Tag Archives: Census 2020

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.

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.

‘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.

Limping Along the Road to 2020

Terri Ann Lowenthalby Terri Ann Lowenthal

So where were we, census fans?

As we rub the sleep out of our post-government shutdown eyes, and revel in data on the re-opened Census Bureau website, we are faced with the prospect that the uphill climb to Census 2020 just got a little steeper. Okay, maybe a whole lot steeper.

Let’s consider the good news first. The federal government is open for business. Surveys are in the field again. Economic indicators are, well, lagging, but the Census Bureau will publish them in due time. Small-city, county, town and neighborhood data from the American Community Survey will be late, but we’ll have them before year’s end.

Now the gloomy news. The federal government is running on last year’s gas tank. That ramp-up in funding to complete decennial census research and testing? Fuhgeddaboudit. With sequestration and across-the-board cuts, the Census Bureau’s budget was already 11 percent below the request for FY2013. That fiscal year has come and gone, but the ghost of budgets past will linger for at least a few more months in the form of a Continuing Resolution that expires on January 15. Not only is there no modest, yet vital, funding boost into the second quarter of FY2014, there is no way to dig out of the 2013 hole yet. Budget uncertainty plus inadequate funding equals increased risk of cut-corners and missed savings opportunities.

What’s at risk? The bureau has already pushed back a critical milestone — to select the 2020 Census design framework — by a year, to the end of FY2015. The National Content Test will be a year late, too, in 2016. That doesn’t leave much time to scrub the results before the legally-required content submission to Congress by April 1, 2017.

Now comes word that the Census Bureau is suspending work on several 2020 research and testing projects. It has “temporarily” reassigned 86 employees to other divisions because the money just isn’t there, and won’t fill a similar number of vacancies for 2020 Census planning unless it gets a sufficient funding boost for FY2014. People, this is not a promising sign of robust progress towards fundamental census reform. Congress can twiddle its thumbs while the fiscal clock ticks away, but the Census Bureau cannot defer the day of reckoning — April 1, 2020.

The Census Director says the agency will be able to complete the most critical 2020 Census activities planned for the current fiscal year. So why am I still tossing and turning at night? The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has identified IT management as a “long-standing” decennial census shortcoming. But thanks to sequestration and other budget cuts, acquisitions and systems development for 2020 will start a year later than planned. Let’s hope the bureau doesn’t have to cut corners when it comes to integrating and perfecting IT and field infrastructure.

Then there are promising strategies for maximizing electronic self-response on the front end and increasing follow-up efficiency on the back end. But is cyber-response the antidote to Congress’s census sticker-shock nightmare? Consider phishing scams, NSA-fueled privacy jitters, and finicky rural Wi-Fi connections before you answer. Can you imagine inviting scores of millions of households to participate online and not fully load-testing the system? Can you say healthcare.gov?

Maybe lawmakers should repeat Cyclical Program Ramp-up 101, before the 2020 Census is back to paper, postage and pencils — for twice the price.

Losing Sleep (While Counting Sheep)

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Census stakeholders, my head is spinning with thoughts of 2020 census planning.

Sure, you might think the next census is too far in the future to keep you up at night. (Plus, I bet most of you would rather let me do the worrying.) But let me quote the Census Bureau’s new counter-in-chief, John Thompson, who told a House subcommittee at a September 11 hearing, “budget uncertainty is causing significant concerns for the 2020 census program as we enter that period during which it is crucial to conduct tests so that we can begin applying new technologies and methods … We have already delayed planned research and testing activities to later years … We cannot further delay critical research that will help us make critical design decisions for those systems.”

Let’s stipulate to one shared goal: The 2020 census can’t look like the 2010 census. For one thing, the nation can’t afford the $30 billion price tag of repeating an outdated census design. Equally important, the way we communicate with each other has changed rapidly.

Automation is the buzzword for 2020, but despite the fact that many of us live on our gadgets, a cyber-census (you heard it here first!) isn’t as simple as it might seem. Will data be secure if census-takers bring their own devices (BYOD)? Can we design a questionnaire that people can navigate as easily on a smartphone as on a computer and that works across all operating systems (the ones we use now and the ones that Google, Microsoft and Apple have yet to dream up)? Will people welcome emails, text messages and cell phone calls from the Census Bureau (where did they get my information — from the NSA?)? And what about people who want to respond online without a unique code tying them to a specific address? The challenges are broad and deep.

