Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross testifies before a House of Representatives appropriations panel earlier this year.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

More money, more worries: 2020 census plans continue to generate controversy

A trio of events last week on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., left advocates for the 2020 U.S. census both heartened and concerned. Its supporters—including social scientists who are heavy users of the data—hailed prospects of a healthy budget increase for the constitutionally mandated exercise. But they continue to wring their hands over recent actions by President Donald Trump’s administration that they say will undermine the accuracy of the upcoming head count.

Advocates cheered as a spending panel in the U.S. House of Representatives approved a 2019 budget for the Census Bureau that adds $1 billion to what Trump has requested. It exceeds what even stakeholders say is needed next year to get ready for Census Day on 1 April 2020, and reflects unusual bipartisan support.

But they also anguished over testimony from Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, whose department oversees the census. Testifying before a Senate panel, Ross defended his recent decision to add a controversial citizenship question to the census at the last minute despite acknowledging that its presence could reduce participation. His repeated assertions that the question has been adequately vetted infuriated Democrats, who also think his reasons for adding the question don’t pass the smell test. Even Republicans were miffed when, at a House hearing the day before, an invited Department of Justice (DOJ) official failed to even show up to explain why his department felt it needed the data from such a question.

Funding optimism

On Thursday, the House appropriations committee takes up a $62 billion spending bill that was adopted unanimously last week by the commerce, justice, and science subcommittee. It would provide the Census Bureau with $4.8 billion, with about 80% of the total going to the 2020 census. (The exact number is not yet available.) The agency’s current budget is $2.8 billion, and the huge boost reflects the traditional ramp-up in the final few years before the decennial census, which is estimated to cost $15.6 billion over its 10-year cycle.

Advocates are thrilled by the new top-line number. “The large increase over the request tells me that the appropriators finally realized that the Census Bureau will need significantly more resources than the administration thinks are necessary,” says Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former congressional aide and consultant on census issues based in Stamford, Connecticut.

The strong bipartisan backing is especially welcome, adds Phil Sparks of The Census Project, a Washington, D.C.–based coalition of business, civic, and academic groups. Democrats have long complained that the Republican majority was shortchanging the agency. But previous attempts to boost its budget have been rejected by penny-pinching legislators, who are also concerned about what they characterize as intrusive and unnecessary questions on the American Community Survey (ACS), begun in 2005 as the successor to the long form of the decennial census.

Those concerns now seem to have taken a back seat to the pressing needs to ramp up for 2020. “It’s a bipartisan acknowledgment that the [Trump] administration has not stepped up to the plate,” Sparks says about the 2019 spending bill, which must clear several more congressional hurdles before it goes into effect.

Worries about participation

Despite the brightening financial picture for 2020, advocates say the actions of Ross and others in the Trump administration continue to cast doubt on the ability of the Census Bureau to conduct a fair, complete, and accurate headcount.

Last December, DOJ told Census Bureau officials it wanted to add the citizenship question to the questionnaire because it needed block-by-block data to protect the rights of racial minorities under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. On 26 March, Ross granted the request. Civil rights groups lambasted the decision, saying the data were not needed to enforce voting laws and that the Trump administration’s real goal was to depress participation in the 2020 census by intimidating vulnerable populations. A lower turnout could presumably favor Republicans in the next reapportionment of congressional seats.

Representative Trey Gowdy (R–SC), chairman of the House oversight committee, invited John Gore, acting head of DOJ’s civil rights division, to discuss the issue at an 8 May hearing. Gowdy said he had hoped to learn why DOJ thought it needed the data to enforce U.S. voting laws and how the Department of Commerce decided to grant the request. But Gore snubbed the committee’s invitation—with no explanation, Gowdy said. Gowdy will try again on Friday, with Gore as the sole witness at a 9 a.m. hearing of the committee.

The day after Gore’s no-show, Ross answered several questions about the citizenship question during a hearing on the department’s 2019 budget request by the Senate commerce, justice, science appropriations panel. Unfortunately, he shed little light on the internal contradictions in the March memo he wrote to justify his decision.

One of Ross’s core arguments is that the citizenship question shouldn’t make waves because “61 million households” have been asked it on previous surveys. Ross presumably is referring to its inclusion on the ACS since 2005, and on the long-form of the decennial census between 1950 and 2000, which was sent to roughly one in six households.

For starters, that number is difficult to verify. The day before, Representative Darrell Issa (R–CA) used the number “42 million” to make a similar point during the earlier House hearing. At the same House hearing, the head of Ross’s policy shop at the Department of Commerce in Washington, D.C., Earl Comstock, said the question had been put to “14 million households.”

Number not important

Census experts say the exact number doesn’t matter because it’s not a valid argument. The only way to properly know how people will respond to that question is to test it contemporaneously under conditions that mirror the 2020 census, says John Thompson, who retired last year as census director and is now head of the Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics in Arlington, Virginia. A current dry run for 2020 now taking place in Providence would have been the ideal setting to test the impact of the question on response rates, he says. But Ross didn’t approve the question until long after the forms for that exercise had been printed up.

Ross seems to recognize the many potential negative impacts of putting the citizenship question on the 2020 census, starting with a lower response rate. Participation drops “anytime you ask a question that is sensitive,” he told Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D–NH), the panel’s top Democrat. The citizenship question will be placed last on the 11-question decennial census, he added, because of the increased likelihood that people will refuse to answer it.

There could be collateral damage, he admitted. “Hopefully, most respondents will answer the preceding questions” even if they skip that one,” Ross told Shaheen, who said she was greatly disturbed that Census Bureau officials would use a question that had not been rigorously vetted.

A lower response rate will translate into higher costs, he added. The Census Bureau will need more money for the second phase of the exercise, in which fieldworkers knock on the doors of every household that has not returned the questionnaire. A higher nonresponse rate will also force the agency to make greater use of existing government records that could capture the missing information. But those administrative records are hardly foolproof, meaning the quality of the information may not be as good as getting it from the source.

All these disadvantages, Ross says, are outweighed by the value of the data in enforcing the voting rights laws. But Senator Brian Schatz (D–HI) wasn’t buying that argument, either, calling DOJ’s rationale a “fig leaf” to hide a blatantly partisan agenda.

Pressing his point, Schatz asked Ross to explain a recent fundraising appeal by Trump’s re-election committee that attacks those who oppose the need for a question on citizenship. “This is how it looks,” Schatz told Ross. “Can you reassure me that you are trying to mitigate the impact [on response rates]?”

Ross acknowledged the fundraising appeal sent out in March, but he noted that it only ran “briefly … and I’m glad they have stopped” doing it. He also said there was no connection between his office and the campaign committee.

Ross also told Schatz that the Census Bureau plans to match previous community outreach efforts aimed at persuading the public that it has a duty to answer the census and that all information will be kept confidential. Advocacy groups are skeptical of that commitment, however, noting that little money has been spent to date on such activities and that the agency also plans to operate only half the number of local field offices as in 2010. And a comment by Comstock at the previous day’s hearing may have reinforced those fears.

“We think that the people who aren’t going to respond have already made that decision,” Comstock told Representative William Lacy Clay (D–MO). The implication was clear: Why spend money to reach people who have already tuned us out?

Thompson thinks the 2020 census will need an even greater level of community involvement. “It’s a tougher world than in 2010 to convince people to participate,” he says. “So he’ll need more people, working even harder to get more communities to come on board.”