Houston, We Have a (Traffic) Problem

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

Houston-area residents have been wasting a lot of time in traffic. Fortunately, Federal Highway Administration funds have helped expand the US 290/Hempstead Corridor, the major artery bringing commuters to and from their jobs in and around the Lone Star State’s largest city.

I know this because Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) highlighted the $267 million in federal grant money for this project on his congressional website. Rep. Culberson is the new chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that decides how much money the U.S. Census Bureau should get every year.

I don’t know a whole lot about the US 290 expansion project, but I instinctively like it. I’m impatient by nature, and there is nothing I dread more than sitting in traffic.

Right now, there are millions of Americans fuming in their cars and on crowded transit platforms and buses, wondering why their duly elected representatives can’t do something to ease the pain of their daily slog to work. Enter Congress, which helpfully authorizes and funds massive transportation programs to widen highways and improve public transit. Lawmakers could dole out highway and transit funds to the community whose commuters tweet the most curses per hour. But that would raise the national social media noise level considerably.

So Congress has taken a more reasoned approach. Localities must demonstrate their need for taxpayer dollars with data showing, for example, population growth (current and projected), commuting patterns, and road usage and capacity. Where do they get this information? A primary source is the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), the modern version of the census long form. The ACS asks a rolling sample of American households about “journey to work” and access to vehicles, among other questions that help policymakers assess community conditions and needs. Hey, I feel for my Houston brethren, but I want some assurances that they really need those road improvements before sending my hard-earned tax dollars their way. We’ve got traffic problems of our own on the East Coast, heaven knows.

Chairman Culberson doesn’t much care for the ACS. The survey is an invasion of privacy, he told the Secretary of Commerce at a hearing last month to review the department’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget request. In fact, the congressman doesn’t think the government has a right to ask Americans for any information beyond the number of people in their household. (He did helpfully suggest that the IRS already knows some things about us and that the Census Bureau could use those data instead. The bureau is exploring that possibility.)

The congressman’s distaste for the ACS is unfortunate. Maybe even a bit incongruous? He proudly points out that the U.S. 290 improvements will “attract new businesses to Houston.” The Greater Houston Partnership (the local Chamber of Commerce equivalent) is working hard to make that happen. In testimony opposing legislation to make response to the ACS voluntary in 2012, Vice President of Research Patrick Jankowski described how the GHP used ACS data on demographic diversity, commute times, occupation (engineers, scientists, etc.), and other socio-economic characteristics to help 34 companies relocate, expand, or stay in Houston, with investment commitments of nearly $750 million and creation of thousands of jobs. This is a wonderful thing, people. If I were the GHP, however, I’d be having nightmares about how to make the business case for Houston without comprehensive, neighborhood-level data — available only from the ACS — to show what the metro area has to offer. Equally important, the ACS lets Houston tout its advantages over other cities, because the survey produces comparable data for every community in the country. Without this universal information, Houston leaders might have to resort to a billboard alongside US 290, saying “Pick me, pick me!”

ACS critics suggest that the survey somehow violates an anti-tyrannical principle of our nation’s birth. But the Founding Fathers themselves envisioned the decennial census as a vehicle for gathering data that would inform prudent and fair governance. Then-Representative James Madison successfully argued that the first Census Act should authorize the collection of information beyond a “bare enumeration of inhabitants; it would enable them [legislators] to adapt the public measures to the particular circumstances of the community,” to enable “the legislature… to make a proper provision for the agricultural, commercial, and manufacturing interests” of the country.

Look, I value my privacy as much as the next guy. But I’m with Mr. Madison on this one: I value my right to know what’s going on in this complicated world just as much.

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Author’s note: I note with sadness, but also with great admiration and fondness for a wonderful mentor, the passing of Dr. Janet Norwood, Commissioner of Labor Statistics from 1979-91. Her obituary in The Washington Post (March 31, 2015) ended with a quote from Dr. Norwood, “You can’t have a democratic society without having a good data base.” Thank you for the timely reminder, Janet.

What Price Democracy?

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

The Census Bureau was off to a relatively good start this year in the mysterious and powerful world of those who hold the purse strings, known fondly to many of us as the House and Senate appropriations committees. Or so I thought.

