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House Cuts in Census Funding Would Carry a Heavy Cost

The House voted shortsightedly to cut $238 million from the Census Bureau’s budget for fiscal year 2015 relative to the President’s request.  Although the House funding level is $28.5 million more than last year’s Census budget, it’s far from enough to cover the cost of preparing for the 2020 census and the closely related annual American Community Survey (ACS).  The Senate, which will prepare its own bill this week, should give Census the needed funding to provide high-quality data on which policymakers and private businesses can depend.

In a barrage of amendments to the Commerce-Justice-Science funding bill, House members shifted funding last week from Census to pay for projects ranging from policing to weather research.  The cuts threaten the accuracy of the 2020 census, which will help determine the apportionment of congressional seats and drive redistricting decisions.

They also threaten the accuracy of the ACS, the nation’s main source of state and local data on affordable housing, household income, poverty, race, state-to-state migration, immigration, types of disabilities of local residents, and scores of other major topics.  The federal government uses ACS data to distribute more than $400 billion in federal formula funds each year, and the information helps communities and businesses decide where to build new roads, bridges, schools, homes, and stores.

The bill could prove costly to taxpayers in the long run by delaying adoption of innovative cost-saving steps such as online data collection, which could save $5 billion or more over ten years, according to the Census Bureau.

It could prove shortsighted in other ways as well, such as by weakening the quality of the information that helps inform policymaking.  For example, the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program — the biggest beneficiary of the House funding shuffle — requires law enforcement agencies applying for grants to submit data from the ACS.  Presumably that’s because policymakers believe that ACS data keep the program well targeted, but they can’t do that job as effectively if underfunding weakens the survey’s quality.

Further, a proposal by Representative Ted Poe (R-TX) that the House adopted takes another swipe at the ACS by making responding to the ACS “voluntary” for households.  A similar move by Canada in 2011 proved disastrous:  response rates plummeted from 94 percent to 68 percent, severely damaging data quality while raising costs, according to The Census Project.  Decades of experience show that a mandatory survey — regardless of whether it’s enforced with stiff penalties (which the requirement to fill out Census forms is not) — has far higher response rates and thus yields far more accurate data at lower cost. 

The House cuts come at a time when other areas of the Census budget are already tight.  Census is redesigning its Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) to save money and reduce respondents’ burdens, for example, but that redesign effort is running into problems and the savings probably won’t appear as soon as earlier predicted.  Compromising the quality of Census data through severe underfunding would be penny-wise and pound-foolish.