WASHINGTON — It appears likely that Congress can prevent a “perfect storm” of problems that could jeopardize the accuracy of the 2020 census by giving the Census Bureau a crucial $1.3 billion funding hike.
An inaccurate census means more than a mistaken count of the U.S. population: Census data not only determines how many congressional districts each state gets, it also often determines the disbursement of federal funds. Urban, lower-income areas with a high population of immigrants and people of color are often the most affected by undercounting and the lack of funding that comes with it.
The Census Bureau will likely receive more than $2.8 billion in funding, an increase of $1.34 billion compared to last year. It is part of a bipartisan omnibus spending bill that passed in the House on Thursday and in the Senate early Friday morning.
President Donald Trump tweeted on Friday that he may veto the spending bill, saying it does nothing to address the fate of young undocumented immigrants and doesn’t adequately fund his proposed border wall. If Trump vetoes the bill, the government will likely shut down due to a lack of continued funding.
Jeffrey Wice, a fellow at the State University of New York’s Rockefeller Institute of Government, said the funding increase would provide “a breath of fresh air” for the bureau.
“It will now at a minimum be able to meet its mandate and requirements through Sept. 31 [the end of the fiscal year],” Wice said.
The new funding level would nearly double the amount proposed by the Trump administration in February and ensure the bureau can carry out its tasks until September. Still, it is not enough to completely fund the census through 2020.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross says the bureau will need another funding increase — this time to over $3.15 billion — for fiscal 2019.
Experts have long worried about the need for more funding as the Census Bureau gears up for its 2020 count of the United States population, said Arloc Sherman, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He listed the issues for a perfect storm that would create an incomplete count — underfunding, changes to the census itself, and a leadership vacuum within the bureau put the census at risk.
The Census Project, an organization that advocates for comprehensive census funding, issued a statement Wednesday, saying, “the dismal trend of many years of underfunding 2020 census preparations has finally been reversed with bipartisan support in Congress. Our assessment is the Bureau now has the minimum resources needed to prepare for its Constitutional mandate.”
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The Constitution requires a census be held every 10 years to count the population of the United States and determine how many congressional districts are given to each state. Preparations for the census have already been scaled back and adjusted to accommodate the tightened budget.
Now, with the likely increased funding, some say the census could get back on track in time for 2020. In a Wednesday statement, Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said the funding hike “should ensure more rigorous census planning and implementation — all necessary to address the growing threats to full participation in many communities,” Gupta said in the statement. “But the work is not done and the clock is ticking. … There are no do-overs with the census. We must get it right the first time.”
Still, Vanita, as well as census experts from across the country remain worried that other changes to the census could hurt its outcome. Among them are the facts that this census will be the first one that people can fill out online and that proposed changes to the questionnaire could affect participation — especially the possibility of a question about citizenship status.
The Census Bureau has until March 31 to send its final questionnaire to Congress for approval, but many have raised concerns about the citizenship question, as well as an expanded race and ethnicity portion. Critics say that these questions may deter some from completing the census if they are unaware that the data is confidential.
“The most important thing at this point … is for the president, his cabinet, Congress, and other civic leaders to assure and reassure all residents of the United States that it is important, and it is safe to participate in the census,” Terri Ann Lowenthal, a census consultant and former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee, said. “If that doesn’t happen soon, then the Census Bureau will have a very difficult time overcoming the climate of fear and other operational challenges [that are being brought] to light.”
For the 2020 census, each household in the country will either receive mailed instructions on how to fill out the census online or the paper questionnaire. Ensuring that a maximum number of people fill it out is critical to census accuracy.
Steven Romalewski, director of the mapping service at the City University of New York Graduate Center, said the option of an online census may help more people fill out the questionnaire in some areas, but that its effectiveness depends on what areas have internet access.
If households do not fill out the self-response portion of the census, the bureau dispatches workers to knock on doors. This is costly, however, and still may not ensure that all residents are accurately counted.
Residences may not match up with addresses, Romalewski said, and others may not be willing to let someone from the census bureau into their home.
Census staff go to communities in the years leading up to the count to educate local officials and community groups people about the census process, so they can help others fill out the forms. Currently, the bureau has dispatched about 40 staff members, and plans to increase that number to 1,000 for the next two years, Ross has said.
Lowenthal said she is concerned that the low number of staff dispatched could hurt the quality of the 2020 census.
“Compared to the last census, they are well behind the numbers that they had at this point,” Lowenthal said, adding that the bureau had 3,800 specialists working for the two years leading up to the 2010 census.
Wice said he is especially concerned that an underfunded and understaffed census will make counting so-called “hard-to-count tracts” even more difficult.
Wice said that some areas, especially in cities, where the places people live may not match up completely with address records, are significantly harder to count.
The Center for Urban Research at CUNY has compiled data into a “hard-to-count” heat map. Researchers define “hard-to-count” tracts as those that have census response rates below 60 percent.
People living in these tracts are often people of color or from lower-income backgrounds, and Wice said it is especially important to reach out in those communities and ensure an accurate count.
“An accurate census really gets down to the block you or I live on,” Wice said. “Unless all of my neighbors are counted, people are missed and communities are deprived of representation and programs.”