A Sweet Pot of Honey

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

News flash: The 2020 Census was on the congressional radar screen — if only for a few brief, but shining, moments.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), who heads an appropriations subcommittee, opened his panel’s hearing this week on the Commerce Department’s FY2015 budget request by talking about the census. Eureka!

The Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee amicably discussed the Commerce Department’s funding needs with Secretary Penny Pritzker for two hours. The secretary gave a repeat performance the next day before Senate appropriators. As lawmakers took their turns questioning a personable and well-prepared Pritzker, I was all ears.

Chairman Wolf noted the Obama Administration’s proposed 28 percent funding increase ($754M) for 2020 Census research, testing and planning. (The 2020 Census includes the American Community Survey.) He hoped the cost of the next census wouldn’t exceed the $13 billion price tag for the last one. Which he then reminded everyone was the cost of a new weather satellite. Uh oh.

The National Weather Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, Satellite and Information Service, and their parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), got a lot of air-time at both hearings. There are sea bass fishermen in Rep. Andy Harris’ (R-MD) coastal Maryland district. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) is concerned about weather satellites. Ranking Member Chakah Fattah (D-PA) praised the weather agency for saving lives.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), ranking member on both the appropriations committee and subcommittee (translation: influential), schooled me in the challenges facing the red snapper industry. After learning about catch limits, stock assessments and curtailed fishing seasons, I shall henceforth view any selection of a fish entrée as a contribution to the nation’s economic engine. (Putting a positive spin on things, Secretary Pritzker noted that red snappers are getting bigger.)

But I digress. Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) (also of both the committee and subcommittee) reminded everyone several times that her panel was heavy on coastal representation. A virtual caucus of legislators knee-deep in the intricacies of the Commerce Department’s vast reach over everything marine, all under the auspices of NOAA. Which eats up more than 60 percent of the department’s budget. Did I mention that there is a “polar gap” in satellite coverage, which can affect livelihoods along our – um – coasts? When Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) highlighted the importance of disaster assistance for fisheries, the chairwoman practically said “amen.”

Speaking of the economy, I learned that Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) is responsible for doling out community rebuilding grants after a natural disaster. For example, after devastating tornadoes hit Alabama a few years ago. In the district of subcommittee member Rep. Robert Aderholdt (R-AL). Which is not on the coast, by the way.

Appropriators are very concerned about the economy, especially rebuilding the manufacturing sector, stopping unfair trade practices and boosting exports, creating jobs, and supporting innovation. That would be Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Manufacturing Extension Partnership, Minority Business Development Agency, International Trade Administration, Patent and Trademark Office, and National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Which brings me back to the Census Bureau, one of 11 major Commerce agencies. After my “eureka” moment at the start of the House hearing, I had to wait a good long while for the topic to come up again. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) finally weighed in, noting that the census needs to ramp up for 2020 and wondering if the Census Bureau would be ready. Cue the secretary’s talking points about a “timely, trusted, and accurate” census for a lower cost per household. Good, said Rep. Diaz-Balart, because after the 2010 Census, Miami-Hialeah area officials were shocked when their Community Development Block Grant funding went south. Something must have been wrong with the count, the congressman said; perhaps there were too many vacant high-rise units — symbols of the recession’s real estate bust — in the count? And after suggesting that the Census Bureau work more closely with local leaders, it was on to travel and tourism because, you know, Commerce houses the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries. Miami is a gateway to the U.S. for much of the world. It’s also on the coast.

Rep. Wolf did loop back around to the census during his closing set of questions. Recent data breaches at major retailers clearly were on his mind when he expressed doubt about using personal devices for door-to-door interviewing. Cyber-security is a top priority for the Census Bureau, the secretary assured him, pointedly emphasizing the need to test the “Bring Your Own Device” concept. NIST, by the way, is ground-zero for protecting the nation’s cyber-security infrastructure.

