2020 Census needs major cash infusion, commerce secretary will tell Congress on Thursday

 In U.S.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross plans to ask Congress for a major increase in funding Thursday to salvage the 2020 Census, a program beset by cost overruns, poor preparation and a population of Americans who are less likely than at any point in recent history to self-report their existence to the federal government.

The Commerce Department now estimates that the decennial effort will cost $15.6 billion — $3.3 billion, or nearly 27 percent, more than earlier estimates by the Census Bureau, according to a document obtained by The Washington Post.

The testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on Thursday will put Ross, a longtime champion of the census, at the center of a potentially explosive political fight about spending for the count, which has faced criticism in recent months for being dangerously underfunded.

The results of the constitutionally mandated survey determine the distribution of congressional seats, affect the shape of districts and help decide the flow of more than $675 billion a year in federal funding. The full count of all people living in the United States and its territories every 10 years is also vital to businesses, civic organizations and others whose work relies on demographic data.

The request comes amid partisan wrangling over how congressional districts are drawn within the states, and legal challenges to gerrymandering that affects minority representation in Congress. An inaccurate decennial count has become a concern for leaders of both parties, as has fear that the 2020 count will be targeted by cyberattacks.

Historically, populations that are more likely to support Democratic politicians — including the poor, the transient, minorities and immigrants — are less likely to respond to the census, leading to undercounts. The 2020 count approaches at a time of heightened fears about deportation of undocumented immigrants and bans on people from some countries entering the United States, raising concerns that typically hard-to-count populations may be even more reluctant than usual to share information with the government.

But this can be self-defeating. “Not being counted means not being heard and not being served, because the census drives billions in funding and it changes how we are represented in Congress,” said Meghan Maury, the policy director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, who is a member of the Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations.

Many Republican leaders, including those who will be responsible for overseeing and funding the 2020 Census, have also expressed concern about ensuring a successful count. But there are clear differences between the parties when it comes to funding early planning work, including advertising and outreach aimed at minority groups.

At the hearing, Ross is expected to warn of declining national interest in participating in the census. In 2010, 63.5 percent of people voluntarily responded to the initial mailing. In the 1970s and 1980s, initial response was more than 75 percent.

The projected self-response rate for 2020 has fallen to between 55 percent and 60.5 percent, according to the document. The reasons include distrust of the government, concern about using the Internet to provide information, and a more diverse and mobile nation with a higher number of non-English-speaking households than in the past.

Asked about the document, Commerce spokesman James Rockas said, “As a former enumerator himself, Secretary Ross is keenly aware of the unique challenges posed by the census.” He added that Ross is looking forward to giving “a full accounting of those needs to Congress and the public.”

Typically, in the years leading up to the decennial count, funding is ramped up significantly. But in recent budgets, funding flatlined, sparking predictions that to get an accurate count the bureau would later have to play catch-up, costing more in the long run.

Those predictions appear to have come true, said John Thompson, who resigned in May as director of the bureau. Congressional allocations for 2017 and previous projections for 2018 fell significantly short of what the bureau requested, and the lost time may not easily be made up.

“Had we been funded to do everything we asked for, then we’d be much farther ahead,” Thompson told The Washington Post. “At this point, they’re going to have to go back and do some of it the old way . . . with paper and pencil. That’s not bad in terms of accuracy, but it does mean it’s going to cost more.”

It is not clear whether Ross will request additional 2018 funding for the entire bureau, which also administers other surveys such as the Economic Census and the American Community Survey.

Doing things the old way is just what bureau officials had sought to avoid when planning the 2020 count. Inflation and a larger population meant that conducting a count identical to the 2010 Census would have cost $5 billion more in 2020. By relying on new technology, including online responses, mapping software and novel uses of public data, the bureau said it could reduce the number of workers knocking on doors and keep the 2020 cost just over $12 billion, only slightly above the 2010 cost.

But Congress declined to fully fund the census program, even at these lower levels. Between fiscal 2012 and 2017, the entire Census Bureau budget has come in about 10 percent below the amount requested. The bureau declined to comment for this article.

In response to the growing concern, Ross announced this summer a top-to-bottom review of the program. His new proposal includes $1.2 billion in funding for expected cost overruns.

Ross’s review found several problems with the original projections, concluding that contracts were not properly managed and projected savings were not realistic. The Commerce Department now projects that higher wage rates for workers in 2020 will raise costs, as will a need for contingency planning to respond to unexpected events, including a possible cyberattack on the new online census program.

It is unclear how much of the additional funding would be used to make up for the reduced planning and preparation over the past several years. Census preparation that was once deemed essential — including new Internet response testing, earlier advertising planning and evaluation of data software — has been canceled or delayed in the face of congressional spending limits.

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