Last week, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker took the hot seat before the Senate panel that funds the federal government’s commerce, justice and science programs. This would be the subcommittee (albeit, with several new members) that barely acknowledged the existence of a census at last year’s budget hearing. The panel is heavily populated by lawmakers from coastal states, who apparently have nightmares about uncharted weather catastrophes and depleted fishing stocks.

But the 2020 Census got their attention this year, maybe because the Obama Administration requested a 91 percent funding increase to ramp up planning in Fiscal Year 2016 for the next decennial count. Which, if I haven’t mentioned recently, will be in full swing five years from now.

Panel Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) actually led off his opening statement and questioning with census-related concerns. He noted matter-of-factly the need for a significant funding increase to double-down on 2020 Census planning, and he cautioned the secretary to closely watch preparations to avoid future cost-overruns that could leave less money available for other Commerce Dept. programs. The subcommittee’s senior Democrat (and former chairwoman), Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), briefly mentioned the technology “boondoggle” before the 2010 Census, and that was it. On to New England fisheries, support for U.S. manufacturers and that pesky “polar gap” in weather satellite coverage.

But things went downhill for the Census Bureau from there. The new chairman of the House Commerce/Justice/Science spending panel doesn’t much care for the American Community Survey (ACS), the modern version of the census long form. It’s “intrusive,” he told Secretary Pritzker when she appeared before his subcommittee this week, and the government doesn’t have a right to ask about anything other than the number of people in a household… or ancestry. Ancestry? Where did that come from?

But let’s move on. Ever since the Census Bureau wrapped up the last decennial census, appropriators have indicated that they aren’t willing to spend more on the 2020 Census than they did on the 2010 count. The lifecycle cost of the last population canvass was roughly $13 billion. The Census Bureau thinks it can meet that goal if all of the sweeping reforms it is considering work as envisioned. That’s a big “if,” what with budget shortfalls delaying, cancelling or streamlining critical research and testing of these new initiatives over the past few years. We simply don’t know yet if a markedly redesigned census can ensure an accurate count, especially in historically undercounted communities, and produce the detailed race and ethnicity data needed to implement the Voting Rights Act, as a threshold matter.

But Rep. Culberson apparently isn’t satisfied with those cost-saving efforts. “We don’t have $13 billion to spend on a census,” the chairman told Secretary Pritzker. The congressman wanted to know if the Census Bureau is ready to use Internal Revenue Service records and other government databases to help bring down census costs. The secretary gamely tried to emphasize the importance of testing, testing, testing, to see if that idea, which of course is under consideration, is a viable option. But I’m not sure the chairman has thought this through. If the Census Bureau doesn’t have enough money to thoroughly vet the use of administrative records to supplement or replace direct address canvassing and door-to-door visits, the 2020 Census could cost $1 or $2 billion more than the congressman says we can’t afford to spend. Nevertheless, Rep. Culberson again made it clear that “we won’t have the money next year” to meet the Census Bureau’s budget request.

And that tells me just about everything I need to know. Because if Congress can’t spend $13 billion over the course of a decade to carry out its very first obligation under the U.S. Constitution and to ensure fair political representation for all communities, no matter how difficult to count, then we might have to kiss our storied democracy good-bye and book a seat on that one-way mission to Mars. After all, the Johnson Space Center is pretty darn close to Chairman Culberson’s Houston district. I’m thinking some of that census money will end up fueling a mission to outer space.

It’s a Horse Race

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

And… they’re off!

First out of the gate: President Obama, who unveiled his Fiscal Year 2016 budget request for the federal government last week. The commander-in-chief took office a mere year before the start of the last census and promptly asked Congress for an extra $1 billion to shore up hiring and promotion for the decennial count, after plans to automate door-to-door interviewing in the 2010 census went down the drain. Lawmakers, ever mindful that they really really really should pay attention to the census in the home stretch, ponied up.

It’s sort of a perennial decennial habit of the legislative branch. Congress Rip-Van-Winkles through much of each decade, finding better uses for money that the Census Bureau says it needs to get a head start on the nation’s largest peacetime activity. This time around, the bureau is trying hard to save a lot of money (as much as $5 billion over the census lifecycle) by investing early in research, testing and development of new methods and technologies. Lawmakers, especially in the House, haven’t quite grasped the “pay now or pay later” concept. Or the “test drive before you buy” principle.

