Silver Bullets and Red Flags

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

Today, I am going to talk turkey.

No, not the Thanksgiving kind. I had my fill and besides, I am still focused like a laser on the 2020 census. Which, if I haven’t mentioned recently, is only five years away.

That means it’s time to get down to the nuts and bolts. Today’s fascinating topic: multiple response options.

Ladies and gentlemen, the cyber-census is here. Internet response! Email and text message reminders to answer the census! Smartphone apps to fill out your questionnaire! Twitter will be abuzz with daily response rates. It all seems so… so… 21st century! Well, at least more up-to-date than relying solely on paper forms sent and received via U.S. mail. And really, it’s a tad embarrassing that Girl Scouts will get to sell their cookies on the web before our nation’s largest peacetime activity goes high-tech, don’t you think?

Congress is on board with the new approach. Visions of saved dollars are dancing in lawmakers’ heads. So much so that Congress thinks the Census Bureau has it all figured out. Flip the switches and watch the Internet light up with a population count. Why bother with research and field tests and focus groups, when it seems like everyone is plugged in these days. Those activities cost money, and Congress doesn’t seem inclined to pony up a lot of dough to make sure we can do this right.

Truly, the thought of the 2020 Census running as smoothly as the click of a mouse (or tap of a finger) is bliss. (We will not dwell here on the initial failures of healthcare.gov, which crashed under the weight of a few million inquiries, but had a few months breathing room for the first enrollment period while experts fixed the bugs. Because, really, the Census Bureau anticipates up to 8 million hits a day on the 2020 Census website, and the window of opportunity for self-response is a mere several weeks. What could possibly go wrong?)

Congress is so convinced that a cyber-census is a silver bullet to check rising costs, it doesn’t see the wisdom of fully investigating this radical departure from previous counting methods. In their first crack at the FY 2015 Commerce Department funding bill last spring, House members—anointed by the Constitution as the primary beneficiaries of an accurate census—knocked out the entire requested budget increase for 2020 Census research and testing.

I hate to be a glass-half-empty person, but I’m thinking that Congress doesn’t do long-term planning well. Maybe it could start with a report the Census Bureau itself issued last month: Computer and Internet Use in the United States: 2013. About three-quarters of American households have an Internet connection. But that is for the population as a whole. Only 60 percent of black households and 66 percent of Hispanic households have Internet access. The figure drops to under 60 percent for the over-65 crowd. Less than half of households with incomes under $25,000 have home Internet access. The digital divide also affects households led by individuals without a college education and with limited English language proficiency, and those in nonmetropolitan areas.

And then there’s the small matter of cyber-security. People are a little freaked out by the drip, drip, drip of news about data breaches at major U.S. companies— Target, JPMorgan Chase and Home Depot, to name a few—and the hacking of government agency systems (the White House and State Department are the latest apparent victims) and Hollywood conglomerates (Sony). Call me paranoid, but experience tells me that it could take only a whiff of a problem to throw the best census operational plans off track. (As Exhibit A, I give you the 1990 Census, when the U.S. Postal Service returned several million questionnaires to the Census Bureau as “undeliverable” because housing units, primarily in rural areas, received their mail at a P.O. Box, not the street address on the census form. The extensive media coverage—this, when we still received our news slowly, from TV, radio and newspapers—shook public confidence and sent the bureau into full damage control mode.) Picture the consequences in 2020 of even a handful of census phishing scams or, heaven forbid, a cyber-attack on the Census Bureau’s massive digital database, with news pinging around the Internet at lightening speed.

So where Congress sees a silver bullet, I see red flags. Yes, of course there should be an Internet response option for the 2020 Census. Otherwise, we might as well send the marshals out on horseback again. But can the Census Bureau save enough money to keep 2020 costs at or below the 2010 Census budget, as lawmakers have directed, and still produce an accurate count, especially in communities with historically higher undercount rates? I think Congress has its eye on the goalpost without thinking through the plays it will take to get there and score.

