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Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, whose department includes the Census Bureau.

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New U.S. budget deal includes more funding for 2020 census

The latest short-term budget agreement that keeps the U.S. government running for another 6 weeks gives a much-needed boost to planning for the 2020 census.

The continuing resolution (CR) passed early this morning by Congress contains an additional $182 million for the Census Bureau to stay on track for the decennial headcount in April 2020. Census officials have had to reduce or eliminate several components of the massive undertaking—its estimated price tag is $15.6 billion—because Congress has failed to provide the funding needed to ramp up activities in the past few years of each 10-year cycle.

Last May, for example, President Donald Trump requested only $51 million more for the account that includes the decennial census. In October 2017, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told Congress that the agency would need an additional $187 million in 2018 to stay on schedule for 2020, part of a review that bumped up the cost of the 2020 census by $3.3 billion.

The new CR extends the current freeze on spending for most government agencies until 23 March, nearly halfway through the 2018 fiscal year. But it makes an exception for the Census Bureau. The extra money gives the agency roughly three-quarters of what Ross has said it needs in 2018. Congress also gave Census officials permission to spend at a faster rate for the rest of the year. That’s an important option given that the agency will conduct a dry run of the census this spring, including final tests of such new elements as an online option, a call-in center for those who want to fill out the short questionnaire by phone, and mobile devices to help coordinate the movements of some 500,000 fieldworkers who track down residents who haven’t responded.

Advocates for the census welcome the additional funding, although they say it’s still inadequate. “It is an encouraging step and a down payment on the resources the Census Bureau needs this year to put 2020 census planning back on track and to address mounting challenges to a successful count,” says Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former congressional aide who works with The Census Project, a nonprofit coalition based in Washington, D.C.

The new CR increases the budget of the agency’s program account that funds the 2020 census to $1.382 billion, $982 million of which would go to preparing for the 2020 census. The Census Project says the 2020 census still needs an additional $140 million in 2018 to stay on course. That  would allow the agency to restore cuts in outreach activities—boosting the number of people working on partnerships with government and civic groups from 40 to 200, for example, and moving ahead with its media strategy—and increase the number of field offices it plans to operate. The latter are important, Lowenthal says, because census officials recently lowered their estimate of how many residents will complete the questionnaire on the first go-round and not require any follow-up.

Congress is expected to complete work on the 2018 budget before the new CR expires. And census advocates hope legislators will continue to be supportive. “The 2020 census clock is ticking,” says Phil Sparks, co-director of The Census Project. “The Census Bureau cannot pause preparations and achieve high quality, so any final 2018 budget bill must include the additional funds for the advertising and partnership efforts vital to a successful 2020 census.”