There could be significant savings (up to $2 billion, the agency says) if the bureau tapped into demographic, housing and geographic information already in the hands of other government agencies. These administrative records could, potentially, eliminate the need for a universal sweep of the nation’s addresses before the census starts; identify vacant homes, to avoid costly follow-up; determine the best days and times to call or visit unresponsive homes; identify households that might have neglected to report every resident; and yes, even to add people to the count without knocking on their door.

But the Census Bureau must work out separate deals with each federal agency and state holding useful records; much of this data-sharing could require changes in federal or state laws. And each dataset has its strengths and weaknesses — Medicaid records, for example, do not have names or street addresses, only social security numbers and birth dates — which could require linking one set of records to another.

I know I sound like a broken record, but the Census Bureau needs money to figure all of this out in time. The bureau can execute a fundamentally redesigned 2020 census for the 2010 census price tag (plus inflation), Director Thompson says. Invest now, save later — that’s the bottom line.

So let’s review where things stand for the fiscal year (FY2014) that begins today. For starters, we can flip the calendar back to FY2013 for a while. The Census Bureau must make do with last year’s funding level, which was 13 percent below its budget request, while Congress figures out how to … ummm … get its act together. Then we hold our breath while lawmakers decide whether to slide backwards another $45 million (courtesy of House appropriators; H.R. 2787), give the agency most of what it needs (thanks to far-sighted Senate appropriators; S. 1329), or settle on some amount in between.

The census is a 10-year process, a cyclical activity that starts small and builds to the grand finale of enumerating every household in a vast, diverse nation. There is a ramp-up to that denouement, one that starts modestly and escalates as we hurtle towards the “zero” year. But the direction, once planning starts, has to be up.

Wikipedia describes a “ramp up” as the period between product development, and maximum capacity utilization, characterized by product and process experimentation and improvements. Sounds like a logical business practice, right? (Think of the time and investment in research it takes to bring new prescription drugs to the market.) You would think lawmakers would want the Census Bureau to operate like an efficient corporation. But long-term fiscal planning isn’t Congress’ strong suit, now, is it?

The Census Bureau needs $245 million in FY2014 to keep 2020 census planning on track; the House bill cuts that amount by more than a third ($91 million). Already delayed by a year are all of the tests scheduled for this year and next; some tests have been cancelled. The bureau has pushed back the field test of the 2020 Census form to FY2016, which is getting uncomfortably close to the April 1, 2017, and April 1, 2018, deadlines for submitting topics and questions, respectively, to Congress. Perhaps most troubling, the Census Bureau won’t nail down a design framework until late FY2015, a year behind schedule, leaving less time to develop systems and operations.

Did I mention that the next census starts in less than six years? The Census Bureau can do a lot of things, but it cannot stop the clock. I bet Director Thompson is having a few sleepless nights, too.

Slip Sliding Away: The Risk Factor Goes Up As 2020 Census Funding Goes Down

Editor’s note: This blog post was revised on July 11 to reflect more detailed information released by the Appropriations Committee.

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

I’m starting this blog post with one of my famous census headaches.

That’s because House appropriators are driving the wrong way — downhill and backwards — on the up ramp to Census 2020. I see a collision in the not too distant future: Congress doesn’t want to pay a lot for the next census, but it won’t put gas in the tank to keep the Census Bureau from stalling on the road to achieving that goal.

The Census Bureau is trying to wrap up its research and testing phase for 2020. Fundamental reforms in methodology and technology are on the table as the agency strives to curtail the big-ticket enumeration items, especially universal canvassing to confirm the address list and reliance on paper forms for every household in the nation. The bureau had hoped to select a design framework in 2014 so it could move forward with operational and systems development; now that’s not going to happen until 2015.

This year (FY2013), lawmakers cut the bureau’s budget request by 11 percent (more if you count another sneaky transfer of money from the Working Capital Fund). And now the House Appropriations Committee is taking another whack at the budget for Fiscal Year 2014; the Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee allocated just $845 million in its “committee mark” today, $44 million less than current year funding. The president requested $982 million, only a hair over his request for FY2013. That’s a cut of $137 million, or 14 percent, in discretionary spending.