This is how I see it. First, at the risk of sending you to bed with nightmares, I will gently remind everyone of the tech failure that added $2 billion to the 2010 Census cost and dashed hopes of sending census takers door-to-door with nifty handheld electronic devices to count reluctant households. If there is a better reason to invest in careful planning, I can’t think of one right now.

And I’m worried about the quarter or more of households that won’t respond in the initial phase of the count. Let’s not pull any punches: most of the people who are more likely to be missed in the census are less likely to have the means to respond electronically. Furthermore, the characteristics of households with lower rates of computer usage (including handheld devices) and Internet access parallel those of households with “low self-response scores” in the Census Bureau’s newly updated planning database. That means many households that don’t respond via the Internet won’t mail back a paper questionnaire either, especially if the strategies for boosting self-response aren’t thoroughly vetted. (In the 2014 Census Site Test, only 3 percent of households that were asked about their preferred method of advance notification chose the email or text option over mailed materials. I’m guessing Americans are wary of electronic messages from unknown sources, as they should be.)

And here’s where the budget comes into play again. Congress wants the Census Bureau to wave a magic wand and plan a census that costs a lot less, without giving the bureau enough resources to make it all work or conducting the informed oversight needed to make sure that it will. What happens to the households that don’t self-respond? Tracking them down is the costliest part of the census, and the bureau is exploring ways to streamline that operation, with fewer boots on the ground and fewer knocks on each recalcitrant door. Congress is pressing the agency to rely more on data the government has already collected through programs such as Social Security, food stamps and Medicaid. The FY 2015 census tests will start to shine a light on whether administrative records can replace much of the pre-census neighborhood address canvassing and some of the door-to-door visits. But with Congress capping the 2020 Census budget in advance—something it has never done in modern census history—the Census Bureau might have no choice but to fill in the blanks with data that are neither acceptably accurate nor sufficiently comprehensive.

That’s a topic for another day. But I see lawmakers chasing a lot of silver bullets when they should be biting the bullet, to make sure the ammunition hits its target. In the meantime, I’ll keep waving the red flags. Maybe Congress will notice before it’s too late.

And with that, we wish our readers and census groupies everywhere a happy, peaceful holiday season. Thanks for being a part of our coalition. See you next year!

REALLY???

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

Sometimes, words escape me. (At least, words that are printable in a respectable, philanthropy-funded blog about the sacred foundation of America’s democratic system of governance, still the envy of the modern world, imperfect though it is.)

So let me just say this: Really, Congress?

The very first task the founding fathers gave you in the U.S. Constitution—to direct the taking of a census once every 10 years—and you kick the can down the road? With the decennial clock ticking and the window of opportunity to figure out how to make it all work for less money closing fast? Words are failing me.

Lawmakers are trying to wrap up a broad spending bill for fiscal year 2015, which started on Oct. 1, before a short-term funding measure runs out Thursday night. The draft bill, unveiled Tuesday, allocates $840 million for the account covering the 2020 Census, $123 million less than the budget request. Congress essentially is cutting the proposed ramp-up for decennial census planning by almost half. The Obama Administration’s proposed 28 percent funding boost might sound like a lot, but as Arloc Sherman of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities noted in a recent Huffington Post blog, mid-decade ramp-ups for the 2000 and 2010 Censuses were 30 percent or more.

Most of the increase the bureau requested relates to 2020 Census planning. 2015 is a pivotal year: the Census Bureau will conduct three major field tests to inform its selection of the 2020 Census design by next fall. A fourth test, scheduled for late summer, will evaluate revised questions on race, ethnicity and household relationship, as well as strategies for boosting Internet response and for helping language minorities participate.

