Cen­sus for 2020 may face fund­ing cri­sis, ex­perts say

Congress yet to ap­prove re­quest for fis­cal 2017; 2018 plan may fall short


The de­cen­nial cen­sus count has been a sta­ple of Amer­i­can life since the early days of the re­pub­lic, but at a time when pub­lic fund­ing is be­ing slashed and sci­en­tific data ques­tioned, cen­sus watch­ers fear that the 2020 count is head­ing to­ward a cri­sis.

The count typ­i­cally re­quires a mas­sive ramp­ing up of spend­ing in the three years pre­ced­ing it for ex­ten­sive test­ing, hir­ing and pub­lic­ity. How­ever, Congress has yet to ap­prove a fund­ing in­crease re­quested for fis­cal 2017, which be­gan in Oc­to­ber, and ex­perts say the White House’s pro­posed bud­get for 2018 falls far be­low what is needed.

In ad­di­tion, re­cent rhetoric from the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has left some groups fear­ful of shar­ing per­sonal in­for­ma­tion with the gov­ern­ment, fur­ther threat­en­ing the suc­cess of the count.

If the Cen­sus Bureau does not re­ceive sig­nif­i­cantly more than the White House has pro­posed, it could be “cat­a­strophic” for the 2020 count, said Terri Ann Lowen­thal, a former staff di­rec­tor of the House cen­sus over­sight sub­com­mit­tee.

“I think Congress is tak­ing a grave risk right now,” she said, adding that the bureau is in dan­ger of not be­ing able to af­ford a com­pre­hen­sive “dress re­hearsal” slated for 2018. “What Congress does in the next few weeks will re­ally de­ter­mine how much con­fi­dence both the Cen­sus Bureau and the pub­lic can have in the bureau’s abil­ity to take an in­clu­sive cen­sus in 2020.”

The cen­sus, which ev­ery 10 years counts ev­ery per­son in the United States, was man­dated by the Found­ing Fa­thers and has been called a key­stone of Amer­i­can democ­racy. The gov­ern­ment uses it to al­lo­cate pub­lic re­sources; busi­nesses use it to choose where to in­vest; and the count af­fects con­gres­sional re­dis­trict­ing.

In an­nounc­ing its bud­get last month, the ad­min­is­tra­tion touted its pro­posed $1.5 bil­lion for the Cen­sus Bureau as a $100 mil­lion “in­crease.” Crit­ics called that smoke and mir­rors, how­ever, not­ing that the White House was com­par­ing it to the 2016 bud­get of $1.37 bil­lion. The pro­posed amount is about $140 mil­lion less than the $1.64 bil­lion, or 20 per­cent in­crease, re­quested for 2017.

In past decades, the in­creases in the years lead­ing up to the count has been pre­cip­i­tous, with bud­gets some­times dou­bling be­tween the year end­ing in 7 and the year end­ing in 8.

Congress did not pass a bud­get last year, opt­ing in­stead for a con­tin­u­ing res­o­lu­tion that kept most fed­eral agen­cies funded at 2016 lev­els. Law­mak­ers are slated to pass the 2017 bud­get by April 28, and de­bate on fund­ing for 2018 could con­tinue into the fall.

Many agree that the bureau could stand to trim its bud­get. The 2010 count was the big­gest non-wartime mo­bi­liza­tion in Amer­i­can his­tory and the most ex­pen­sive cen­sus ever. With more than 500 field of­fices and 550,000 staff de­ployed across the coun­try, it cost $13 bil­lion over 10 years.

To carry out a sim­i­lar oper­a­tion this time would cost $17.8 bil­lion. But five years ago, Congress or­dered the Cen­sus Bureau not to spend more in 2020 than it had in 2010. So the bureau an­nounced changes de­signed to achieve “the most au­to­mated, mod­ern, and dy­namic de­cen­nial cen­sus in his­tory.”

In­stead of send­ing work­ers to walk 11 mil­lion blocks, it would com­pile new ad­dresses us­ing ge­o­graphic in­for­ma­tion sys­tems and ae­rial imagery. It would en­cour­age re­spon­dents to fill out ques­tion­naires online rather than by mail. It would use data from the pub­lic and what was avail­able from com­mer­cial sources.

The new ap­proaches would al­low the bureau to halve the num­ber of field of­fices and re­duce the num­ber of work­ers to 300,000 or fewer, keep­ing costs down, around $12.5 bil­lion over 10 years.

The prob­lem, crit­ics say, is that the new meth­ods must be tested well be­fore 2020. And that takes money. In­stead, the bureau is so short on funds that it has can­celed tests that were planned for this year and sus­pended devel­op­ment of a com­mu­ni­ca­tions cam­paign.

