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Critics of a request to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census fear it will reduce response rates, harming accuracy and increasing the need for expensive face-to-face follow-up.

U.S. Census Bureau

Budget increase for 2020 census falls short, advocates say

President Donald Trump’s 2019 budget request gives the U.S. Census Bureau a $2 billion increase to help plan the 2020 census. But advocates say that is still not enough to ensure that there is a fair and accurate head count.

The 10-year cycle for the census requires steady annual investments in new approaches and technologies, followed by a huge spending ramp up in the final few years to implement everything needed for census day and the extensive follow-up of those who haven’t answered out the 10-question survey. For the past few years, Congress has appropriated less than the agency had requested, forcing officials to eliminate some exercises and skimp on preparations.

Last fall, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross asked legislators to add $187 million to his boss’s 2018 request. Ross promised that the additional money would be sufficient to deal with cost overruns and some external factors that were running up the tab. However, Congress has yet to finish work on the 2018 budget.

Today, the Trump administration asked Congress to give the agency $3.123 billion in 2019 for the 2020 census. That’s more than triple the $1.01 billion it received in 2017. But it is $262 million less than the revised lifecycle cost estimate that the department submitted to legislators last fall, adjusting for some changes in what programs are included in that account.

The statistical and business communities are already worried that the Trump administration may not invest sufficiently in community outreach and advertising activities designed to increase participation in the count. They also fear that a request from the Department of Justice to include a question on citizenship could scare off millions of residents.

“We urge Congress to consider this request today as an opening ante,” says Phil Sparks of The Census Project, based in Washington, D.C. “Frankly, 2019 is the critical year for funding census operations to ensure a quality count.”