Census Funding: A Ticking Time Bomb We Must Address

Inadequate funding could have adverse effects in the Asian American community.

The alarm we have been sounding about the Census Bureau not being sufficiently resourced is finally being heard and people are beginning to realize that a fair and accurate census is at serious risk.

Every 10 years, the U.S. Census Bureau undertakes the herculean task of counting all of the people living in the United States by such categories as age, gender, and ethnicity. The data collected impacts the design and implementation of policies and laws and the apportionment of monies for education, housing, transportation, health, environmental protection, and many other areas.

Each Census is unique. We do not get a second chance to do it right. The funding that has been proposed up until now for the 2020 Census is inadequate for our communities.

Asian Americans are the fastest-growing demographic community in this country. In the past seven years, Asian Americans account for one quarter of the American population growth. But unless we have an accurate Census, we will not know the needs of our fast-changing demographic. We will not know the needs of all of our diverse communities.

The administration itself has finally begun to recognize the deficiency in funding, and its effect on accurate data. Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross recently testified that the Census Bureau needs more funding, both over the lifecycle of the decennial census as well as for Fiscal Year 2018. Acknowledging that the original request was too low, Secretary Ross asked Congress for an additional $187 million (the “adjusted” request) for FY 2018.

From what we know so far, the administration’s adjusted request would primarily cover increased IT costs to ensure readiness for a Census “dress rehearsal.” But this does not account for the fact that Congress’ failure to pass FY 2017 appropriations bills in a timely fashion, underfunding in the final 2017 “omnibus” appropriations bill, and the prospect of insufficient funding in FY 2018 has forced the Census Bureau to eliminate, streamline, or delay vital planning activities, such as the cancellation of two of three planned sites for the 2018 End‐to‐End Test, a dry-run of census operations that integrates all operations and IT systems for the first time, and a delay in developing a full advertising campaign and Partnership Program. The work of the Integrated Partnership and Communications program is essential to keep long-term census costs in check. Given the growing barriers to a successful census — one has to be concerned if all communities will be counted equally well.

While we are heartened to see the Secretary agree with our assessment that the Census Bureau is sorely underfunded currently, we believe that the Census Bureau needs even more than the increase requested by Secretary Ross. That is why we supported H.R. 4013, 2020 American Census Investment Act (sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D‐NY) when it was introduced. The bill would allocate at least $1.935 billion for the U.S. Census Bureau in FY 2018 — $438 million above the administration’s original request and $251 million above the administration’s adjusted request — to put the 2020 Census back on track and preserve and strengthen other vital Census Bureau data. It is a good starting point for determining the final number needed for FY 2018.

Senators have also recognized the current crisis facing the 2020 Census. Thirty-four Senators, led by Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI), recently sent a letter to Secretary Ross highlighting the importance of the census, the current challenges facing the 2020 Census, and the need to prioritize the hiring of a qualified Census Bureau director. Representing Senators from twenty-three states, the letter shows there is clear support for a robust 2020 Census and that at least a third of the Senate is paying close attention to this issue.

The most immediate appropriations-related priority today is for Congress to include a special case for full‐year funding (called an anomaly) for the U.S. Census Bureau in the next FY 2018 Continuing Resolution. The full-year funding anomaly should be, at a minimum, $1.985 billion for the Census Bureau, including $1.077 billion for the 2020 Census. The money is needed for activities that include but are not limited to the following:

· Development of the communications campaign under the Integrated Partnership and Communications contract;

· Increasing the number of Partnership Specialists from 43 to 200 in FY 2018;

· Additional funding needed to expand research (including surveys and focus groups) into effective messaging for the growing number of population groups and communities at higher risk of undercounting, such as Asian Americans; and

· Keep creative development of the advertising campaign on schedule.

Additionally, the Census Bureau must address areas affected by recent natural disasters, including hurricanes and wildfires. California is home to the largest Asian American population in the country; Texas the third largest, and Florida the eighth largest during the last census — all states which have been hit by major natural disasters in 2017. The Census Bureau encountered significant counting challenges during the 2010 Census in Gulf Coast communities recovering from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita more than four years earlier and should anticipate similar challenges in 2020 that will require tailored public outreach. The Census Bureau must have a full-year funding anomaly in the next Continuing Resolution in order to meet the needs of a fair and accurate census.

And let’s be clear. This underfunding also means that we will not have the resources necessary to test what sort of messaging will work. We are in an environment where people are fearful of the government. People are fearful of intrusive questions. We need to understand what will motivate people to respond to the census. We also need to understand that underfunding means that communities of color, rural Americans, impoverished Americans, and children are not likely to be counted fairly and accurately.

This is not right. This is an America where everyone counts. We need to make sure that is the case for this census. Congress must do its job to ensure the Census Bureau has what it needs to get it right.

Terry Ao Minnis is the Director of Census and Voting Programs at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.