Talk about rolling backwards down the hill… can I have another Excedrin, please?

Call me crazy (maybe it’s just the pulsing in my temples), but it almost looks like Congress has decided we really don’t need to plan for the next constitutionally prescribed decennial census — coming to a neighborhood near you in less than seven years. The Census Bureau can just envision ways to cut the cost of counting, cross its fingers, and hope for the best.

Field tests scheduled for 2013? A 28 percent funding cut forced the Census Bureau to cancel some and delay others, including key tests of strategies to encourage and facilitate electronic response in ways that preserve public confidence and ensure data security. An Internet response option could save big bucks during the census, but the methodology is far from simple. Do you send a letter to each household first, with a unique code for answering online, or could people somehow “pre-register” to receive a code for online participation? Should you mail a questionnaire if a household doesn’t answer online by a certain date, or just send an enumerator to the door? Would Americans welcome or reject text messages and emails from the Census Bureau, urging them to be counted, and how can everyone avoid the inevitable phishing schemes from false census.gov addresses (I’ve received two myself already)? I can’t answer these questions, and neither can the Census Bureau without thorough evaluation.

Possible changes to census questions? The American Community Survey is a cost-effective test-bed for proposed revisions, but the 2013 funding shortfall will push back a key content test from 2015 to 2016, which — in my opinion — is getting too close for comfort to the statutory April 1, 2017, deadline for submitting census topics to Congress.

The Census Bureau has made the hard choices for 2013: moving some research from the field to a desk; pushing back deadlines; reevaluating projects planned for next year. It is moving forward, for now, with research into a potentially big money-saver: using administrative records to identify possible undercounts and add people who might be missed during the census. But with the National Security Agency data mining program looming large in the American consciousness, that research must be thorough and robust before the Census Bureau can even hope for buy-in from lawmakers and the public. Important research into public trust and confidentiality concerns has been pushed back already. Without a funding increase in 2014, the agency won’t even be able to cover its staffing costs.

The risk of an unacceptably costly or unacceptably inaccurate census, or both, continues to go up as Congress continues to squeeze the Census Bureau’s budget during the critical research, testing and development phases of our decennial enumeration. The census is a 10-year program. Congress can invest in planning now, to keep the life-cycle cost of the enumeration in check ($13 – $18 billion, depending on the design, according to independent auditors), or keep letting the car roll backward — and dig itself out of a census ditch for $30 billion in a few short years.

The Cycle of Life, Part Two: Time to Ramp It Up

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Last week, I gave a little tutorial on the lifecycle cost of a decennial census. You know: “The seasons, they go round and round, and the painted ponies go up and down.” Up and down are the operative words; right now, the cycle is in up mode. Meaning the Census Bureau needs modest funding increases each year to stay on an efficient, productive research and planning schedule that will save billions of dollars in implementation costs over the entire lifecycle.

Did I just date myself terribly? (“Like” if you remember that song!) But, I digress. President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2014 (FY2014) $982.5 million budget request for the Census Bureau barely budged over his request for the current year. Embedded in that overall agency number is $486 million for the 2020 Census, which includes the ongoing American Community Survey (ACS).

The ACS is really a bargain, folks. Its $242 million price tag is an infinitesimal half a thousandth of a percent of the federal aid directed prudently (Congress enacts the formulas, after all) each year to states and localities for schools, roads and transit systems, rural economic development projects, health care, job training, crime prevention programs, and other state and local activities, based (directly or indirectly) on data the ACS yields annually. Businesses and community-based nonprofits use the data to make billions (and billions and billions) of dollars in investment and program decisions that spur job growth, commerce and economic development. And the survey is now a two-for-one deal: it’s a rolling test bed for new methods and systems that could reduce 2020 Census costs considerably.

