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In the Nation's Interest

Congress Needs to Get Serious About the Census

It’s a tale that feels as old as time: Congress must once again wrestle with the beast that is the federal budget. As various stakeholders dig in on their priorities – Defense! No, Entitlements! – there is one funding priority that should not be in contest.

Unfortunately, it is.

The Census Bureau has been facing rough times for several years now. As of late, the Bureau continues to operate without a permanent director (the position has been vacant since June 2017), while disputes about how the Bureau records race and citizenship pull this traditionally steady, trusted agency into controversial territory.

But perhaps the biggest challenge facing the Census Bureau is a simple one that many can relate to – it’s short on cash. This is extremely troubling as the Bureau barrels down the runway to the 2020 Census.

The decennial census fulfills many needs, public and private – which is why an accurate count has always been important. Public and private decision-making depends on and is enhanced by an accurate census. Census and census-derived data are used by companies to identify new customer bases and decide where to expand their operations, while federal, state, and local governments depend on this data to distribute funding and to provide services where they are most needed. In 2015 alone, census data determined how $675 billion in federal funds were distributed.

But the truly crucial function of the Census – the reason for its constitutional mandate – is to reapportion the 435 U.S. House of Representatives seats across, and within, the 50 states. Neighborhood-level data on where people live are used to draw national and state legislative districts of nearly equal population.

Ensuring that each state has its fair share of representatives and that each voting district within each state has an equal population is the foundation of representative democracy. The census literally helps shape future voting districts, and some of those shapes have become pretty strange lately.

Gerrymandering, or redistricting for partisan advantage, is currently before the Supreme Court in Gill v. Whitford. If the Court rules that Wisconsin’s districts are unconstitutionally gerrymandered, we’ll need an accurate 2020 Census more than ever to build fair legislative districts and renew public confidence in our electoral system.

Historically, census spending ramps up significantly two to three years prior to the official headcount. But the past two years’ appropriations wars, with new funding delayed with “continuing resolutions” at the previous year’s levels, have made that ramp-up impossible. Last year the Bureau had to scale back its 2020 census “dress rehearsal” – the end-to-end Census test – from three sites to one due to inadequate funding.

Congress’ current budgeting strategy – jumping from one fiscal cliff to the next – has exacerbated existing fiscal hurdles faced by the Census Bureau. In 2014, Congress decided the 2020 Census should be carried out at 2010 funding levels, refusing to provide even an inflationary adjustment. The Census Bureau responded with a plan to reduce long-term costs by investing in technological innovations, including having households respond online for the first time.

Underestimates of the actual cost of the technological upgrades is partially responsible for the Bureau’s budget woes. But so is the Bureau’s annual budget itself, or lack thereof. Because Congress has been appropriating too little money too late, the Bureau has lacked the funds necessary to fully implement its plan to achieve the congressional mandated long-term cost-savings. Ironically, if the Bureau’s new processes don’t pan out and self-response rates are low, it will have to rely more heavily on the old door-to-door method of years’ past – which is really expensive and still results in inaccuracies (Fun fact: people don’t always open the door to strangers).

A sliver of good news came during last month’s budget stopgap measure, when Congress decided to make progress towards correcting for its past underfunding of the census by allocating an additional $182 million. Yet this still does not fully meet 2018 funding needs and does nothing to help the Bureau make up for cuts made in years prior. Further, this funding provides no assurances of what the Bureau can expect in 2019 or 2020. At this stage of the planning process, there should be no uncertainty that the census will get the funding it needs at the time its needed.

Counting where people live should be non-political. The good news is Congress still has time (albeit precious little) to ensure the 2020 Census is as accurate as possible. As Congress pushes through a final 2018 budget in the coming days and turns to 2019 in due course, one issue should be nonnegotiable: Give the Census Bureau the funds necessary to ensure an accurate 2020 Census. We’ll be thankful for at least the next ten years.

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