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‘Perfect storm’ threatens successful 2020 Census

By Terri Ann Lowenthal, New America Media | 9/29/2017, 6 a.m.

There are growing concerns about the Census Bureau’s ability to pull off a successful 2020 Census – one that counts all communities equally well.

The Census Bureau has worked hard to plan a census that is modern, cost-effective, and accurate. But we are facing an unprecedented confluence of factors — many out of the Census Bureau’s control — that could create a perfect storm and thwart a successful census.

  • First is the insufficient, uncertain, and frequently late annual funding, which already has delayed and derailed important testing and preparations. Most at risk are operations specifically designed to enumerate historically hard-to-count communities more accurately.
  • Second, 2020 will mark the first high-tech census ever conducted. No one disputes the importance of modernizing the census, but technology also brings cyber-security threats, real or perceived, and the challenge of the digital divide. Without adequate funding, the bureau has no means of testing these new technologies to determine their security and effective reach.
  • Third, political rhetoric and government activity has created a climate of fear that could depress participation in many communities.
  • Fourth is the current leadership vacuum at the bureau following the unexpected resignation of the Census Director in June, and the administration’s failure to fill other high-level vacancies at the Commerce Department and the Census Bureau.
  • Finally, threats to add untested and unnecessary questions — including about immigration status — to the census form at the 11th hour could derail eight years worth of research and testing and result in an expensive, but failed, census.

A look at the numbers will put these challenges in sharper context. For the 2020 Census, for the first time, Congress set a cap on census costs at the start of the ten-year cycle.

Lawmakers directed the Census Bureau not to spend more on the 2020 Census than it did on the 2010 count (roughly $13 billion), and the bureau designed a census that meets that goal and could save more than $5 billion compared to the cost of repeating the traditional census design.

But Congress kept lowering the bar. It short-changed the Census Bureau in annual funding bills. Then it decided the next census should cost less than the last one.

After Congress failed to allocate sufficient funding in 2017, the Trump administration requested far less money than the Census Bureau needs for final testing and important preparations in 2018. And federal budget caps set in 2011 threaten the likelihood that enough resources will be available before it’s too late.

The tight purse strings are having and will continue to have worrisome consequences, and the window of opportunity to right the ship is closing fast.

For 2018, we estimate the Census Bureau needs at least $1.8 billion – and likely more. The president’s woefully inadequate budget request – just shy of $1.5 billion – is a mere two percent boost over this year’s funding level. But at this point in the census cycle, the Bureau can’t creep towards implementation of the nation’s largest, most complex peacetime activity; it must ramp-up significantly each year by leaps and bounds. By comparison, ten years ago, the bureau’s budget jumped 61 percent between 2007 and 2008.

Congress can demonstrate leadership by adjusting the budget caps upward – in advance, and starting this fall – to accommodate a significant yearly funding ramp-up for the decennial census. Such a step would represent foresight and sound governance, and give the Census Bureau the stability and certainty it needs to ensure comprehensive, high quality final preparations.

We fully understand that a cost-effective census is a worthwhile goal, and that policymakers must always strive to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars and ask if the result is worth the investment. But cost considerations can never outweigh efforts to achieve an accurate count.

A good census is an investment in everything we hold dear in this country: a representative democracy; government and elected officials that are accountable to the people; business and industry investment to drive economic growth, good jobs and innovation.

Lawmakers must step up to the plate this fall and do what it takes to right the ship now and make sure it doesn’t sink in 2020. The Constitution demands nothing less.

Terri Ann Lowenthal is former staff director for the House Census and Population Subcommittee and is a consultant to The Leadership Conference Education Fund.