Congress doesn’t want to pay more for the 2020 Census than it did for the 2010 count. The Census Bureau has to meet that goal while maintaining accuracy and trying to reduce the historic, disproportionate undercount of people of color, low-income households, rural residents and young children. It will take a big change in census methods to pull this off, as well as careful research, testing and preparation to be sure those reforms work. The payoff for investing in the groundwork now is significant: $5 billion in potential savings from automating response options and field work and from tapping government and commercial databases to update the address list and reduce costly door-to-door visits. All promising ideas, but we won’t know if they can produce a lower-cost and equally or more accurate census until we see and weigh the evidence.

Now the Census Bureau is really in a bind. It is wrapping up the first test, which focused on administrative records, aerial imagery and other governmental and commercial sources to update the master address list and digital mapping system. Preparations are underway for two tests—one in Maricopa County, Ariz.; the other in the Savannah, Ga., media market—with a “Census Day” of April 1. These are crucial research opportunities in census-like environments: the bureau will evaluate the use of administrative records to streamline and reduce the cost of door-to-door follow-up visits; targeted digital advertising to boost self-response among hard-to-count demographic subgroups; ways for people to respond via the Internet without a pre-assigned identification number that links them to a specific address; and new contact and notification strategies to cut down on paper communications and encourage prompt participation.

These initiatives aren’t incremental improvements on traditional census methods. They are significant departures from the tried-and-true mail and door-knocking design. They might work. They might not. But the Census Bureau can’t wait another two or three years to figure that out. It has one year to decide which methods hold enough promise for saving money without sacrificing the accuracy of the count and the quality of the data, in order to move ahead with IT systems and operational development. The decision is already a year overdue, thanks to previous budget cuts and sequestration.

Delaying or streamlining the 2015 tests would put effective 2020 Census reform in serious jeopardy. If the bureau pushes ahead with the full testing schedule, something else has to give. The Census Bureau can’t put off systems development; the risk of failure is too great. Other vital components of a successful census—the Partnership Program and advertising campaign— could be put on the back burner.

Other programs funded through the same account might take the brunt of the budget cut. The bureau could trim American Community Survey coverage of group facilities such as college dorms, military barracks and nursing homes, or cut out data products; it could slow down planning for the 2017 Economic Census. It could ditch its new initiative to build an enterprise system for data collection and processing, which it hopes will replace numerous (and costly) survey-specific systems.

I don’t know what hard choices the Census Bureau will make in the coming weeks and months. But here’s what I do know: Congress is responsible for a fair and accurate decennial census. The Constitution says so. And right now, it is really blowing it.

Trying to Read the ACS Content Tea Leaves (Good Luck With That)

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

There’s a certain je ne sais quoi to the way Congress deals with the census. One minute, lawmakers are trying to deep-six the Census Bureau’s signature American Community Survey (the modern day census “long form”). The next, they’re ignoring the Census Bureau altogether. Or they’re using it as a piggybank for their favorite programs. Those would be the programs that largely rely on census data to allocate the money legislators from both parties pilfered from the Census Bureau. It’s all very confusing.

But the Census Bureau has tried to rise above the hopelessly mixed signals from Congress (We don’t like what you do. We don’t care what you do. We don’t want to pay for what you do, even though everything else we do depends on it. What exactly is it that you do?), forging ahead with the most rigorous review to date of questions on the ACS.

The Census Bureau is completing the first phase of its multi-year ACS Content Review effort. On October 31, it published a notice in the Federal Register proposing to eliminate several questions that the agency concluded pose a greater burden on the public, relative to the benefits of the data to policymakers and program administrators. The bureau has cool scatter-plots and matrices and charts that show how ACS questions stack up on a cost-benefit analysis, but the bottom line is that Congress itself has asked for most of the data, directly or indirectly, to set policy, allocate resources, and implement programs. A handful of questions tip the scale too far on the cost side and are on the chopping block for the 2016 ACS.