Anyway, the Obama Administration is pressing ahead, requesting $1.5 billion for the Census Bureau in FY 2016, including $663 million (+$317M over FY 2015) for the 2020 Census and $257 million (+$15M) for the American Community Survey (ACS). Lawmakers no doubt will cast a skeptical eye on the 91 percent increase for 2020 Census planning. The next census isn’t even on their radar screen, and fiscal austerity is a badge of honor for many legislators. It’s like asking your boss to double your salary, while trying to convince her that burning the midnight oil now to revamp the company website, marketing materials and customer service protocols will bring in huge profits down the road. Gotta be brave to make that case.

But, time for our annual cataloguing of what the Census Bureau plans to do with all that extra 2020 Census money. For starters, it has to get moving on the technology front. Remember, you heard it here first: the “cyber-census” is coming. That is, if Congress forks over enough funding to build production systems in 2016 (and 2017) to execute the 2020 Census design, in preparation for a big operations-readiness test in 2018. Major tests this spring (as well as the one last fall)—of high-tech, streamlined field work; use of “big data” to update the address list and government records to count unresponsive households; targeted digital advertising; and flexible Internet response options—will determine which sweeping new initiatives are worth pursuing. The fall 2015 National Content Test will inform final questionnaire changes—including the closely watched decision on whether to combine the race and Hispanic origin questions—which the agency must nail down by 2017.

The Census Bureau also will be playing catch-up next year. Congress cut $124 million from its budget request for the current year (FY 2015); the agency shaved $100 million of that amount from census planning and another $15 million from the ACS. For 2020, that means development of partnership activities, language translations, research on how the public views data privacy (think that one is getting any easier?), and other vital components of a successful census are again on the back burner. For the ACS, the so-called 3-year estimates are toast. That’s right: no more data averaged over 3-years (for example, 2012-2014, originally scheduled for release this fall) for places with populations of 20,000 or more. Going forward, jurisdictions under 65,000 population, which includes more than three-quarters of all counties, will have to rely solely on the 5-year estimates (e.g. 2010-2014). A lot can happen economically, socially and demographically in five years, possibly making this dataset less precise for many uses. The Office of Management and Budget has to approve the Census Bureau’s final 2015 spending plan, and chatter I’ve heard among data users suggests they may not give up these estimates without a fight. Budget-cutters in Congress, many of whom represent areas that will lose a valuable data source, might want to think twice before wielding the ax again in 2016.

I know I sound a little like Paul Revere: “The census is coming; the census is coming.” But, people, it is. If Congress doesn’t adopt the sense of urgency the census requires now, it will find its hoped-for reforms fading fast in the home stretch. And anyway, I needed a final horse analogy.

Welcome 114th Congress: No Time for a Nap

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

Happy 2015, census fans!

I have great news. According to the Census Act (Title 13, United States Code), we could be getting ready to launch a census. That’s right: lawmakers, way back in the radical 1970s, thought it would be a neat idea to survey the population not just once every 10 years, but every five years. So Congress authorized a mid-decade census to serve every useful purpose the decennial census does—like, um, measuring the characteristics of our population and housing, to see how well we’re doing and to address societal needs—except congressional reapportionment.

I know what you’re thinking. Did I miss something? Have I been asleep at the switch every spring during a calendar year that ends in “5” and neglected to fill out my mid-decade census form? Rest easy, civic-minded readers. Congress had a good idea (at the time), but lawmakers never wanted to pay for it. Wait. That sounds familiar! But, back to our story.

Of course, the universally popular American Community Survey has since eclipsed the idea of a mid-decade census. (Are you chuckling just a little?) The modern version of the census long form produces updated information about our communities every year, made all the more useful by advances in technology that allow us to access the data quickly and (relatively) easily. As our world seems to spin ever faster, the Census Bureau churns out objective facts and figures to help us make sense of it all.

You might be feeling comforted right about now, knowing that census data, as a public good, are available to everyone who wants to understand the world around them and have the tools both to improve their communities and to hold their civic leaders accountable. Well, please don’t lean back and take a nap just yet.

