The U.S. Census Bureau is less than one year away from its decennial count of people living in the country, and some members of Congress have expressed concerns that the agency is not fully prepared to handle the volume of work required in 2020 and the potential challenges a new citizenship question could add to the process.
At an April 30 House Committee on Appropriations hearing, Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., said that he found the $6.4 billion requested by the bureau in its fiscal year 2020 budget to specifically conduct the decennial census “inadequate.”
But Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said that he was highly confident the 2020 budget request would cover the needs of a “complete and accurate count” of persons in the United States.
Bill O’Hare, president of O’Hare Data and Demographic Services with over 40 years of experience working with the Census Bureau, told Federal Times that historically the budget for the Census Bureau during a decennial year approximately doubles from the year before.
The Census Bureau received a total of $3.8 billion in FY19 for all of its operations. The White House budget request for FY20 called on Congress to appropriate $7.2 billion for the Census Bureau, approximately $400 million shy of the doubling mark.
The Census Bureau has invested in new technologies and survey methods that aim to reduce the overall cost of the census, though these have yet to be deployed in a full decennial survey.
According to Dillingham, the 2020 request is based on three estimations of the census’s total costs conducted over the past few years.
In 2017, the estimate for total census cost was $12.5 billion, but a later reexamination bumped that estimate to $14.1 billion. The secretary of Commerce opted to conduct another reexamination, which found a $15.6 billion life-cycle cost estimate.
“The current budget request is built on the $14.1 billion independent cost estimate that the bureau and the department had agreed to, that followed the [Government Accountability Office] guidance. Over time, built on successes and time-tested operations, some of the build in contingencies that we had expected did not occur,” said Dillingham.
Because potential contingencies that could have taken place in recent years did not occur, the Census Bureau is left with a $1 billion contingency fund to cover any unforeseen costs that may drive up the price of the 2020 census.
The question is whether that contingency will cover extenuating circumstances, such as natural disasters, that could drive up costs, in addition to increased costs driven by a new and controversial citizenship question.
“I am deeply concerned that the bureau remains unprepared for and unwilling to admit culpability in this situation. In particular, I’m worried that the bureau remains seriously unready to administer a census that includes a citizenship question,” said Serrano.
“I have heard little, if any, plans to address community fears in immigrant communities about what this information is used for.”
Dillingham said that the Census Bureau intends to combat fears that a citizenship question could be used to harm immigrant communities predominantly through the use of “some of the best media campaigns” and outreach programs.
Funding for that outreach was requested at approximately $500 million, a significant increase from the 2010 outreach costs at $350 million.
O’Hare told Federal Times that a citizenship question would likely decrease household response rates by a conservatively estimated five or six percent, causing the agency to have to send significantly more expensive enumerators to conduct in-person surveys.
Whether or not the citizenship question will be included in the 2020 census is currently up to the decision of the Supreme Court, which heard arguments last month about whether the question and its impact on response rates would violate the constitutional basis for the census.
In the meantime, the Census Bureau plans to conduct a study in the summer of 2019, with results available in October of this year, in which half of the tested households are asked about citizenship and half are not.
“If we see an area in which we intend to devote more resources, that is what we intend to do,” said Dillingham.
But some congressmen worried that the October timeline would not offer enough time to correct course, if the study showed that the question would depress response rates significantly.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.