; or reducing test sites. None of these options are good ones.