Required every ten years as prescribed in the Constitution, the next U.S. Census is scheduled to take place on April 1, 2020. Data generated by the census dictates each state’s representation in Congress for the next ten years. Each state’s electoral votes can increase or decrease accordingly. The redistricting of congressional and legislative districts within states also depends on census data.
Federal spending in the range of $600 billion is proportionately distributed among the states based on census information. Private industry uses census data for a variety of planning, marketing and growth-management decisions. Meanwhile, as the U.S. population continues to grow, the task of counting 325 million-plus Americans is becoming more complex and more expensive.
How will the census fare under the new Trump administration? So far, the outlook is not too bright. While the White House has taken no steps to interfere with the work of the Census Bureau, it has done little or nothing to support it, either. The top two leadership positions in the Bureau are now vacant, and the president has yet to nominate anyone to head the census. As of August 2017, the 2020 Census faces significant problems in the following areas:
Insufficient Congressional Funding
The average cost of counting Americans has risen in constant dollars from $16 per household in 1970 to $92 in 2010, mainly because Americans in general increasingly have been ignoring the census questionnaires that are sent to every household. The mail-back response rate fell from 78 percent in 1970 to 63 percent in 2010, according to Government Accountability Office (GAO) figures. Anyone who does not complete and return their census form will be visited by a census enumerator, up to six times if necessary. And that’s expensive.
On the face of it, the Census Bureau fared relatively well in the proposed White House 2018 budget, because it was granted a slight increase of $50 million over its 2017 funding — a sharp contrast to the deep cuts imposed on most other domestic government agencies and functions. Previous budget projections would have provided an additional $200 million to the Census Bureau in 2018. The 2020 Census will almost certainly be forced to count a larger and less-responsive population with fewer resources.
According to the GAO, the 2010 Census was the most expensive American census in history. It cost about $12.3 billion, which reflected a constant-dollar increase of 31 percent over the cost of the 2000 Census. Right now, the Census Bureau is committed to operating under a congressional mandate that the 2020 Census will cost no more than the 2010 count, or about $13 billion in constant dollars. The Bureau hopes that it can find about $5 billion in savings through technology-driven efficiencies, but it has shown little actual ability to do so. Developed in October 2015, the Bureau’s cost estimate for the 2020 Census will be updated this summer, and it seems likely that the cost will ratchet upward.
Funding problems have already begun to affect the Census Bureau’s work. The 2018 End-to-End Test, a comprehensive dry run of the 2020 Census, was supposed to begin next summer in Providence County, R.I., Pierce County, Washington, and a nine-county rural area in southeastern West Virginia. This plan was recently scaled back to full execution only in Rhode Island, due primarily to the $150 million shortfall between the Obama and Trump administrations’ projected census funding for fiscal 2018. Field testing of new methodologies scheduled for 2017 was cancelled in October 2016.
The Director of the Census Bureau is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Just a few days after his testimony before a House subcommittee in May 2017, Census Director John Thompson resigned his position. The deputy director, Nancy Potok, left her Bureau office in January to accept another federal appointment. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross named Jon Larmin to serve as acting director and Enrique Lamas as acting deputy director on June 29. Both interim appointees are long-term Census officials who have served in various capacities with the Bureau, but neither has much job security. Either the President or the Secretary of Commerce could replace either or both officials on little notice.
If the President or Secretary names new officials to replace the current Census leadership with little time remaining before the 2020 Census, the Bureau’s current challenges could be compounded by a loss of continuity, decline in morale, and sudden shifts of emphasis — all of which could affect the reliability and cost of the 2020 Census results.
Concerns Over Technology
Congress apparently expects the use of high-tech data gathering methods to help cut the costs of performing the 2020 Census. Internet census returns have been considered as a way to reduce the expense of field operations, but it’s hard to imagine that declining public confidence in online data collection will result in higher or less-expensive return rates from American households. Hacking scandals in banking, retail, entertainment, politics and other areas are becoming more frequent, not less, and public skepticism over cybersecurity will represent an important barrier to full participation.
It is not yet clear that the 2020 Census is committed to substantial public participation online, but it seems doubtful that an option to return the census questionnaire over the internet will significantly increase the return rate over 2010’s 63 percent. Meanwhile, the Census Bureau’s current cost overruns primarily involve the difficulty in developing electronic data collection methods that are accurate, effective, scalable and secure. To the greater extent that Americans fail to respond to census questionnaires either by mail or online, the more dependent the Census will be on the highly expensive task of having enumerators go from door to door in order to count everybody.
The GAO has identified the 2020 Census as a government program at high risk of vulnerability to fraud, waste, abuse, or mismanagement, or most in need of transformation. We’ll find out soon whether this assessment has generated enough concern to result in the corrective actions necessary to make our next census a success.