The new chairman of the Census Bureau’s U.S. House oversight committee doesn’t much care for the ACS. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) co-sponsored legislation to make ACS response voluntary (H.R. 1078, 113th Congress) and voted to ax the survey altogether in 2012. I think it’s fair to say that Chairman Chaffetz isn’t a big fan of data at all; he lent his name to a bill to get rid of all censuses and surveys, save the decennial population count (H.R. 1638, 113th Congress).

In fact, as we reach the midpoint of the decennial cycle, and the Census Bureau launches the second phase of 2020 Census planning with operations and system development, the census seems to be fading from view altogether. The reorganized House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform no longer has a subcommittee with “census” in the title. The description on the committee’s website of the revamped Subcommittee on Government Operations doesn’t mention the census at all (so you’ll have to take my word for it that this panel is the right one!). It isn’t much of a stretch to conclude that timely and thorough oversight of the nation’s largest peacetime mobilization of people and resources will be sitting on a back burner for a while.

I know that everyone’s issue is important. It’s a jungle out there in the policy world; everyone has to fight to be heard. But, I’m thinking that a mention in the very first lines of the Constitution might give the census a profile boost of some sort. You know, the very first responsibility—to oversee the population enumeration—the Constitution bestows upon the legislature (Article I, section 2). The raison d’etre that 435 members of the 114th Congress are sitting in their seats today. You’d think the activity that defines our democratic system of representation would garner a little more attention than its perennial role as piggybank for other programs during appropriations season. Maybe lawmakers haven’t had time to brush up on the nation’s founding document in a while.

Speaking of appropriations, the House Commerce, Justice and Science Subcommittee is in new hands. Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) now leads the panel that funds everything from weather satellites to fisheries to export and manufacturing initiatives to community policing, counterterrorism and cyber-security programs to neuroscience and STEM education research. The Census Bureau is somewhere in that mix. So is NASA. Rep. Culberson is from Houston, home of the Johnson Space Center. Does anyone else hear that piggybank cracking open again? As if this picture isn’t looking scary enough to census fans, the new chairman also co-sponsored the voluntary ACS bill in the last Congress.

Across Capitol Hill, new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was an original co-sponsor of a voluntary ACS response bill sponsored by fellow Blue Grass State Sen. Rand Paul in the last Congress (S. 530, 113th Congress). The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, with legislative responsibility for the Census Bureau, has a new chairman: Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI). It appears that the full committee will exercise primary responsibility for oversight of the Census Bureau and federal statistical system.

But maybe ACS critics will reconsider their philosophical angst about requiring a few minutes of individual civic duty for the greater societal good when they see what happened to Saskatchewan. After Canada opted for a voluntary census long form in 2011 (the head of Statistics Canada resigned in protest), almost half of the territory sort of disappeared from the map. Seems that response rates dropped so steeply, the survey couldn’t produce reliable data for rural and less-populous areas.

U.S. lawmakers representing smaller counties might want to consider a stateside scenario. Self-response nosedives when the bureau can’t say, “Your response is required by law,” according to analysis of Census Bureau field-testing of the idea in 2003. It’s too expensive to make up for lower response rates with a larger sample or more phone calls and door-knocks. (ACS critics, please don’t humor me with assurances of funding the extra $100 million a year needed to overcome the response problem. Really? Have you been reading my blog?) The sample for rural and remote communities becomes too small and insufficiently representative to yield valid estimates. The Census Bureau can’t publish critical socio-economic data for jurisdictions with populations under 20,000, which require five years of accumulated sample (the so-called “5-year ACS estimates”). Poof! Half the counties in Utah and Kentucky could be wiped off the data map. I kind of like those census maps with all the little county squares in different colors. A lot of black would ruin the effect.

Maybe there’s another glimmer of hope. The new chairman of the House census oversight subcommittee, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), didn’t co-sponsor the optional ACS response legislation in the 113th Congress. Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-VA) was the ranking Democratic member of the Government Operations Subcommittee in 2013-14; he could pull the same duty this time around. Rep. Connolly earned my admiration when he pointedly told his colleagues, during consideration of the Census Bureau’s appropriations bill last spring, that an amendment he was offering, to increase funding for specialized veterans treatment courts, did not raid the statistical agency’s budget for money. At least someone gets it.

But I’m not closing my eyes for a snooze right now. I’m keeping a wary eye on the 114th Congress, which looks challenging, to say the least.

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.