Census Funding in FY2016 Poor, But Could Have Been Worse

Congress passed an omnibus federal appropriations bill before leaving for Christmas that includes funding for the U.S. Census Bureau’s programs vital to the conduct of survey, opinion and marketing research: the decennial Census and the American Community Survey (ACS).

While the budget levels for the decennial and ACS for Fiscal Year 2016 will not be as high as requested by the White House, it could have been a lot worse. The legislation (H.R. 2029) allocates $1.37 billion for the Census Bureau — significantly more than either the House or Senate offered earlier this year.

The House had originally capped spending for the 2020 Census at $400 million (compared to the request of $663 million) and for the ACS at $200 million ($42 million below the level needed to preserve the current ACS sample size), with further funding cuts made on the House floor that hadn’t yet been decided upon. The House funding levels would have actually been a cut from the FY2015 levels. The Senate Appropriations Committee proposed to fund the Census at $358 million less than the President’s request, but its bill never received a floor vote.

Final funding

The Census Bureau will receive $1.37 billion in FY16. While this is $130 million less than the President’s budget request, we can point to several positives:

  1. In a tough budgetary environment, the increase of $282 million from the prior fiscal year is nothing to sneeze at.
  2. The Bureau has been granted to flexibility in how to divvy up the funding among programs, instead of having Congress dictate arbitrary caps that could imperil basic requirements (like the ACS sample size or 2020 Census research and testing). The bill instead will require the submission of a spending plan to the Appropriations Committees.
  3. The amendment added on the House floor by Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) to neuter the ACS by making response to it voluntary has been removed. The ACS will remain, for now, a mandatory-response survey.

Post-script: Congressmen need to hear from their survey, opinion and marketing research consituents

In a recent talk with a Congressional staffer on why his boss had recently signed on as a cosponsor to Rep. Poe’s H.R. 2255 (which makes the ACS voluntary-response), the staffer explained an all-too-familiar story. The Representative had been pressed by several constituents angry about the ACS, while no constituents were making the case for the ACS. We need to turn that scenario around, for every Member of Congress, so that they understand the importance of the decennial Census and the ACS to researchers’ work, that this data cannot just be replaced or replicated, and that a Member of Congress’ specific constituents rely upon it.

You are those constituents. Let’s get to work.

Originally published by Howard Fienberg as “Census Programs Underserved by FY16 Funding Bill, But It Could Have Been Worse” at MARKETINGRESEARCH.ORG on December 17, 2015.