The chairman also sought assurances that the Census Bureau is taking seriously congressional concerns about the American Community Survey’s response burden on the public. Oh, and he questioned the administration’s proposal to cut $45 million from the National Weather Service’s budget.

The Census Bureau’s work barely crossed the Senate radar screen, save a couple of references to the debacle with handheld devices before the 2010 enumeration. Sen. Mikulski did cheerfully inform the secretary that fishing is part of Maryland’s “psychic identity.”

The total request for the Commerce Department is $8.8 billion. That $1.2 billion for the Census Bureau in FY2015 is starting to look like one sweet pot of honey.

My Lucky Day (A real ACS household in the family!)

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

I’m so excited; I might jump right out of my skin!

My dad just called from Connecticut. “Terri,” he said breezily. “We just got something in the mail from the Census Bureau. It’s called the… let’s see… the American Community Survey.” My heart soared!

Dad (age 83) seemed to appreciate the importance of the mailing they received. But I launched into my speech anyway. I described how special my parents were — one of only 295,000 households in the whole country to get the world’s premier survey each month. How the data are used by businesses, their local and state governments, federal policymakers. Everyone! Okay, he really didn’t need much convincing, but I had to practice my pitch.

“The ‘postcard’ I have says we can do this online,” dad said. He, who has never used a computer in his life (doesn’t even have a cell phone), started reading off the URL. I confirmed that would probably be the easiest way to respond; mom (age 81) is quite computer-literate. Sensing my glee at encountering a real, live ACS household, dad suggested they could wait until I came home for Passover in two weeks, so I could enjoy the experience with them. “NOOO!!! You really should do it now,” I counseled, explaining how the Census Bureau would have to send another letter, perhaps with a paper form, or even telephone for their responses, if they waited too long.

“Okay, well, your mother is busy tomorrow, but we’ll set aside some time the next day to do this.” Such a civic-minded person, my father.

There was one more question: “So, if we do this on the computer, how do they know that it’s us entering the information?” Good question, dad-with-the-engineer’s-mind. I ticked off facts about unique identifiers, barcodes and geo-coding each address to an exact location, which in the low-tech speak for which I am well known probably amounted to, “Trust me, they know what they’re doing.”

I can’t wait to hear about their survey-responding experience when I see them in a couple of weeks. But if they start complaining about nosy or ridiculous questions, I’m sending them straight to the Census Bureau’s new (relatively) Respondent Advocate. (I’m looking at you, Tim Olson.)

As I hung up the phone, I thought back to when my then 11-year-old daughter was crushed when we didn’t get the 2000 Census long form. Probably the only person in the entire U.S. of A. to feel let down by this omission. (“No, we can’t trade with a neighbor who might have received one.”)

People get excited for different reasons. Hey, whatever floats your boat!

2020 Or Bust: Halfway to the Next Count (No Fooling!)

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

I have seven words for Congress as it considers the president’s Fiscal Year 2015 budget request: Remember the Affordable Care Act website launch!

I know. You do not want to be reminded of that painful chapter in President Obama’s signature program. But didn’t someone once say, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it?” For some reason, I am stuck on historical quips today.

Six years from now, tens of millions of American households will be firing up their desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones to answer the census paper-free. And the 2020 Census website has to work like a charm. Right away. Because unlike the new healthcare law, there can be no deadline extensions, no months-long fixes, no do-overs, in the middle of a census. The more people that answer the census in the final weeks of March and first weeks of April, the more accurate the data — pegged to April 1, 2020 — will be.

If history is any guide, a third of us won’t respond on our own. Then begins the nonresponse follow-up slog, with an army of census takers knocking on doors and coaxing the forgetful, recalcitrant and fearful remainder into answering a handful of simple questions. In another decennial first, these temporary workers will record answers on electronic gadgets, either government-issued or their own.

