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Underfunding Census Is Pound Foolish

The House will begin considering a funding bill today that provides far less than the Census Bureau needs to finalize new planned cost-saving measures for the 2020 census, potentially forcing it to use older and more expensive methods.  That could raise the cost of conducting the census by $5 billion, the Bureau estimates.

And that, in turn, is just the latest evidence that the 2011 Budget Control Act’s austere cap on non-defense appropriations, as further reduced by sequestration, encourages ill-considered measures that are penny wise and pound foolish.

The bill — the Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill for 2016 — funds the part of the Census Bureau that oversees the decennial census and the annual American Community Survey at $848 million.  That’s $29 million above this year’s funding level but $374 million (31 percent) below what the Bureau says it needs in 2016 to prepare for the 2020 census and meet its other responsibilities.

The underfunding jeopardizes the Bureau’s ability to test new technologies and procedures to (among other things):

  • Identify new addresses remotely.  That could trim about $1 billion from the cost of sending Census employees out to check these addresses on foot, Census estimates.
  • Reuse data that people have already provided to state and federal agencies — for example, to identify homes that haven’t completed the census because they’re vacant, thereby eliminating the need for in-person follow-up visits.  That could ultimately save $1.2 billion.
  • Help and encourage people to respond to the census online and by phone.  That could reduce the cost of in-person follow-ups by roughly $500 million.
  • Use smart phones rather than costly meeting time to give census takers updated route assignments.

Along with its budgetary cost, shortchanging the census would threaten the quality of the information collected.  That could affect everything for which communities, state and federal policymakers, and businesses use the census — including planning for new schools, stores, restaurants, highways, home construction, and emergency response measures, allocating congressional seats and redrawing congressional boundaries, and distributing more than $400 billion a year in federal funds.

Congress should recognize the damaging effects of the low sequestration funding level and develop a plan to provide relief from sequestration, offset with alternate savings, along the lines of the bipartisan 2013 budget agreement negotiated by then-House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan and then-Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray.