Census Policy Update

What’s in store for 2019?

By Terri Ann Lowenthal, FCCP Census Consultant 

Chances are, if you’re reading this article, you are a census warrior — contemplating or committed to investing in activities that promote a fair and accurate 2020 Census. And that means you know why 2019 is such a pivotal year. 

No more “research, testing, and planning” to fill up the time, as the decade-long census clock ticks down to the “zero” year. The chickens are coming home to roost, and 2019 is the year of final census preparations. That means, all hands on deck; batten down the hatches; get ready to raise the jib, because not only is the Census Bureau rolling out the field infrastructure for the 2020 count, it is finalizing the master address list, buying up national ad time, opening local (“Area”) offices, recruiting the army of field workers it will need for peak operations in late 2019 and 2020, and scaling up and securing the IT systems that will collect, process, and store the waves of information that households will report. 

Before I move on from nautical metaphors … I have to resurrect one from two years ago: the Census Bureau could be sailing into the perfect storm in 2020. There still are storm clouds on the horizon, and it will take a collective, concerted effort to overcome the challenges and help the Census Bureau achieve a successful enumeration — that is, one that counts all communities equally well. 

So, here we go, census funders: our annual census policy update! 

One year ago, we were contemplating the consequences of the administration’s unexpected push to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. The dress rehearsal (2018 End-to-End Census Test) was starting in Providence County, RI, and a critical survey (CBAMS) to understand barriers to census response and inform effective communications strategies would be in the field shortly, albeit months behind schedule. 

Now, with little “give” in the census schedule and the start of peak operations less than a year away, let’s recap the major policy issues to watch in 2019, with an eye towards opportunities to influence key decisions along the way. 

  1. Funding the 2020 Census 

The overarching challenge facing the 2020 Census continues to be the availability of timely, sufficient resources. Congress has yet to finalize Census Bureau funding for 2019, more than four months into the fiscal year. The threat of a second government shutdown on February 15, and the lack of a full year appropriation, can add an element of spending caution not conducive to robust, “full steam ahead” preparations. Growing threats to a successful census — not the least of which is the possible inclusion of a citizenship question (more on that later) — could require more funding to overcome than current cost estimates assume. And looming federal budget constraints in 2020 could dampen decennial congressional enthusiasm for fattening the Census Bureau’s budget in the census year (lest “my district” or “my state” suffer an undercount). 

FY 2019: But let’s start with FY 2019. The president’s budget proposed $3.801 billion for the Census Bureau, including $3.015 billion for the 2020 Census. Stakeholders pushed for higher 2020 Census funding ($3.648 billion), to support more partnership program staff, a larger field footprint through Questionnaire Assistance Centers (QACs — not in the original census plan), and expanded targeted communications

Last summer, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees passed their respective versions of the FY 2019 Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) Appropriations bills, but unrelated disagreements over other spending bills prevented consideration of a stand-alone CJS bill on the floor of either chamber. (And then controversy over funding for “the wall” took over the entire appropriations process, and everything ground to a halt … and you know the rest of that story.) 

Fortunately, Congress included $1.056 billion in “forward funding” for 2020 Census activities in the FY 2018 appropriations bill. That carry-over has allowed the Bureau to keep 2020 Census preparations moving forward, even during the recent partial government shutdown, although shuttered doors at other federal agencies hampered progress on several fronts. (For example, on-boarding of Partnership Specialists fell behind schedule because DOJ couldn’t perform required background checks; OMB clearance under the Paperwork Reduction Act of the final census operational plan, including the questionnaires, came to a halt, as well. OMB is sputtering back to life, and we are waiting to hear about a new deadline for public comments to the 12/28/18 Federal Register notice we shared with you previously.) 

The entire Census Bureau is open for business again and operating under a Continuing Resolution that holds agencies (the ones that don’t yet have enacted 2019 appropriations) to 2018 funding levels and runs through February 15th. Lawmakers are now racing against that clock to reach an agreement on the remaining FY 2019 bills (including CJS) that they hope the president will sign. 

