Census Update

What’s in Store for 2017?

By Terri Ann Lowenthal, FCCP Consultant*

In January 2017, a new President and a new Congress took the nation’s federal governing reins. The implications of the 2016 elections for public policy are vast and largely unknown. But there are a few things we know for certain: The Trump Administration will oversee the 2020 Census, and the new Administration and 115th Congress are positioned to influence key policy decisions affecting the next constitutionally required population count and related American Community Survey (ACS). We hope the broad, consequential nature of these decisions will spur funders to support an accurate 2020 Census and robust ACS through investments in policy work and get-out-the-count campaigns.

Here are the major issues to watch in the coming months

Presidential appointments

President Trump will fill several executive branch positions with direct, or at least significant, influence over the 2020 Census and future of the ACS. All of the positions mentioned below require Senate confirmation.

  • Census Director — Census Director John Thompson’s first term ended on December 31, 2016, but he remains in the position for now under a provision of law allowing a Director to continue serving, in the event of a vacancy, for up to one year or, if sooner, until he or a successor is re/appointed. Mr. Thompson is eligible for a second five-year term. In recent decades, Presidents have taken up to a year or longer to nominate a Census Bureau chief.
  • Commerce Department positions — President Trump announced that he will nominate billionaire investor Wilbur Ross as Commerce Secretary and Todd Ricketts, co-owner of the Chicago Cubs, as Deputy Secretary. The Census Bureau is part of the Department of Commerce. The President also must choose an Under Secretary for Economic Affairs, who heads the department’s Economic and Statistics Administration (ESA). Until recently, the Census Director reported to the Under Secretary; in 2015, the Commerce Secretary administratively changed the reporting structure, giving the Census chief a direct line to the Deputy Secretary. The new Administration could modify the organizational chart again. So far, there are no public indications of how Mr. Ross and Mr. Ricketts will approach the Census Bureau’s work; broad-based stakeholder advocacy could elevate the importance of the 2020 Census and ACS for department officials. Mr. Ross serves on the board of the Brookings Institution, which conducts a great deal of data based research and analysis; his Brookings position could suggest an appreciation for data-driven decision-making and the integrity of Census Bureau programs.
  • Budget office positions — President Trump’s pick for Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC). The OMB chief oversees not only the Administration’s annual budget submission to Congress, but also federal statistical policy. Rep. Mulvaney was a founding member of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus and also served on the Census Bureau’s oversight subcommittee, where he has expressed skepticism about requiring Americans to respond to the ACS. The Census Bureau will require a steep ramp-up in funding over the next few years to support final 2020 Census planning, preparations, and implementation. Insufficient funding could affect activities designed to reach historically hard-to-count populations, such as advertising and partnerships, visits to unresponsive households, and in-language assistance, as well as the number of temporary census takers. The President also will choose an Administrator of OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which sets and implements statistical guidance, including the content of censuses and surveys and the collection of race and ethnicity data.

Race and ethnicity data

In late September, the Office of Management and Budget announced a long-anticipated review of the federal policy for collection of race and ethnicity data. OMB could propose changes to the Standards for Maintaining, Collecting and Presenting Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity that add a new category for persons of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) origin and suggest a single (combined) question to collect race and ethnicity data, instead of two separate questions, which the current policy favors. The new Administration could change course, however, or at least delay any modifications to the Standards.

In a parallel effort, the Census Bureau is completing a years-long effort to research and test improvements for the 2020 Census race and ethnicity questions. The bureau will release a full analysis of the 2015 National Content Test this winter. Based on the preliminary results, staff already recommended using a combined race/ethnicity question and including a MENA category in the 2018 End-to-End Census Test. The future direction of the OMB Standards review could affect final decisions about the 2020 Census questions.

2020 Census and ACS content

By law, the Census Bureau must submit to Congress the topics to be covered in the census (of which the ACS is a part) by April 1, 2017, and the actual questions for the census and ACS by April 1, 2018. The Census Act (Title 13, U.S.C.) does not contemplate congressional approval. As a practical matter, Congress could urge the Bureau to modify content it doesn’t like; otherwise, lawmakers must use the legislative process to modify the topics or question wording. OMB’s OIRA also could influence the scope of census and ACS data collection in its role as federal statistical overseer. All censuses and surveys must go through the public comment and OMB approval process under the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980.

Census residence rules

Last summer, the Census Bureau proposed final rules that will govern where people are counted in the 2020 Census. The suggested “Residence Criteria and Residence Situations” declined to change a long-standing policy of counting incarcerated persons at the prison facility where they are housed on Census Day, despite overwhelming support in public comments for counting these individuals at their home address. Tens of thousands of additional comments calling for a new rule for the incarcerated population has forced the Census Bureau to reconsider its proposal and conduct additional research. While the agency is expected to issue final Criteria within a few months, Congress — which has constitutional responsibility for the decennial census — could weigh in, as well.

Preserving the American Community Survey

The U.S. House of Representatives has voted three times since 2012 to make response to the ACS voluntary, which Census Bureau tests and the Canadian experience have shown would diminish data reliability and even availability for rural areas, American Indian reservations, urban neighborhoods, and small population groups. The House even voted in 2012 to eliminate the ACS altogether. Key Republican lawmakers (who will be in the Senate and House majority in 2017-18) oppose a mandatory ACS, and the incoming Administration’s position is unknown. Failing to fully fund the annual survey of 3.5 million addresses also could jeopardize the usefulness of ACS data by forcing reductions in the sample size.

Funding the 2020 Census

Finally, the overarching challenge facing the 2020 Census is the availability of timely, sufficient funding. Over the next four years, the Census Bureau must finalize and operationalize the census design, develop a complex IT architecture, prepare for a massive communications campaign and field operations, and then count roughly 330 million people in the right place.

From here on out, there is no wiggle room in the schedule. Delays or cutbacks in planned activities will put an accurate, cost-effective census at risk. Historically undercounted communities, which have lower self-response rates, will feel the brunt of inadequate resources, since the door-to-door field operation (Nonresponse Follow-Up) is the most costly part of the census.

Congress has directed the Census Bureau to keep the cost of the 2020 Census at or below the 2010 Census cost. The Bureau has fundamentally redesigned the census to meet that goal, but Congress has still cut the Bureau’s 2020 Census budget request almost every year. In addition, Congress’ failure to pass funding bills on time has added damaging uncertainty to the final planning process.