Let’s stipulate that the survey can appear daunting to those who receive it each year. That would be less than 3 percent of American households, although if you believe ACS opponents, you’d think the government had all of us chained to our desks, depriving us of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness until we answer 72 questions about ourselves, our families and our homes. The range of topics can make it seem like the Census Bureau is being a bit nosy. Naysayers like to point to questions about what time people leave for work or whether people have difficulty dressing or bathing. I am confident these critics do not include legislators who issue triumphant press releases about traffic congestion mitigation projects and services for people with disabilities they secure for folks in the home district.

But, where was I? Oh yes, scrubbing ACS content for errant questions. Turns out that questions on your marital history, what you studied in college and whether there’s a business or medical office on your property don’t produce information that legislators and government agencies use widely.

It’s a good thing, by the way, that the Census Bureau still plans to ask whether you are married or not. For the 2000 Census, the bureau decided to move the “marital status” question from the short form, which everyone gets, to the long form sent to a sample of households. Ultra-conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) balked at this slap to a sacred family institution, and his colleagues adopted a resolution to keep the query on the 100-percent form. (Unfortunately for them, timing is everything in a census: the questionnaires had already been printed when the resolution passed.) House members had already jumped on the “more data is better” bandwagon, with more timely bills to add questions on family caregivers, home computer use and Internet access, and to preserve the ancestry question. But once the enumeration started, lawmakers raced to distance themselves from the forms flooding mailboxes; there were seven proposed House bills from March to May 2000 to limit the number of census questions Americans must answer (in most cases, just name and number of people in household). I do not think the law requires consistency in census gripes.

For the current round of questionnaire trimming, the Federal Register comment period closes on Dec. 30, 2014. The agency plans further research on alternative sources for data gathered in the ACS (such as administrative records) and the wording of questions, some of which is problematic. (Millennials, for example, can’t relate to “dial-up service” on the Internet access question. Go figure. Boomers probably have nightmares just seeing the term. Screeeeech ….)

I’m betting that demographers, researchers and policymakers interested in STEM education will fight to save some of the questions the Census Bureau wants to drop. The bureau must finalize all ACS content decisions (adding and dropping questions) before the April 1, 2017, legal deadline for submitting census topics to Congress; the actual questions go to the legislature one year later.

Congress will have the final word on content, which might be difficult to parse when the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. The House has voted twice to make ACS response voluntary (a stake in the heart of small-area data) and once to eliminate the survey altogether. Yet, lawmakers want the data to divvy up $400+ billion annually for highways and transit, education, emergency preparedness, rural development, food and housing assistance, job training, and much more. Good luck with that when the data disappear.

Can We Talk?

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

No, I’m not going to pay homage to the late, great Joan Rivers today, but hopefully I now have your attention.

Truth is, I am having a mid-decade crisis and need to share. (This should not be confused with a mid-life crisis. Been there; done that.)

Congress has emerged from its summer slumber and will try to keep the government running past Sept. 30, when the current fiscal year ends, before heading home soon to campaign again.

Meanwhile, I am looking into my census crystal ball and contemplating the outcome of the 2020 population count. I’m anxious about what I see. I know it’s early to sound the alarm, but the pieces of the puzzle are not fitting together neatly in my vision of the future. Best not to bear the anguish alone, no?

Why the angst? First of all, Congress isn’t paying much attention to 2020 Census planning. Granted, it isn’t paying much attention to anything at all, save the midterm elections. But even if lawmakers get their act together when a new Congress reconvenes next winter, opportunities to plan and carry out four major field tests that will inform the design framework for the 2020 Census, will be slip-sliding away like much of the country during the predicted repeat polar vortex.

Congress, in fact, is so disinterested in the census that House members turned “raid the Census Bureau piggy-bank” into a virtual sport last spring, stopping their bipartisan target practice only after Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) lamented that there wouldn’t be a census in 2020 if lawmakers kept at it. Rep. Wolf, by the way, is retiring from the “do nothing” Congress to, presumably, do something else. But I digress.

Senate appropriators have been putting relatively more money into census research and testing, with the caveat that the Census Bureau’s spending limit for the next enumeration is the same (or less) than the 2010 Census budget (roughly $13 billion), without adjusting for inflation. They have been pushing the bureau to move forward quickly with new initiatives. For example, the committee noted (S.Rept. 113-181) that the bureau could save a lot of money by using existing government databases to update the master address list and to reduce costly visits to unresponsive households. But it fretted that the bureau hasn’t figured out whether and how it can get its hands on these administrative records. No one seems concerned yet about the quality of the data for census purposes. Instead, the bureau should work “expeditiously” to get administrative records from federal, state, local, and Tribal agencies, appropriators said.

And that takes up-front money for research and testing. On tap for next spring is a field test that will help determine if administrative records can substitute for door-to-door visits to households that didn’t respond by mail or Internet. Let’s think about that possibility for a minute.

The census wants to know who lives in a home on a specific date: April 1, 2020. It asks how everyone in the household is related to each other. It collects detailed information on race and ethnicity; revised questions aim to increase the granularity of those data. Field tests will better illuminate the self-response universe, but let’s stipulate—based on experience—that the nonresponders are more likely to be in low income urban and rural households, people of color, and immigrants with limited English proficiency. (Remember, one-quarter of all households did not respond by mail in 2010; there was no Internet option.) Young children and young minority men are most likely to be overlooked, even in households that are otherwise counted. Will administrative records tell us who usually lived where on Census Day? How people in so-called complex households are related to each other? Whether a person is Mexican American or Vietnamese American or Afro-Latino? (And, at the risk of waving a red flag over the bayou, government databases aren’t likely to cover the undocumented population. Just saying.)

Stakeholders will want to see solid evidence that administrative records can match the quality and detail of data collected through in-person interviews, before the Census Bureau commits to such a sweeping design change. I’m not saying I oppose the use of administrative records in the census. The Census Bureau must find bold ways to keep costs in check, even as the population grows and diversifies. I’m saying, test thoroughly and proceed with caution. Congress needs to make that happen with adequate funding now.

The president requested $963.4 million for the account that covers 2020 Census planning and the American Community Survey (ACS). The Senate Appropriations Committee coughed up $896.7 million, a seven percent cut. Which, of course, is generous compared to the House-passed funding level of $725.4 million for the same account. In a nutshell, the $238 million House cut (20 percent) wiped out the “ramp up” for 2020 Census planning. (To be fair, the House Appropriations Committee recommended a funding level of $858.5 million for Periodic Censuses and Programs.)

And now we’re headed down the up-ramp. Any day now, Congress will pass a temporary spending bill that funds most of the government at current year (FY2014) levels through December 11. So far, the House has added a 0.06 percent across-the-board cut (H.J. Res. 124). The first major FY2015 2020 Census field test—to assess the use of state, local, and commercial databases to update the master address file and allow for targeted, pre-census address verification only—has started, but most spending for that activity happens in October and November. The Census Bureau is already gearing up for two critical tests with an April 1, 2015 “Census Day,” one of which involves the aforementioned use of previously collected government data to count nonresponding households.

If the lame-duck Congress extends the Continuing Resolution into the second fiscal quarter or (worse), if the next Congress sticks with the current funding levels for the entire year (a real possibility if control of the Senate changes hands), without carving out an exception for 2020 Census funding, the spring tests could be toast.

Then what? Continue limping along through the systems and operational development phase, preparing for a census that incorporates complex new procedures that haven’t been fully vetted and may not meet stakeholder expectations? Pray that 2020Census.gov doesn’t crash when eight million people a day log on to answer the questionnaire? Fall back on tried-and true-methods developed for a time gone by, and costing billions of dollars more, hoping future Congresses and the next Administration care enough about an accurate, comprehensive census to pay for it?

I hope I’m wrong. I hope I wake up in 2020, and the census gods are smiling. That people are lounging in the park in the early spring warmth, answering census questions on their smartwatches in English, Korean or Spanish. Enumeration nirvana! But I’m tired of holding my breath every year. Stakeholders, it’s time either to pray or mobilize. A little of both probably wouldn’t hurt.

Radio Silence

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

It must have been spring fever. In a flurry of activity in May and June, House and Senate appropriators dutifully considered and approved their respective bills to fund Commerce Department (and many other) agencies next year, including a reader favorite: the U.S. Census Bureau. The House of Representatives went one step further, burning the midnight oil to pass the Fiscal Year 2015 Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill (H.R. 4660) over a two-day period.

But now it’s mid-July. You’ve been sitting at the edge of your seats, waiting anxiously for the next episode of the Census Bureau funding soap opera, ready to swing into action to save 2020 Census innovations and reliable ACS data from death by a thousand budget cuts. Or maybe you haven’t been thinking about this at all; a good book at the beach sounds like way more fun. But on the off chance you’re wondering about the radio silence since the Senate stood poised to tackle its version of the Commerce spending bill (S. 2437) more than a month ago, let me fill you in what you missed. Nothing.

In fact, the Senate couldn’t even muster the votes to start debate on the bill. The minority leader balked over an issue, completely unrelated to the bill, that no one quite recalls anymore. (I think it had something to do with coal.) Now, everyone seems to have thrown their hands up in the air and started counting down the days until a blissfully long August recess, after which it will be time to wipe the mothballs off the ineradicable Continuing Funding Resolution.

And here’s where you need to put your book aside and roll out of your lounge chair. Because if you thought the House’s $238 million raid on the Census Bureau’s budget spelled deep trouble for 2020 Census planning and other core surveys, think about the consequences of no funding increase at all for the nation’s premier cyclical program. As the name implies, a continuing resolution (CR) funds federal agencies at this year’s levels. Not exactly an ideal situation for a 10-year activity that must “ramp up” to stay on schedule, with immutable deadlines looming. Chief among those are required reports to Congress on the topics (April 1, 2017) and questions (April 1, 2018) for the 2020 Census (including the American Community Survey, the modern version of the census long form); Census Day (April 1, 2020); population totals used to reapportion the House of Representatives (December 31, 2020); and detailed population data to redraw congressional districts (March 31, 2021). Oh, the irony.

The Census Bureau, already behind schedule due to previous budgets cuts and funding delays, has four major 2020 Census field tests planned for FY 2015. Under the microscope will be cost-saving innovations and questionnaire updates: the feasibility of replacing universal pre-census address canvassing with targeted updating; using automation, real-time data and administrative records to manage and streamline costly follow-up with unresponsive households; new strategies to boost self-response, especially on the Internet, as well as methods for pre-registration and processing electronic responses that lack unique identifiers; revised questions on race and ethnicity; assistance for non-English speakers; and improving estimates of mail, online and telephone response. By the end of 2015, the Census Bureau must lock in a design for the next census and begin systems and operational development.

What to do, people? Time for what Washington-insiders quaintly call an “anomaly,” more easily understood as an exception to flat-line funding in the CR. Without one, either the 2015 census tests will start falling like dominos, jeopardizing the reforms needed to modernize the headcount, or the bureau will have to scale back other surveys to pay for them. The 2020 Census isn’t the only cyclical program at risk; planning starts next year for the quinquennial (still love that word!) 2017 Economic Census.

An anomaly for the Census Bureau in the all-but-inevitable FY 2015 CR seems like a no-brainer. Whether Congress will come to its census… er, senses… remains to be seen.

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up!

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

Sometimes, my blog practically writes itself. I mean, it’s hard to make this stuff up!

Take, for example, the recent census hazing in the House of Representatives. As lawmaker after lawmaker rose to offer amendments chipping away at the Census Bureau’s budget — already down 9 percent coming out of committee — I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Or maybe visit an otolaryngologist; the hearing is one of the first things to go at my age.