Buried in this current appropriations mess, however, is a glimmer of good news for the 2020 Census. 

In their quest to reopen the government last month, both the House and Senate passed “consolidated” appropriations bills covering all not-yet-funded agencies except the Department of Homeland Security (“wall funding!”). Both bills included the same updated numbers and directives (called “report language”) for the Census Bureau, which means once the dispute over border security money is resolved, those provisions almost certainly will be in the final appropriations bill. There are no breakdowns for each activity within the Bureau’s two main accounts, but the bills include the president’s request ($3.551 billion) for the Periodic Censuses and Programs account, which covers the decennial census, and does not set aside any of that amount for the start of FY 2020. Therefore, the allocation would be on top of the carry-over from 2018, which means the Bureau will have significantly more money than the administration’s request, as stakeholders had urged. More importantly, the new report language directs the Census Bureau to spend money on expanded targeted communications and partnership activities and to open QACs in hard-to-count communities. Consistent stakeholder advocacy clearly paid off in this (never ending) appropriations cycle! The sooner policymakers can agree on a final FY 2019 spending package, the sooner the Census Bureau can begin boosting its outreach efforts in a thoughtful and effective way. 

FY 2020: Meanwhile, the recent government shutdown has delayed the start of the FY 2020 appropriations cycle, which usually kicks off with release of the president’s budget request in early February. We now expect to see top-line numbers in mid-March (we’ve heard the 11th), with more details by program to follow a week or so later. The appropriations panels will then start their traditional hearings with department and agency chiefs, followed by subcommittee (CJS for us) and full committee “mark-ups” of the 12 appropriations bills in the spring and early summer (if history is any guide). 

At the same time, the Budget Committees will be working to reach a new overarching agreement that would set parameters for defense and non-defense spending levels for FY 2020 and FY 2021. Without a new budget deal, strict spending caps set years ago (called “sequestration,” for those who follow budgeting minutiae) will kick-in on October 1st (the start of FY 2020) for all agencies, putting sufficient funding for the 2020 Census at grave risk. A quick look at likely census funding needs for 2020 shows why. 

Historically, funding for the decennial census has at least doubled between the years ending in “9” and “0;” roughly half of the lifecycle (10-year) cost of a census is spent in the census year alone. The Commerce Department’s latest lifecycle cost estimate for the 2020 Census ($15.6 billion) projects a FY 2020 funding level of about $7.4 billion, which includes a 10 percent contingency fund of $670 million. Assuming for the moment a final FY 2019 appropriation for the 2020 Census of $3.6 billion (or a little higher), the Commerce estimate is within historical trends. There are important wildcards, of course: (1) we don’t know how much money the president will request; and (2) our analysis of the budget and current threats to an accurate census could lead us to advocate for higher funding. But without an upward adjustment in the annual budget caps, or some exception for the unique decennial census ramp-up, Congress will not be able to double the decennial census budget without slashing other popular programs in the CJS appropriations bill. 

Influence points: All of that budget and appropriations intrigue is enough to make anyone’s head spin. So let’s boil it down to the fundamental “asks” stakeholders need to make, and when that outreach to policymakers would be most effective. 

Now: Urge lawmakers to finalize full-year FY 2019 funding for the 2020 Census as quickly as possible, noting that uncertainty about available resources will delay development and deployment of vital activities designed specifically to reach historically harder-to-enumerate communities. With the clock ticking down to peak census operations, the Census Bureau has no flexibility to make up for lost time. 

March–May: Urge members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, and all lawmakers, to allocate “no less than the president’s FY 2020 budget request for the 2020 Census, and possibly more, given the mounting challenges to a census that counts all communities equally well.” (We will provide more specific numbers once we have seen and analyzed the president’s budget request.) 

Late Spring/Summer: Assuming the CJS Appropriations bills are heading to committee “mark-ups” and possibly floor action in each chamber, continue to urge robust funding, plus discourage members from supporting any amendments that would “raid” the large decennial census budget to pay for other programs in the CJS bill. (The Census Bureau is not a piggy-bank!) 

September: Assuming (again!) that Congress hasn’t yet finalized FY 2020 appropriations bills, urge lawmakers to ensure that the Census Bureau has an adequate full-year spending level at the start of the fiscal year on October 1st, as part of any temporary spending measure (a Continuing Resolution, which keeps most agencies at prior year funding levels). 

  1. Census Bureau leadership 

The Census Bureau finally has a new Director! Last month, the Senate confirmed Dr. Steven Dillingham for the post, which had been filled by an acting director since former Director John Thompson resigned in June 2017. Former acting director Ron Jarmin, a career Bureau professional who previously had overseen economic statistics programs, was appointed as the permanent Deputy Director. And former acting deputy director Enrique Lamas, who had headed demographic statistics programs, agreed to serve as a special advisor to Dr. Jarmin through the 2020 Census. (Don’t you love musical chairs?) 

Census stakeholders, including funders, will be getting to know Dr. Dillingham in the coming weeks and months. Hopefully, they will establish a constructive working relationship and lines of communication that will allow stakeholders to share concerns and weigh-in with important external perspectives in a timely way. Stakeholders also will want assurances that Dr. Dillingham will make decisions free from inappropriate political influence. Stay tuned for more information soon on funder outreach to Dr. Dillingham. 

However, funders working at the state and local levels to support Get Out the Count (GOTC) campaigns should focus on establishing similar lines of communications with their respective Regional Census Center/Office directors and other senior regional staff. FCI will help funders and their grantees make those important connections in the coming months. 

  1. Congressional oversight of the 2020 Census 

I like to remind people that the U.S. Constitution says Congress will determine how to conduct the census. Through the Census Act (Title 13, United States Code), lawmakers have delegated much of the authority for deciding how to take the census to the Commerce Secretary and a Census Bureau director. But Congress has the power — indeed, the responsibility — to oversee that work closely, to allocate sufficient funding, and to step in when lawmakers believe that Commerce Department or Census Bureau decisions could undermine a fair and accurate enumeration. 

Unfortunately, in the humble opinion of this former congressional staffer, I don’t think the Census Bureau’s oversight committees have conducted enough public scrutiny of 2020 Census planning to achieve those goals. But that is likely to change in the 116th Congress. The new Democratic House majority reorganized (and renamed) the Committee on Oversight and Reform, creating a new Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties with jurisdiction over the Census Bureau. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) chairs the full committee; his sparring partner (the Ranking Minority Member) is Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), a member of the Congressional Freedom Caucus. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) is chairing the new subcommittee; this former law professor demonstrated a keen understanding of census issues when the House Judiciary Committee, on which he also serves, held a hearing last spring on proposals to exclude undocumented residents from the census counts used to apportion seats in Congress. Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) is the senior Republican on the panel. Both Chairman Cummings and Chairman Raskin have spoken publicly about their intentions to examine a range of important census issues and have already reached out to key stakeholder groups. Possible hearing topics include hiring and job qualifications, the communications campaign and language assistance program, cyber-security concerns, overcoming the digital divide in the first high-tech census, and more. 

On the other side of “the Hill,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) continues to chair the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. The new Ranking Minority Member is Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), who already has shown great interest in the census by holding a roundtable discussion in Michigan to illuminate challenges and concerns in a state that, regrettably, is projected to lose a congressional district after the 2020 count. For the time being, responsibility for census oversight will rest with the full committee. 

Influence points: Funders can view the relevant committee and subcommittee rosters at 

https://www.congress.gov and reach out to lawmakers from the states or districts where they invest, to share concerns about final census preparations, as well as information about state and local mobilization efforts; urge public hearings to examine these issues; and offer to be a resource. (Many of you might not know that the first Funders Census Initiative — represented by Dr. William O’Hare, then with the Annie E. Casey Foundation — testified before the House census oversight committee in December 2009 about philanthropy’s unprecedented efforts to support the 2010 Census.) 

