Skip to main content
off the charts

Census Funding in Crisis

Revised August 28th, 2017

Despite the need to ramp up preparations for the fast-approaching 2020 census, President Trump’s 2018 budget would boost funding for the Census Bureau by just 2 percent ($27 million) next year — far less than what’s needed to ensure a successful census. The House Appropriations Committee’s proposed bill, released today, does little better, providing just $10 million more than the President.

At a comparable stage prior to the past three decennial censuses, Census Bureau funding was ramping up dramatically.  At the same point in the decade under President George W. Bush, for example, 2008 funding was 79 percent higher than two years earlier, in 2006. By comparison, 2018 funding proposed by both Trump and the House committee is less than 10 percent above 2016 (see chart).

Funding shortfalls have already prompted the Census Bureau to cancel planned testing and delay outreach activities for this cycle. Further delays could threaten the development and purchase of technology and procedural improvements (such as tapping existing public databases to identify vacant housing) that would save taxpayers close to $5 billion and increase the quality of the data collected.

As Census Bureau National Advisory Committee member Terry Ao Minnis notes, the Census Bureau needs a significant funding increase for 2018 to complete activities such as conducting the dress rehearsal, developing a comprehensive advertising and outreach program, and opening temporary offices to help with the logistics of running the census.

The stakes are high. Information from the census — and a myriad other surveys for which it serves as the statistical foundation — guides businesses in opening stores, factories, and restaurants; helps communities plan roads and schools; ensures fair apportionment of seats in the House and state legislatures; guides the allocation of billions of dollars of grants and federal assistance each year; and ensures that public resources are directed towards those most in need. Undercounting tends disproportionately to leave out poor rural and minority communities.

As we wrote in a joint letter with the American Enterprise Institute:

No policy or philosophical outlook is well-served by a lack of accurate data. The alternative to accurate, detailed data on American households is policy-by-anecdote, in which lawmakers respond to perceived needs without data on how large or widespread a problem might be. Such a process would spend federal funds neither effectively nor wisely.