Anyway, most offenders took pains to convince colleagues (really, who else but a few fellow census junkies and I would be watching this stuff on C-SPAN when the sun was already rising over Moscow?) that their census piggybank raid was only a teensy percentage of the agency’s budget. Apparently, they forgot the well-known analogy that if everyone in the office sneaks one cookie from the box in the communal kitchen, there won’t be any Thin Mints left when the boss comes in to satisfy his sweet tooth. Okay, I made that up, but you see where this is going. First, $110 million, then $4 million, $3 million here, $12 million there, and soon you’re talking about the entire 2015 “ramp up” for 2020 Census planning.

Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its version of the FY2015 Commerce, Justice, and Science funding bill (S. 2437) last week. Discipline reigned — Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Ranking Minority Member Richard Shelby (R-AL) run a tight ship — with nary a raiding amendment to be heard during the entire markup. Senate appropriators deserve some credit; their spending measure includes $1.15 billion for the Census Bureau, with a $66.7 million cut to the account that covers the 2020 Census and ACS (compared to a $238 million cut in the House; the Senate bill reduced President Obama’s total Census Bureau request by $62.5 million, adding $4 million to the request for the Current Population Survey in the second agency account).

But the Senate isn’t cutting the Census Bureau any slack. The committee reminded everyone that the 2020 Census should cost less than the 2010 count, not adjusting for inflation. And then it prodded the agency to secure administrative records from federal, state and local agencies pronto, to help reach that goal. As if datasets are primed, consistent, thorough and ready for transfer at the click of mouse. I have a nagging feeling that lawmakers have not come to grips with the complexity of redesigning the census.

But, back to our friends in the House, whose very membership in that august chamber depends on an accurate census (she said without a trace of irony). The drip-drip-drip actually started in the House Appropriations Committee, with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-CA) pilfering $1 million from the census account to help disabled veterans and exploited children. Hard to point the finger there. Except, you can’t open the floodgates and then say you didn’t realize the water would pour out. Sure enough, coastal fisheries soon snapped up another $10 million. And when no one thought to ask whether the Census Bureau might need money to plan for the nation’s largest peacetime mobilization or produce the data that actually guide program dollars to the home district, lawmakers quickly caught on that census funding was theirs for the taking. The madness stopped only after the subcommittee chairman did the math on the House floor and concluded that we might not have a census in 2020.

Truth be told, it’s easy for legislators to draw a straight line between, say, Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grants (funded through the same bill as the Census Bureau) and more cops on the street, crime prevention, and drug treatment centers in their backyards. The press release just rolls off the tongue. But the fact that these very grants are allocated based on a state’s share of violent crime and population (equally weighted), with population calculated to the hundredth of a percent?Now, that’s getting into the formula weeds, and Congress doesn’t do nuance very well. It’s a press secretary’s nightmare.

And so we have the Senate Appropriations Committee summary of its funding bill, highlighting the $376 million allocated for Byrne grants and other programs that help “fight violent crime, gangs, and terrorism” and “keep our communities safe.” The nation’s primary source of information about its well-being, progress and needs? Didn’t even warrant a footnote in a seven-page press release.

It’s on to the full Senate, and then negotiations to iron out differences between the two measures. Now, if we can only fend off those Alabama red snappers, Pacific coast salmon and Maryland crabs when the bill hits the Senate floor in the coming weeks.

Postscript: A Census Project Blog shout-out to Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Keith Ellison (D-MN), who circulated a Dear Colleague letter urging House members to reject cuts to the Census Bureau’s budget and proposals to make American Community Survey response voluntary; and to Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-VA), who made a point of telling his colleagues that an amendment he was offering, to increase funding for specialized veterans treatment courts, did not tap the Census Bureau for money.

Let Them Count Fish!

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

My life as a census advocate just got infinitely easier.

The House of Representatives is considering the FY2015 Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations bill, which includes funding for the U.S. Census Bureau. And through a series of late-night amendments, lawmakers stole so much money from the account that funds the 2020 Census and American Community Survey (ACS), to pay for other pet programs, that subcommittee Chairman (and bill manager) Frank Wolf (R-VA) finally pointed out the obvious: If we keep taking money from the Census Bureau, he said, we won’t have a census in 2020.