Fail­ing to beef up fund­ing now re­flects a penny-wise, pound­fool­ish, men­tal­ity, said Ar­turo Var­gas, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of NALEO Ed­u­ca­tional Fund, a non­profit group that pro­motes Latino par­tic­i­pa­tion in the po­lit­i­cal process.

“The bureau needs the money now,” he said. “It can’t be do­ing 2020 blindly. It should be tak­ing the time to do the test­ing now, to work out all the kinks, make sure the bureau gets it right, be­cause there are no do-overs af­ter 2020.”

Fund­ing for the Cen­sus Bureau does not all go to the de­cen­nial count. The bureau puts out the an­nual Amer­i­can Com­mu­nity Sur­vey (ACS), a more de­tailed ques­tion­naire sent to a smaller sam­ple of re­spon­dents, and the Eco­nomic Cen­sus, con­ducted ev­ery five years, in­clud­ing this year.

For the 2020 Cen­sus, the strain is al­ready show­ing. In Oc­to­ber, cit­ing un­cer­tainty about fund­ing, the bureau said it was can­cel­ing 2017 test­ing in Puerto Rico, the Stand­ing Rock Reser­va­tion in North and South Dakota, and the Colville Reser­va­tion and Off-Reser­va­tion Trust Land in Wash­ing­ton state. Ear­lier this year, the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice placed the cen­sus on its high-risk list.

Lack­ing money to test the cost­cut­ting mea­sures, the cen­sus might have to fall back on old meth­ods, ne­ces­si­tat­ing re­quests for emer­gency funds and ul­ti­mately driv­ing costs higher.

Cen­sus Bureau of­fi­cials did not re­spond to spe­cific ques­tions about fund­ing con­cerns. A spokesman said in a state­ment that the agency is “con­fi­dent in our abil­ity to com­plete an ac­cu­rate Cen­sus in a timely fash­ion.”

Un­der­fund­ing is not the only cen­sus-re­lated con­cern in the Trump era. In Jan­uary, a leaked draft ex­ec­u­tive or­der sug­gested adding a ques­tion about im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus. Such a move would likely dis­cour­age un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants from fill­ing it out. And last month, LGBTQ ad­vo­cates protested af­ter a list was re­leased of planned sub­jects for the 2020 ACS that for the first time in­cluded sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and gen­der iden­tity, then quickly rere­leased with that topic miss­ing. The bureau said the first ver­sion was an er­ror.

A pro­posal to add a ded­i­cated “Mid­dle Eastern or North African” op­tion to the race/eth­nic­ity ter­mi­nol­ogy in 2020 has tested well, but since the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, some who might have checked this cat­e­gory say they worry about be­ing tar­geted by the gov­ern­ment.

But th­ese con­cerns pale next to the prospect of in­suf­fi­cient fund­ing. A less ac­cu­rate cen­sus could mean a greater un­der­count of tra­di­tion­ally un­der­counted groups such as poor peo­ple, young chil­dren, im­mi­grants and non-English speak­ers, re­duc­ing pub­lic ser­vices and con­gres­sional rep­re­sen­ta­tion for them.

It also could greatly af­fect busi­nesses. For ex­am­ple, a com­pany de­cid­ing whether to build, from a shop­ping mall to a small store, needs to know how many prospec­tive cus­tomers and em­ploy­ees live in the vicin­ity, in­for­ma­tion they have typ­i­cally got­ten from cen­sus data. A less ac­cu­rate count would com­pro­mise this, es­pe­cially in less pop­u­lated ar­eas, said Howard Fien­berg, di­rec­tor of gov­ern­ment af­fairs at In­sights As­so­ci­a­tion, which rep­re­sents the mar­ket­ing re­search and an­a­lyt­ics in­dus­try.

“You have to have re­ally rock­solid data to be able to make the case” for new busi­nesses in more re­mote ar­eas, he said. “When we have un­cer­tainty, busi­ness goes nowhere.”

Congress has in the past turned down re­quests for fund­ing from the Cen­sus Bureau, some­times with dire con­se­quences, said Andrew Reamer, a re­search pro­fes­sor at the Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton In­sti­tute of Pub­lic Pol­icy at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity.

“The con­se­quence of not pro­vid­ing the fund­ing was that GDP es­ti­mates be­fore the Great Re­ces­sion were far too high, lead­ing pol­i­cy­mak­ers to un­der re­spond,” he said. “If we have an in­ac­cu­rate cen­sus, then busi­nesses will make poorer de­ci­sions, and there will be a cost.”


Cen­sus work­ers and vol­un­teers can­vass ar­eas of Ana­cos­tia and Congress Heights in an ef­fort to per­suade cit­i­zens to re­spond to the 2010 forms. The 2010 count was the big­gest non-wartime mo­bi­liza­tion in Amer­i­can his­tory and the most ex­pen­sive cen­sus ever.

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