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(GRAPHIC) G. Grullón/Science; (DATA) U.S. Census Bureau

Advocates say bump-up for Census Bureau won’t keep it on track for 2020

The Census Bureau was labeled as one of the few “winners” in the 2018 budget blueprint from President Donald Trump because a proposed 10% hike contrasted with the deep cuts at most civilian agencies. But advocates for the government’s largest statistical agency say that view is very misleading, and that Trump’s request for an additional $130 million actually jeopardizes the upcoming decennial census and other important surveys.

“It’s troubling and irresponsible,” says Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former congressional staffer and veteran census watcher. “If the president's $1.5 billion proposed budget for the Census Bureau were to stand, not only would the success of the 2020 census be threatened, but other irreplaceable surveys likely would be on the chopping block.”

Her criticism is based on the agency’s unusual 10-year budget cycle. It balloons as the bureau gears up for the next census, and then plummets once the head count is completed. The agency is now in ramp-up mode, as acknowledged by the 20% increase for 2017 requested by the outgoing Obama administration, to $1.63 billion. And that boost assumed planned savings of $5 billion from a heavier reliance on electronic data collection and greater use of existing records. Those changes are aimed at satisfying a congressional mandate that the price tag for the 2020 census should not exceed the $13 billion spent on the 2010 exercise, the first such ceiling in the bureau’s history.

The Census Bureau needs to field test those procedures and correct any glitches before Census Day on 1 April 2020. To do so it needs a growing budget. And that’s not possible under the current spending freeze that went into effect last fall after Congress failed to pass a 2017 budget before the start of the fiscal year on 1 October. Bureau officials have already canceled some exercises, and there will be more casualties if Congress decides to extend the spending freeze for the rest of the fiscal year.

Looking at the bureau’s budget during the ramp-up for the 2010 census highlights the current problem. Former President George W. Bush requested the equivalent of a 34% increase in 2008 over 2006 levels, Lowenthal says. That compares with Trump’s request for a 10% increase in 2018 over 2016. In addition, she notes, the bureau’s budget went up in 2007, whereas there’s a good chance that its 2017 budget could be flat.

Although the decennial census is the 800-pound gorilla at the bureau, the agency conducts many other surveys that are also mandated by Congress. Later this year, for instance, it will field its every-5-year census of the nation’s economic activity. And completing that census will eat up some of the proposed 2018 boost for the bureau as a whole.

Those numbers strike fear in the hearts of data users like Howard Fienberg of the Insights Association, a marketing research organization in Washington, D.C. “I recognize the need for fiscal sanity,” he says. “But the 2018 request [for the Census Bureau] is woefully inadequate. The decennial census is required by law. And it has to go off on time. You can’t just fudge it.”

Fienberg says he’s heartened by the arrival of Wilbur Ross, whose fiefdom as secretary of commerce includes the Census Bureau. “As a former enumerator he’s been schooled in the importance of the census,” Fienberg says about a job Ross held decades before he became a billionaire by investing in distressed companies. “And the fact the census got any type of increase in the current environment is a good sign. I don’t think it was an accident.”

Still, Fienberg anticipates it will be hard to keep the Census Bureau on track. “The real battle will be in Congress,” he says about both the 2017 and 2018 budgets. “That’s when I’ll be fighting like crazy.”