Speaking of 2020 (just around the corner… see my last blog post!), the president requested an increase of $154.2 million to finish the research and testing phase, allowing the Census Bureau to select a design framework and move forward with operational and systems development in subsequent years. Key elements of census reform could include broad use of administrative records to keep the address list up-to-date and to identify unresponsive households during the enumeration, as well as multi-mode response options that take advantage of the latest tech gadgets. Without thorough research and testing, the bureau might fall back on a far more expensive (but tried and true) paper and pencil design. Which Congress already has said it won’t pay for, by the way.

As Commerce Inspector General Todd Zinser warned Senate and House appropriators this week, “To achieve cost savings, the Bureau is exploring new and innovative design alternatives based on evidence from its research and testing operations. However, the Bureau may be seeing signs of delays due to budget reductions and schedule slippage in its 2010 decennial census evaluation program and the 2020 decennial research and testing program.”

The problem, in other words, is that the Census Bureau already is positioned fiscally to fall behind, because Congress whacked about 13 percent from its 2020 Census budget request for the current year, what with sequestration and across-the-board cuts. The bureau will need its full FY2014 request of $244.8 million for 2020 Census planning just to stay on top of things.

So here we are, once again, facing an uphill battle for a reasonable investment in two of the nation’s premier statistical programs, both of which return far more to a democracy and informed decision-making than they will ever cost. Time to buckle down, census stakeholders, and fight the good (if often unrecognized) fight!

The Cycle of Life: Pay Now Or Pay Later

By Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Lifecycle.

Probably makes you contemplate caterpillars and butterflies as spring blossoms start to appear. Or, maybe babies and grandparents; The Lion King.

Me? As usual, I’m wringing my hands about the lifecycle of a census. The planning, preparation, promotion, implementation, numbers crunching. The census lifecycle goes up and it goes down — and then up again — but there is no plateau.

Research and test; develop methodology, operational plans and systems; prepare to launch; execute; tabulate and publish data. Repeat every 10 (the constitutionally required decennial census) or five (the legally required Economic Census and Census of Governments) years.

2020 seems light-years away. But consider the following:

  • A mere seven years from now, census forms will be in the mail (or online or your smartphone or whatever latest gadget I’ll be too old to master).
  • In six years, field workers will be canvassing the nation’s streets, rural roads and remote dirt lanes to be sure all addresses are in the system.
  • Just five years down the road, the Census Bureau will submit the 2020 Census questionnaire to Congress; in four, it will send lawmakers the topics it will include on the form — both submissions are required by law.
  • In three years, Census staff will be mired in final, targeted research and testing of the 2020 design (using the American Community Survey, if lawmakers haven’t pulled the plug, as a primary cost-effective test-bed), operations development, and complex IT systems testing.
  • Next year (that’s 2014, folks), the agency will choose the basic design for the 2020 population count.

My, my… where does the time go?

Here’s the rub: there is little flexibility in the lifecycle; no “down time” to push back decision-making; no “give” in the schedule without risky and often costly delays down the road. Census planning and preparation are up against two immutable deadlilnes: Article I, section 2, of the U.S. Constitution, and a codified census date — April 1, 2020.

There’s no putting it off. There are no do-overs. The Census Bureau has to get it right the first time, on time.

Let’s stipulate that putting the 2020 Census on a 2010 Census design path will cost too much money — $30 billion, according to government agency watchdogs. That’s why major design changes are in the works now. By the end of next year, the Census Bureau must have a framework for 2020 that will allow development and thorough testing of multi-mode response options (but my dad, who will then be 88, will still fill out his paper questionnaire, I promise!), IT platforms to support appropriate use of existing data sources (also known as administrative records), evolving communications strategies to reach a diverse (age, race and ethnicity, type of community, language) population, and streamlined field operations overseen by six, not the previous 12, regional offices. Investing now in this essential planning will yield a census lifecycle cost of $13 – $18 billion, depending on the design chosen. Hey, now we’re talking real savings!

