By Terri Ann Lowenthal, FCI 2020 Senior Advisor

FCCP’s annual convening in St. Paul last month was inspiring, educational and productive for many reasons. One highlight was a renewed focus on a critical component of strong democratic institutions and civic engagement: the decennial census. FCCP’s Funders Census Initiative (FCI) 2020 organized a welcome breakfast, strategy session and Quick Wit that attracted a growing group of funders. And all convening participants walked away from the annual gathering with a new appreciation for the urgency of now — it’s time to mobilize in support of a fair and accurate 2020 Census! Let’s start by examining today’s legislative and design challenges.

The road from here to 2020 is filled with both challenges and opportunities for philanthropy to engage, directly and through grantees, in vital decisions that will determine the inclusiveness of the census. At the forefront of these Key 2020 Census Milestones are two sets of policy issues that census stakeholders must confront decisively to ensure successful outcomes. First, there are legislative proposals that could undermine the goal of an accurate census and comprehensive American Community Survey (ACS). Second, the Census Bureau must make design and operational decisions in the next two years that will affect its ability to count historically hard-to-reach population groups, including low-income households, people of color, immigrants and young children.

Below are some of the most significant policy issues requiring focused engagement in the near term:

Legislative challenges

  1. Adequate resources — The Census Bureau has identified budget uncertaintyas a significant risk to its ability to carry out a modern, cost-effective census in 2020. The bureau’s funding level must increase every year during the second half of each decade, to support timely, critical testing and IT system and operational development. Yet Congress consistently views the agency’s budget as a piggybank to pay for other favored programs in the massive funding bill that includes the Census Bureau. Already, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have cut the President’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget request for the agency; when the Senate took up the Commerce appropriations bill last week, one lawmaker filed an amendment (pending) to eliminate entirely any funding ramp-up for next year.
  2. A “voluntary” ACS — For much of this decade, the ACS (the modern version of the census long form) has been under attack from a relatively small but vocal group of lawmakers who identify with principles of the Tea Party movement. These members of Congress do not believe the government has a right to collect information from Americans, beyond the simple population count described in Article I, section 2, of the U.S. Constitution. Consequently, they have led the House of Representatives to vote three times (since 2012) to make ACS response voluntary, which would decimate reliable socio-economic data for small areas and small population groups, and once to eliminate the survey entirely!
  3. Excluding undocumented residents from the apportionment base— Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) has resurrected a proposal to exclude undocumented residents (and possibly all non-citizens) from the census-derived state population totals that are used to reapportion seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. He would accomplish this goal by requiring the 2020 Census to include questions on citizenship and legal status. Virtually all legal experts (save a small handful), as well as both Republican and Democratic Administrations, agree that the senator’s goal is unconstitutional. Furthermore, adding these questions to the census form would create a chilling effect on response in immigrant communities across the country. In addition, the window of opportunity to develop and test new questions is all but closed; requiring the Census Bureau to do so would disrupt the entire planning schedule for 2020.

Census design decisions

  1. Internet response and IT systems — By the end of 2017, the Census Bureau must lock in the major operational components of the 2020 Census and complete build-out of the massive IT architecture, all in time for an end-to-end readiness test in early 2018. Bureau officials insist they are on schedule, but experts from the U.S. Government Accountability Office and Commerce Department’s Office of the Inspector General recently told Congress that the agency has bitten off more than it can chew and overestimated the savings it might realize from sweeping design reforms. These independent overseers recommend scaling back the new “enterprise” IT system and abandoning plans to allow Internet response without a unique identifier.
  2. Use of administrative records — After final field testing next year, the Census Bureau must decide how it will incorporate data collected by other government agencies, as well as commercial data, into the census design. Of particular concern is the proposed use of administrative records to “count” some households that do not self-respond; databases under consideration for this purpose lack detailed, consistent information on race and ethnicity and accurate data on young children, for example. Eliminating some uses of these records will increase overall census costs at a time when Congress is holding tight to the purse strings.
  3. Race and ethnicity data — The Census Bureau must conclude an exhaustive, multi-year review of the census race and ethnicity questions, with significant changes to the categories and question wording likely to emerge. Civil rights stakeholders are closely monitoring the final evaluation process, to ensure that the next census (and, by extension, the ACS) collects data that accurately reflect a diverse population and that promote effective implementation of civil rights laws, including the Voting Rights Act.
  4. Outreach, promotion, and field structure — Development of a multi-layered, multi-platform 2020 Census advertising and promotion campaign will begin in earnest this year with award of the Integrated Communications Contract (expected in August). The 2020 Census, with its focus on Internet response and a smaller “footprint” in the field (current plans call for 50% fewer regional and local census offices and census takers, compared to 2010), presents emerging communications challenges. Organizations with deep knowledge of and ties to hard-to-count communities must be part of the dialogue on where to target limited advertising dollars, locate offices, and concentrate staff and help ensure culturally-appropriate strategies and linguistically-accurate materials.

Organizations on the front lines of these policy debates are working hard to ensure successful outcomes and decisions. They need resources to build and sustain capacity on census issues and make sure their voices are heard in a timely, effective way. The Democracy Funders Collaborative Census Subgroup is helping to steer philanthropic dollars to groups at the forefront of this important advocacy work. Interested funders may contact Gary Bass at the Bauman Foundation.