  1. Citizenship question 

One year ago, funders and stakeholder organizations were in disbelief in the wake of an out-of-the-blue Justice Department (DOJ) request to add an untested citizenship question to the 2020 Census. They mobilized quickly to make the case, in the public arena, as well as to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, that adding the question at the eleventh hour would upend 2020 Census preparations, add an untenable element of uncertainty to the enumeration, depress response rates in already hard-to-count immigrant communities, and ultimately reduce the accuracy of the census. Hundreds of philanthropic leaders signed a letter to Secretary Ross, urging him to reject DOJ’s request. 

Despite overwhelming opposition to the citizenship question, the Secretary announced in late March 2018, in advance of a statutory deadline to report final census questions to Congress, that he would accede to DOJ’s request. Seven lawsuits to overturn that decision ensued, with states and localities, professional scientific associations and former Census Directors, civil rights and community-based organizations, business data users, and other stakeholders joining as plaintiffs or filing amicus briefs in support of eliminating the question. The trials (most notably the first two lawsuits heard together in the federal district court for the Southern District of New York) turned up jaw-dropping information that essentially revealed a well-hidden effort by Secretary Ross and administration allies to add the citizenship question, despite initial DOJ reluctance to request it and against the advice of the most senior career experts at the Census Bureau. 

Last month, Judge Jesse Furman issued the first ruling in the citizenship question litigation, ordering Secretary Ross to remove the question from the 2020 Census in light of violations of the Administrative Procedure Act and the Census Act in making the decision. The government has appealed the ruling to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and asked the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case expeditiously (essentially jumping over the Second Circuit). 

All of the courts involved seem mindful of the fact that the Census Bureau must start printing paper questionnaires (in English and bilingual English/Spanish) this summer. (June is the deadline referenced most often.) But that’s not all: the bureau must finalize electronic versions of the questionnaire in 13 languages; instructional guides in 60 languages; training materials and scripts for Census Questionnaire Assistance staff who will take responses by phone in 13 languages and for enumerators who will visit unresponsive households in person; advertising content and messaging for broader outreach efforts. A final decision on whether the 2020 Census will include a citizenship question will affect all of these critical census operational elements, with little time to spare before the count starts in winter 2020. 

In light of Judge Furman’s ruling, census advocates are calling on Congress to remove the “cloud of uncertainty” hanging over final census preparations and take legislative action to prohibit a citizenship question on the 2020 Census. There are now several bills pending to do just that: 

S. 201, sponsored by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Cortez Masto (D-NV): Prohibits questions on citizenship and immigration status on the decennial census, starting in 2020. Also confirms that apportionment of the U.S. House of Representatives shall be based on the total number of persons in each state. 

H.R. 732, sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) (Sen. Brian Schatz, D-HI, will introduce a companion bill): The “2020 Census Improving Data and Enhanced Accuracy (IDEA) Act” bars the Commerce Secretary from modifying major census design or operational elements that have not been thoroughly tested at least three years before the census, and from adding new topics or questions after the statutory deadlines for submitting proposed topics and questions to Congress. 

It is unlikely that any of these stand-alone bills could pass both houses of Congress and win the president’s support (signature). However, lawmakers could take action to bar the citizenship question from the 2020 Census by attaching legislative language to a “must-pass” bill, such as a near-term appropriations measure. 

Influence points: The window of opportunity for definitive action to prohibit the citizenship question, whether by the courts or Congress, will close this summer. Funders can highlight the ways this question will undermine the census through op-eds, outreach to their congressional delegations (as appropriate), and other philanthropic networks and publications. The Democracy Funders Census Subgroup and the Funders Census Initiative (FCI 2020) will continue to keep you fully informed about litigation and legislative developments on this critical issue. 

And that, census funders, is a wrap for 2019 in the policy arena. Many of you are expanding your focus to include GOTC campaigns, and you will need clear, accurate information about 2020 Census milestones and operations to guide effective, prudent investment in the “census space.” FCI 2020 will soon launch a series of webinars, in collaboration with The Leadership Conference’s Census Counts Campaign, to walk you through all of the major census operations in terms you can understand and incorporate into your grantmaking. I’ll “see” you on-line soon, everyone!