It all seems like a logical means to a rational end, except Congress doesn’t seem to get this lifecycle thing yet. For the current fiscal year (2013), the president had requested $970.4 million for the Census Bureau, including $711.3 million for the account covering the 2020 Census and ACS. The House slashed $75.6 million from the 2020 Census planning pot in its first stab (and I do mean that figuratively and literally) at the Commerce Department funding bill last May, even deciding to axe the ACS altogether. The Senate was more generous in its first go-round, although it couldn’t resist dipping into the Working Capital Fund again to come up with the money. But as Congress struggled (and struggled) to avoid sequestration (unsuccessfully) and then enact a final funding measure as the fiscal year clock ticked away, the Census Bureau lost a few tens of millions here and a few tens of millions there — and before you could say “prudent investment,” the need for a modest budget ramp up of 3 percent had become a budget cut of roughly $126 million, or 13 percent.

The hapless 2012 Economic Census — you know, the one that yields little secrets, like how well the economy is doing — really took it on the chin. FY2013 is the peak year in its short five-year lifecycle; now there’s not enough money to produce key economic data on time. The administration requested an exception from forced spending cuts, probably figuring it might be nice to know about payrolls, business investment and industry competitiveness when economic recovery is front and center, but Congress wouldn’t go along. Another likely casualty is the Survey of Business Owners, an add-on to the quinquennial (I love that word!) Economic Census which produces the only information on women-, minority- and veteran-owned businesses. We’re not just cutting budgets anymore; we’re losing information that helps us spend the money we do have wisely.

Tomorrow the president will unveil his budget request for FY2014. And it seems to me that Congress has a choice: it can pay now, to reduce total census costs conceivably by half — or it can pay later. More; much, much more.

The Option of Ignorance: Gutting the ACS Puts Democracy at Risk

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

In a blog post last summer, I waxed incredulously about the ease with which the U.S. House of Representatives dismissed the need for reliable, objective and comprehensive data to guide public and private decision-making and resource allocation, first by voting to make response to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) optional and then to eliminate funding for the survey altogether.

No matter that a myriad of laws Congress itself passed require the data to distribute aid to states and localities for schools, roads and local transit, health care, rural development projects, services for people with disabilities and veterans, and other basic societal functions. Never mind that American businesses use ACS data to locate new plants and stores, determine workforce capabilities, and meet the needs of customers (such as families with children and senior citizens, language minorities, and people with disabilities) — in other words, day-to-day decisions that grow the economy. Forget state, regional and local authorities who rely on ACS data to plan emergency response services, law enforcement strategies, transportation and waste disposal systems, after-school and elder care programs, and other basic functions that make communities tick. Don’t even mention provisions of the Voting Rights Act that require ACS data to ensure access at the polls for limited English proficiency voters.

Two new bills would have us believe that the right of Americans to just say no to a few, simple questions from the Census Bureau outweighs the need of elected, community and business leaders to make informed and transparent decisions in a democracy. H.R. 1078 and S. 530 — similar to bills introduced in the 112th Congress, but sneakily more alarming — would make ACS response voluntary. Just to make sure everyone (especially the teensy percent of U.S. households that are in the monthly sample) knows: the proposals require a statement in the ACS instructions that response (to all but the basic name, address, number of people in household) is optional. As in, “Hey, Americans, this survey really isn’t all that important, so feel free not to respond!”

The bills’ sponsors, Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), want to be very sure the Census Bureau doesn’t ask about a person’s religion in the ACS, even though the law already prohibits the Census Bureau from compelling any person “to disclose information relative to his religious beliefs or to membership in a religious body.” (Title 13, USC §221) Hmmm… perhaps this completely unnecessary new provision might gin up further disdain for census surveys among those who believe government already overreaches? Just sayin’.

House members already approved, by breezy voice vote, an appropriations bill amendment making ACS response voluntary. So it’s not a stretch to worry about momentum building around the new Poe/Paul proposals or similar amendments to the next round of funding bills.

Let’s envision the nation’s largest, most comprehensive and important baseline survey as a choice for the next five years. Americans will be told they can decide whether to answer any or no questions (other than name, rank and serial number). By the time the 2020 Census rolls around, more Americans just might believe data aren’t important at all, and sit out the next decennial count.

Mahatma Gandhi had it right. When he called for a general strike against British civil authority, he was nevertheless wise enough to encourage participation in India’s census. This nation needs objective, reliable information, not only to function efficiently, but to ensure that Americans can hold their government accountable for its decisions. It’s a pact that makes a true democracy work, and to suggest that the people have rights but no responsibilities is starting to sound… well, un-American.