A recent Time magazine cover story chronicled how a group of “high-tech wizards” came together last October to fix the troubled health care website in six weeks. That’s all well and good. But it can’t happen during a decennial census. How many people will say “the heck with this,” if the 2020 Census website balks when they try to log on and fill out their form? How many will shut the door if a census taker’s tablet goes on the fritz mid-interview? We don’t want to find out the hard way.

People lost confidence, for a good many months, in healthcare.gov and, by extension, the entire Affordable Care Act. They started returning to the website in larger numbers in the early months of 2014. (Nevertheless, as the deadline for enrollment loomed yesterday, “software bugs” took the website down temporarily again!) Confidence lost is hard — and costly — to win back. The Census Bureau will not have the luxury of rebound time.

The administration’s goal for ACA enrollees was 7 million in the first year. The Census Bureau has to count 130 million households — 330 million people — and tabulate the results for congressional reapportionment. In nine months. The Constitution requires it.

At this point, you might be saying to yourself that the Census Bureau has offered an Internet response option for the American Community Survey, an ongoing part of the decennial census, for over a year. More than 50 percent of households in the survey are now responding online — a hopeful sign, to be sure. But the ACS samples fewer than 300,000 addresses a month. A system that can handle 150,000 online forms doesn’t tell us what we need to know about one that will need to manage (if we’re lucky) upwards of 8 million hits a day during peak census operations. Talk about scaling up!

Did I mention telephone assistance? Anticipated call volume from the public and census staff, coupled with outgoing calls to conduct interviews, may overwhelm a centralized call center, the bureau says. It’s time to start hatching a “hybrid” or decentralized plan.

The mid-decade year marks the start of the operational development and systems testing phase for 2020. Contracting offices must be up and running in 2015, with research and development teams ready to define requirements for more than 30 interrelated IT systems needed to run the nation’s largest peacetime mobilization. Let’s not kid ourselves: the Census Bureau had trouble in this department during the last go-round, abandoning plans to use handheld devices in the field at the eleventh hour. Congress had to fork over an extra $2 billion. This time, the bureau has to get it right.

Greater use of technology is just one component of this decade’s major census-process overhaul. Previous budget cuts and sequestration delayed or cancelled field tests and research into innovative, but complex, counting methods and pushed back key design decisions. The clock is ticking, and time will not wait for the Census Bureau to catch up.

So, lawmakers can invest now in the testing and systems development (and more testing!) required to field a modern census on time and within budget. Or they can pinch pennies and say a prayer that the legislature in which they serve is reapportioned fairly and on time. The Census Bureau knows how to count people with paper and pencils; do you have $20 billion to spare? I didn’t think so. Halfway through the decade, $689 million seems like a reasonable stake in a more cost-effective census that works.

Reason Prevails (At Least for Now)

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

Sometimes, I just don’t get stuff.

Take, for example, the decision to schedule a vote on H.R. 1078. I muddled through last week with my lingering census headache, trying in vain to divine why a House committee — two years after it examined the pros and cons of making American Community Survey (ACS) response voluntary and heard only a chorus of cons (except from the sponsor of a bill to do just that) — decided to move the bill out of committee anyway.

I considered the arguments against the ACS.

The survey is unconstitutional. Which, I agree, would be a really bad thing. Except the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1870 that Congress has the constitutional authority to require both a population count and the collection of additional statistics in the census. (The Legal Tender Cases, Tex. 1870; 12 Wall., U.S., 457, 536, 20 L.Ed. 287) Many federal cases have since described the census as more than a simple headcount, from the very first enumeration in 1790. I think I’ll go with the Supremes on this one.

Speaking of the first census: that’s when James Madison (then a mere member of Congress) made sure that the first Census Act allowed the collection of “useful” social and economic information to support decision-making and resource allocation. A Founding Father seems like a credible source for original intent, don’t you think?

