Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham touted the agency’s planning for the 2020 census at a press event this week.

Michele R. Freda/U.S. Census Bureau

Trump’s budget request for 2020 census raises alarms

The U.S. Census Bureau in Suitland, Maryland, prides itself on the quality of the data it collects to help paint a statistical portrait of the country. But ask it how much the 2020 census, by far its biggest and most costly responsibility, will cost, and the numbers get very squishy.

Community advocates say the agency needs at least $2 billion more in the upcoming year than President Donald Trump has requested to assure a successful decennial head count on 1 April 2020. They note that the $5.3 billion request for the 2020 fiscal year that begins on 1 October clashes with a $7.4 billion estimate made in October 2017 by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department includes the Census Bureau. Advocates accuse the Trump administration of lowballing the actual cost as part of its broader goal of reducing overall federal spending on domestic programs.

How much the agency needs in 2020 for the decennial census, which fuels thousands of research studies, is also enmeshed in the bitter legal battle over Ross’s decision last year to add a citizenship question to it. Civil rights groups and a half-dozen former Census directors say the question will suppress participation and that Census officials have greatly underestimated the additional costs required to track down people who do not self-respond to an initial prompting. The agency will deploy more than half-a-million enumerators to conduct such a follow-up, making it the most expensive component of any decennial census. 

Filling in for the boss

On Tuesday, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham gamely defended the president’s request for the agency during a contentious hearing before a Senate spending panel with oversight of the Department of Commerce. He was there because Ross had declined the committee’s invitation to testify, a decision that infuriated the panel’s Democratic members. (At the last minute, Ross also canceled a planned appearance yesterday before a comparable spending panel in the House of Representatives, which then held a faux hearing featuring an empty chair representing the absent commerce secretary.)

Dillingham—one of 10 Department of Commerce senior officials who replaced Ross at the witness table for the 2-hour Senate hearing—told senators, “We’re confident we can get the job done and have a complete count” with the amount requested in 2020. He said that in a test last year in Providence County in Rhode Island, all of the components of the 2020 census went so well that it “has raised our confidence level” in the reliability of the hardware, software, and human interactions that it will use to count some 330 million people living in the country on Census Day. “We’re on track, on budget, on schedule, and on mission,” he said, a mantra he repeated several times.

But such statements seemed to do little to reassure anxious members on both sides of the aisle. Throughout the hearing, they questioned the basis for many of the numbers Dillingham threw out to justify the president’s 2020 budget request.

The opening question from Senator Jerry Moran (R–KS), chairman of the spending panel, went to the heart of the matter by asking Dillingham why the agency’s request “falls short of what Secretary Ross told us was needed.” Dillingham’s answer revealed that the White House had used an older, lower estimate of projected costs as the basis for the president’s request.

Dillingham, who has only been at the agency since January, was referring to a study that Ross ordered up shortly after becoming commerce secretary in March 2017. It pegged costs for the entire 10-year life cycle of the census at $14.1 billion, up from a 2015 estimate of $12.5 billion. But Ross wasn’t satisfied with that number, Dillingham said, and “because of his business acumen,” he asked for a third review.

Released in October 2017, it generated a new life cycle estimate of $15.6 billion. That amount included $290 million for three areas of what Ross labeled “additional sensitivity”: declining self-response rates on all surveys, rising labor costs from a strong economy, and the need for additional staff because of a more mobile population with a larger number of hard-to-count residents. It also created a $1.2 billion contingency fund to handle any surprises, including coping with a natural disaster that could temporarily uproot entire communities.

No thanks, we’re good

Ross had calculated that $932 million would need to be spent in 2020 to address those issues. But when Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D–NH) asked Dillingham why the president’s budget request didn’t include money for them, he said the agency doesn’t think it will need the additional resources.

“We have not encountered any contingencies that cause us any concerns that cannot be handled within the president’s request,” he replied. The request already includes $1.2 billion for “new priorities and unforeseen circumstances,” he added, in effect, creating a de facto contingency fund.

Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham (fifth from the left in the first row) testified before a Senate panel this week. He was one of 10 Department of Commerce officials (with placards) who appeared in lieu of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

Committee on Appropriations/U.S. Senate

Dillingham also assured Shaheen, who cited the $2 billion shortfall for 2020 in her opening comments, that the agency will be quick to ask the Trump administration for more money if the need arises. “If that [need] does occur, you will probably know as soon as we do,” he added.

Shaheen was skeptical that the agency really had all its bases covered. The questionnaire used in Rhode Island didn’t ask about citizenship, she pointed out, making it impossible to determine the question’s impact on self-response rates for the 2020 census and, therefore, on overall costs. “So you haven’t planned on the need for additional funding for the citizenship question?” she asked.

Dillingham was momentarily tongue-tied. “That’s a no,” he replied. After a brief pause, he reframed his answer. “That’s no to your question that we haven’t planned. And yes, we have planned.”

Census advocates have also objected to the president’s including $1 billion in carryover funds from this year in his 2020 request. They say Congress explicitly directed the Census Bureau to use some of that money on public outreach and partnerships with community groups that can help spread the word about the importance of filing out the census form. Such efforts are lagging behind what was done in 2010, they complain. Instead of asking for more money, they say, the administration has folded the 2019 carryover into its 2020 spending plan.

Tweeting on his parade

The day before the Senate hearing, Dillingham presided over the kickoff to the agency’s 1-year countdown to Census Day. The gala press event in downtown Washington, D.C., gave agency officials a chance to tout their preparations for next year. It also featured heartfelt speeches from several community leaders urging Americans to do their civic duty and be counted.

The event was supposed to be an unofficial coming-out party for Dillingham, who led two other, smaller, government statistical agencies under previous Republican presidents but has never operated on such a grand stage. But even that feel-good exercise was tarnished by the nation’s commander in chief.

Two hours before the event, Trump had tweeted that the 2020 census “would be meaningless and a waste of the $Billions (ridiculous) that it costs to put together” if it didn’t include the “all-important” citizenship question. His tweet also politicized what is a constitutionally mandated exercise, with Trump blaming “Radical Left Democrats” for suing the federal government to block the question. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on the case 23 April and is expected to rule by the end of its term in late June.

Asked by reporters for his reaction, Dillingham declined to comment. “We’re here to talk about the great job we are doing, and how it will help this nation,” he said. And despite the distractions, Dillingham stayed on message. “We collect numbers, and we produce numbers,” he said, summing up the Census Bureau’s mission. “And America uses these numbers for very important purposes.”

Congress has no beef with that mission, both House and Senate legislators made clear during the hearings. But they’re afraid Census officials aren’t telling them what they really need to carry it out for fear of violating the dictates of their superiors.

“I hope that the secretary [Ross] understands this is not about making his life miserable,” said the chair of the House spending panel, Representative José Serrano (D–NY), before he gaveled the nonhearing to a close. “We just want to make sure that we have good [commerce] programs, and that there is a fair and accurate census count.”