Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross testified last week before a House of Representatives panel that oversees the 2020 census.

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP Images

Team Trump warns Congress it will take billions more to run the 2020 census

For years, Congress has told the U.S. Census Bureau that the cost of the 2020 census cannot exceed the $12.1 billion spent in 2010. The legion of social scientists, community planners, and businesses that uses data from the once-a-decade head count of the U.S. population say it was an unreasonable demand given inflation and a growing and more mobile population. But former Census Director John Thompson did his best to comply, coming up with a modernization plan he said would save $5.2 billion.

Those changes include a first-ever use of the internet, greater use of satellite data to compile the master address file, handheld devices to better manage the army of field workers, and a call center to help respondents fill out the 10-item questionnaire. Even after legislators repeatedly gave the agency less money than needed to test and implement the improvements, Thompson kept telling Congress he could get the job done.

Reality is setting in. Last week, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whom President Donald Trump appointed to lead the department that oversees the Census Bureau, told a congressional panel that the agency will need to spend a total of $15.6 billion, some $3.3 billion more than a 2015 estimate, to conduct a "full, fair, and accurate census."

The rising cost of counting

Technological upgrades for the 2020 U.S. census should save money over classic methods, but not as much as originally hoped, according to a new cost estimate.

(GRAPHIC) J. YOU/SCIENCE; (DATA) U.S. DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE; GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY OFFICE

Ross says he can put the 2020 census back on track if Congress adds $187 million to the president's $800 million request for the current fiscal year, which began on 1 October. But census advocates say even more is needed, and last week a group of Democrats in the House of Representatives proposed adding $441 million to Trump's request for the bureau, with the money earmarked for the 2020 census.

"While I commend Secretary Ross for recognizing that the census is underresourced, I'm not yet confident that he is proposing enough funding to make up for lost ground quickly," says Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former congressional aide and consultant on census issues based in Stamford, Connecticut. And many scientists worry about the long-term implications of insufficient funding. "It could be a real mess, and further undermine the credibility of the census," says Timothy Johnson of the University of Illinois in Chicago, who specializes in survey methodology. "And some politician will ask why we're spending billions of dollars on something that was done so poorly. It could even blow over into 2030."

At the 12 October hearing of the House oversight committee, Ross explained why the cost estimate has risen. One reason is a growing distrust of government, which leads to a poorer initial response to the 10-question census. That adds to the need for follow-up by field workers, the census's biggest single expense. A tight labor market could require higher salaries for the 500,000 field workers, he added. A third factor is the usual problems getting new technology to work properly.

Ross ordered up the new estimate after saying he didn't trust the figures that Thompson, appointed in 2012 by then-President Barack Obama, had generated. The prior administration provided "overly optimistic assessments of both the ease of implementing new technologies and the cost savings they would provide," he testified. But Ross also pointed a finger at lawmakers, using the euphemism of "appropriations constraints" to describe how a Republican Congress repeatedly cut Obama's proposed budgets for the census. "We really need the entire $15.6 billion," he told a legislator who suggested that the census could be done for half the price.

Recent tight budgets have forced the Census Bureau to curtail, delay, or cancel several activities designed to test and implement proposed changes, as well as fine-tune systems used in previous censuses. For example, a dry run of all the census systems was originally planned for April in three locations, providing a variety of demographic and logistical challenges, but will instead be conducted at only one site.

Democrats prodded Ross on whether Census officials are doing enough to contact groups traditionally undercounted—including the poor and homeless, minorities, those in rural areas, and immigrants—and complained that budget woes have already forced cancellation of the communications and community outreach component of next spring's dress rehearsal. Ross tried to reassure them by pointing out that the new cost estimate includes $750 million for such activities prior to Census Day on 1 April 2020.

Thompson says he's heartened by Ross's emphasis on outreach and request for additional funding this year. "I am feeling better than I have in quite a while," says Thompson, who resigned last spring just days after testifying before Congress on large cost overruns in the new information technology system. He now leads the Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics in Washington, D.C., whose members rely on government statistics to do their jobs.

It's far from certain that Congress will embrace Ross's requested increase for 2018 in its final spending plan. (All agencies are now under a freeze.) The House has already approved the president's original request for the decennial census, and Senate appropriators have reiterated their hold-the-line philosophy in their spending bill. "The commerce secretary is charged with getting this done right," Johnson says. "I just hope he can persuade Congress."