The survey poses an unreasonable burden on the public. Which also would give me pause. Except that only 2.5 percent of U.S. homes receive the ACS each year (and some of those are vacant). The ACS only gathers information needed to divvy up federal grants prudently, implement federal programs and enforce federal laws. I’m going out on a limb here, but if Congress enacts those laws and programs, isn’t it a tad illogical to turn around and say we can’t collect the data? (See, this is why I’m plagued with headaches.)

Speaking of public burden: I can’t quite grasp how making survey response optional addresses the problem. You see, both Census Bureau testing and Canada’s experience with its first voluntary census long form demonstrated that more households would need to get the ACS in order to overcome a precipitous drop in response rates and maintain a representative sample to produce valid estimates. Seems like more of the public would be burdened. Just sayin’.

I think the Census Bureau is taking congressional concerns about response burden seriously. It’s doing a comprehensive review of ACS topics and requiring federal agencies to justify their need for the data under federal law or regulation. The wording of questions can be problematic, too. Would you believe that some, er, younger people don’t know what dial-up Internet connection is? (Geez, I can’t be that old.) And some survey recipients raise a skeptical eyebrow when asked what time they leave the house and return home from work. Yes, commuting flow data are essential for transportation planning at all levels of government, but maybe there’s a way to pose the questions that doesn’t conjure up images of burglars waiting for a chance to strike. I’m happy to report that the Census Bureau is addressing these issues and more before it submits 2020 Census and ACS content and question wording to Congress in 2017 and 2018, respectively, as required by law. (Ummm, yes, Congress has signed off on all of the questions currently in the field.)

We can’t be sure that personal data will remain confidential. You know, we can’t be sure of anything in this world (I know, except taxes and death). We can only consider the record and the odds. Here’s what we do know. The confidentiality safeguards in the Census Act (13 U.S.C. §9, §16, §214) are the strictest on the books. The Census Bureau can’t reveal your individual responses to any other agency or entity, for any purpose — not law enforcement, not legal proceedings (criminal or civil), not tax collection, not even national security — period. Punishment for breaching those protections is steep. The Census Bureau has never, to my knowledge, violated the terms of its authorizing statute.

After census stakeholders raised a collective chorus of objections (again!) to making the ACS a voluntary survey, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee cancelled the vote on H.R. 1078. Sometimes, reason prevails.

And sometimes the respite is brief. Another mark-up or an appropriations amendment could be just around the corner. At least we’ll be armed with the facts.

From the Ashes… The Poe Bill Rises Again

House Committee to Vote on Voluntary American Community Survey Bill Next Week

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

This week, the College Board announced that it would overhaul the dreaded SAT test, to reflect more realistically the knowledge that students acquire in high school and the skills they will need to succeed in college. In that spirit, let me pose a strategic-thinking question:

Let’s say you’re a member of Congress. A committee on which you serve holds a hearing on a bill making response to a unique, irreplaceable and vital government survey voluntary, because the sponsor believes the government has no business collecting data on the characteristics of the nation’s population or households. Every witness at this hearing, other than the bill’s sponsor himself, opposes the bill. Those speaking against the proposal include a conservative think tank, a major housing industry association, and a leading business sector organization from the sponsor’s own home town; other diverse stakeholders submit their objections in writing.

The top agency official responsible for the survey tells your panel that making response optional would have serious, adverse consequences for a data source used by state and local governments, business and industry, transportation planners, school boards, advocates for veterans and people with disabilities, higher education systems, emergency preparedness agencies, community nonprofits — yes, the list goes on and on. He points to a congressionally-mandated field test showing that survey response rates, especially by mail, would plummet, and costs would rise by nearly a third (+$66 million dollars) at a time when Congress is squeezing the agency’s budget. The agency would no longer be able to produce essential demographic, social and economic estimates for less-populous areas of the country, including 41 percent of U.S. counties, small cities, villages, towns, many school districts, neighborhoods and American Indian reservations. “Modern societies rely on accurate statistics, and the ACS is a cornerstone of our country’s statistical infrastructure,” the agency director concludes.

