Time to Get Down to (Census) Business

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

Is anyone else weary of handicapping the Republican presidential field, or hearing about Amanda Knox (I’m glad she’s home) and Dr. Conrad Murray (MJ and I were born six weeks apart, so you know where my sympathies lie)? Good. Time to start thinking about Census 2020 planning instead.

At a Senate hearing last spring, Census Director Robert Groves laid out the agency’s guiding principles for designing the next decennial count. At the core of all of them is the stark fiscal reality facing the country: the Census Bureau will have to do more with much less. As in far fewer dollars to spend. More people, more housing units, more complex household structures, more language and cultural diversity. All for less money than in 2010. Have I mentioned that Senate appropriators think the Census Bureau could do the job for the price of the 2000 model (without adjusting for inflation)? Good luck with that.

Anyway, over the coming months, I’ll take a look at the eight guideposts Dr. Groves said are based on lessons learned from the 2010 count, offering some historical context and thoughts on key issues the bureau should consider in pursuing each goal. I’ll start today by repeating the underlying point from my post on Sept. 28: No matter how little it is willing to spend on the 2020 census over the long haul, Congress must invest some money upfront for research, testing and design development. The alternative will tie the agency’s hands behind its back until it is too late for meaningful innovation, end-to-end testing to support outcome-based decisions, and timely interaction with community-based partners.

I’ll close for now with another news headline of greater import to the census. As I write this blog post on my iPad and contemplate the untimely passing of Apple’s Steve Jobs, I am reminded of the speed with which technology has evolved and improved in only the last decade. Apple unveiled the iPhone in 2007, a mere four years ago. Is it just me, or does it seem like that gadget has been around forever? Director Groves has rightly highlighted the need for a multiple-mode 2020 census, expanding enumeration methods beyond the traditional (since 1960) “mail, hail, or fail” playbook. His Senate testimony (April 6, 2011) notes that response options must “reflect the communication platforms that people are using.” Well said, but difficult to actualize when you consider that my iPad was overrun by iPad2 within a year. Congress must give the Census Bureau sufficient resources to have technology visionaries in the room as planning for 2020 unfolds.

2 responses to “Time to Get Down to (Census) Business

  1. Kent L. Anderson

    Terri: You hit the nail squarely on the head! Technology advancements have, and will continue to, progress rapidly, while society races to catch up.
    As a 2010 enumerator, and team leader, overcoming the paper was a major challenge. Your desire to “get out ahead” for the 2020 census is commendable and is a wise and sound objective. My best professional guidance is to capitalize on available technology, but draw clear boundaries and objectives before proceeding to build solutions! KISS

  2. Kent, thanks for the helpful feedback from someone who was in the trenches in 2010. You’re absolutely right that the Census Bureau has to set a clear vision for what it wants and needs to accomplish, understanding that it is operating in neither a stagnant nor homogenous environment. A challenge to be sure, and one that I think needs our support to ensure the agency has the resources to do what it needs to do cost-effectively but realistically. Thanks for reading the blog!