Well, that might be an exaggeration, because that pesky U.S. Constitution requires one. For the purpose of deciding how many members of Congress each state will have. And how the lines of each district are drawn. Details, details.

Now, Congress has already told the Census Bureau that it must conduct the 2020 Census for the same price tag as the 2010 Census: $13 billion. Proposed investments in research and testing of bold innovations and a redesigned census will help the Census Bureau achieve that goal, with potential savings of $5 billion in the lifecycle cost of the decennial enumeration. The research and testing phase ends next year; the bureau must figure out which new methods are sound enough to pursue in the systems and operational development phase.

But if Congress won’t invest in planning now, the Census Bureau will have no choice but to start preparing for a traditional — and far more costly — paper-and-pencil census. Of course, that design will cost about $18 billion, according to Census Bureau and GAO estimates. Let’s think about this for a minute. The bureau could start the enumeration in 2020, and then stop the count when it reaches its $13 billion limit — and then lawmakers can fight over whose districts disappear. Boy, this is kind of fun…

But maybe I’m just giddy because it’s approaching midnight as I write this (as debate on the House floor goes on and on). Seriously, the Census Bureau does have other, more sensible, choices if Congress decides to slash its funding by 20 percent. It could stop conducting the American Community Survey (ACS). Who needs all of those data on education, veterans, income and poverty, people with disabilities, housing conditions, commuting patterns, language spoken at home, and labor force characteristics, when you can just look it up on the World Wide Web (or survey your surroundings while you sit in traffic)? And think about how much money we would save, not allocating that $415+ billion annually in program funds to state and local governments that Congress bases on ACS data!

I know, I know: many of you really like the ACS. Do not fret; the Census Bureau could cancel the Economic Census (including final tabulation and dissemination of 2012 Economic Census data and the upcoming 2017 survey). Who needs to calculate the GDP anyway?

The House of Representatives should be embarrassed. Do the people we elect to represent us — umm, based on a decennial population count — really believe the Census Bureau can start planning to enumerate 330 million people, in 134+ million households, in, say, 2018? Do they really not understand that if they want to allocate funds based on population, income, commuting and other data, then we need to, ummm, collect those data? Two proposed amendments — one, to the tune of $110 million, offered by Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA); the other, for $3 million, by Rep. Jerry McNerney, (D-CA) — shift funds from the census programs to the ever-popular Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program in the Department of Justice. Now, I support the work of our men and women in blue as much as the next politician (my father was a police commissioner, for heaven’s sake). But isn’t it a little ironic that applications for COPS grants require data on poverty from the (you guessed it!) American Community Survey.

With a similar flash of foresight, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) stole $12 million from the census account to improve NOAA’s forecasting of severe weather events. Yes, our hearts go out to victims of tornadoes. But where do Oklahomans think their civic agencies get the data for disaster preparedness, evacuation and response? You don’t have to answer that, because if the House votes today to make ACS response voluntary, the Census Bureau might not be able to publish reliable data for about half of the Sooner State’s counties.

By the time I threw in the towel and turned in for the night, the House had cut $118 million from the Census Bureau’s Periodic Census and Programs account, with another $15 million facing roll-call votes in the morning. That’s on top of the $105 million (9 percent) the Appropriations Committee already cut from the bureau’s $1.2 billion budget request. I’m not great at math, but me thinks there is nothing left of the $212 million ramp-up in funding for the 2020 Census.

I think Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) finally captured the insanity — inadvertently, no doubt — of the slow but steady draining of the Census Bureau’s piggybank, when he started talking about the importance of counting salmon, to explain why he wanted $3 million more for fisheries management. (For the record, Chairman Wolf finally put his foot down, and the McDermott amendment went down on a voice vote.) We may not be able to count people in 2020, but we sure as heck want to know how many salmon are swimming upstream. Long live the Republic!