Taking all of this information into account, your next logical step as an elected representative is to:

A: Conclude that the bill is misguided and would not serve the interests of the nation, or even the branch of government of which you are a member.

B: Ask the agency that administers the survey to ensure that it only collects data required to implement federal laws, establish eligibility for formula grants, and allocate federal program funds — all of which Congress directed.

C: Hold a future oversight hearing to explore ways the agency can improve the questionnaire, minimize burden on the public by re-engineering field procedures, and address concerns about privacy in an information-dependent era.

D: All of the above.

E: Two years later, schedule a vote on the bill anyway because, hey, who cares if no one thinks the bill has any merit; we’re Congress, and no one thinks anything we do makes sense! Plus, mid-term elections are around the corner.

If you selected answers “A,” “B,” “C,” or “D,” do not fret. The College Board announced that, as part of its overhaul, it will not penalize wrong answers! But if you still think you deserve credit, you might write to members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which will vote next week (Wednesday, March 12) on H.R. 1078, a bill sponsored by Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) to make response to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (part of the decennial census) optional.

And if you’re still looking for irony, consider this: Then-Census Director Robert Groves, testifying before the committee on March 6, 2012, noted that The College Board uses ACS data in their efforts to increase the number of students who graduate from college, especially those from high-poverty communities.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to lie down with a cold pack on my forehead (again).

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Editor’s Note: For more information, please read:

 

‘Tis the Season (It’s Budget Time Again!)

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

It’s appropriations season! Which wouldn’t merit a chuckle except, doesn’t it seem like appropriations season is year-round now? Maybe it’s just me.

This gives me a chance to sound like a broken record – not an enviable trait when I am trying to get your attention. But President Obama has unveiled his budget request for Fiscal Year 2015, and it is my solemn duty as an advocate of all things census to make visions of smartphone-friendly questionnaires, linked government databases and shrinking dollar signs dance in your head.

The Obama Administration requested $1.211 billion dollars for the Census Bureau. That’s a tempting pot of gold for lawmakers looking to fund programs that constituents can see and touch. Research and testing for a statistical exercise five years away? Not so exciting.

Still, the Census Bureau needs every penny of its request to keep 2020 Census planning on track and to maintain a robust, comprehensive and user-friendly American Community Survey (ACS). Let’s break this down, shall we?

The FY2015 proposal is $266 million more than the current year discretionary appropriation of $945 million, a 28 percent increase. (The Census Bureau also receives roughly $30 million for two mandatory surveys.) All of the new money is for the Periodic Censuses and Programs account ($961M requested; +269M increase), which includes the 2020 Census and ongoing ACS ($689M requested; +226M increase).

The window of opportunity for 2020 Census research and testing will close in 2015, when the Census Bureau must select a design framework (a decision already a year behind schedule) and begin the second phase of census planning: operational design and systems development. In a related new initiative, the president requested a bump in funding to build an enterprise-wide integrated system for data collection and processing (Data Processing Systems — $65M requested; +34M increase). Sure would beat having unique systems for each survey and census, don’t you think? And the Census Bureau hopes to resume the Boundary and Annexation Survey, suspended this year due to budget cuts. The results come in handy when you want to put all of those enumerated people and houses in the right city, village or town.

Remember congressional angst over the ACS that led to an embarrassing 2012 House vote to eliminate the survey (with no Plan B as to how the government would function without the data)? The Census Bureau must complete a well-timed, comprehensive review of ACS content and methods next year, ahead of a national field test in 2016 and submission of topics to Congress by April 1, 2017.

The Census Bureau needs money for other programs that have been in congressional crosshairs. The 2012 Economic Census is almost history (FY2015 is the last of its six-year cycle), but as Blood, Sweat, and Tears once sang, what comes down must go up. Or something like that. Anyway, the end of one six-year quinquennial census cycle is the start of a new one; the $119 million request (+5M increase) will allow the Census Bureau to finish analyzing and disseminating 2012 Economic Census data and start planning for the 2017 canvass of American businesses.

Finally, the president is proposing $248 million for the Census Bureau’s second major account, Salaries and Expenses (S&E), a decrease of $4 million from current year funding. The ongoing activities covered under S&E include vital economic, demographic and social statistics collected through the Current Population Survey, Survey of Income and Program Participation, and other programs.

We’ll have more information about the Census Bureau’s plans for 2015 when the Commerce Department releases detailed budget justifications in a week or two. In the meantime, congressional appropriators are getting down to work. The deadline for submitting testimony to the House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies is March 31; the Senate subcommittee deadline is April 25. Let’s see if we can make the foundation of our democracy and basis of informed decision-making sound as exciting as we know it is.

Putting 2020 Census Innovations to the Test

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

The rubber is about to hit the road.

Or, in the parlance of a 21st century census, fingers are about to hit the keyboard. At least that’s what the Census Bureau is hoping when the 2014 Census Site Test kicks off this spring.

Yes, census fans, the first major 2020 Census field test is on the horizon. According to a Dec. 24, 2013, Federal Register notice, 192,500 lucky households in Rockville, Md., and Washington, D.C., will be a laboratory for enumeration strategies and operational innovations that finally could push the decennial count off its 230 year paper-and-pencil foundation.

The Census Bureau is under orders from Congress to keep the cost of the next census down — way down, as in no more than the cost of the 2010 count. So the bureau really wants people to fire up those desktops, or pull out their laptops, tablets or smartphones, and help reduce spending on paper forms, postage, processing and door-knocking census takers. The 2014 test will ask some households to pre-register for the count and indicate their preferred method of contact with the Census Bureau, such as email or cell phone. People can take it upon themselves to answer the census via the Internet or by phone. The bureau will nudge non-responders by email or snail mail, sending paper forms as needed. (We should pause here to contemplate that today’s high tech gadgets and preferred methods of cyber-communication might be considered ancient when 2020 rolls around.)

Holdouts will fall into the nonresponse follow-up universe, historically the most costly census operation. After an unsuccessful attempt to automate door-to-door operations in 2010, the Census Bureau will have field workers test a range of modern devices, including iPhones and iPads, to gather information at the door. Some census-takers will be invited to bring their own device (BYOD) as part of the field test, and the bureau will evaluate using ubiquitous Google Maps, instead of paper maps, to guide enumerators through neighborhoods.

Census managers also will test their adaptive design strategy, a fancy moniker for deciding, in real time, which homes enumerators should contact, in what order and when, how many times, and using a contact method likely to elicit responses. Previously, census takers set out with a list of addresses, made their rounds without guidance, and kept calling and visiting recalcitrant households up to six times before resorting to proxy sources, such as a neighbor, for information.

The Census Bureau will put its toe in the water of a potentially controversial new approach to reducing the follow-up workload: using administrative records — data from government databases and third-party (commercial) sources — to identify vacant housing units and to enumerate households that don’t respond willingly. Given public angst over the NSA and “big data,” I’m waiting to see how Congress and ordinary Americans react to the idea of a massive sharing of personal information, albeit on a one-way street (into the Census Bureau, but not out). I’m worried that substituting administrative data for the real thing will not yield the detailed race and ethnicity data the census requires. And I wonder how grassroots organizers will structure their “be counted” campaigns in the face of “don’t worry, we counted you another way.” But, hey, someone’s got to lose sleep over this stuff!

If you want to weigh in on the 2014 Site Test design, you have until February 24 to submit comments. Oh, and before I forget, a note to the Census Bureau: Could you please send my dad a paper 2020 Census form from the get-go? He doesn’t use a computer or cell phone (he does still have a slide rule, though), but he’ll be 89 and would sure like to make his daughter proud.