Final census test to include citizenship question

The Census Bureau is including a controversial question about respondent citizenship on its final test, while courts decide its ultimate fate.

Census 2020 By Maria Dryfhout Stock photo ID: 790714156
 

The Census Bureau is including a controversial question about respondent citizenship on its final test, while courts decide its ultimate fate.

The test was first announced in December, as a means to get more information about the impact of the citizenship question. Since then, a federal court blocked a move to by the bureau to ask respondents about their citizenship on the basic 2020 questionnaire in a Jan. 15 ruling, but that decision isn't affecting the planned test.

The Trump administration is seeking an expedited review of the case by the Supreme Court.

Mailings for the 2019 test are set to begin in June. Victoria Velkoff, the associate director of demographic programs, said at a Feb. 1 Census Bureau meeting that, "preliminary results that will be used to inform" activities for the 2020 census may not be available till October.

A wide-ranging attitudes survey commissioned by the bureau has already reported that "the citizenship question may be a major barrier" to an accurate population count. A quarter of survey respondents said they were "extremely concerned" or "very concerned" their answers to the 2020 Census "will be used against them."

Associate Director of the Decennial Census Program Al Fontenot acknowledged there's been a "consistent increase…in people's distrust in government, and paranoia in about giving their information over, much more so than in past decades."

Crunch time

With less than a year until the first enumeration of the 2020 Census begins, the Census still has a lot of ground to cover, without much flexibility on time and complicating factors involving funding.

The Commerce Department was mostly shuttered during the 35-day shutdown. The Census Bureau was forward-funded by about $1 billion for the first quarter of fiscal year 2019. As a result, "there was no negative change in schedule, cost or scale on the 2020 census" as a result of the shutdown, Fontenot said.

According to the Census Bureau, not all of the forward-funded money was spent during the shutdown, but it's not known how long the remaining money could float the bureau in the event of another shutdown.

Census experts fear the impact of another prolonged shutdown -- or even a continuing resolution -- on the count in its final year to get everything in order before the 2020 main event. A lack of new funding could impair the bureau’s ability to spend on IT systems, cybersecurity, and hiring.

Still, with the new hires and changes to tech and testing operations, Fontenot said the $15.6 billion full lifecycle estimate remains the same to cover the cost.

Another operational change is the elimination of the web chat from the Census Questionnaire Assistance operation as part of its first-ever online national headcount, said chief of the decennial census management division Deb Stempowski. The web chat was intended to be a front-facing service option in addition to telephone help for respondents to contact Census.

Also on the tech front, Atri Kalluri, chief of the bureau's Decennial Information Technology Division, said the cyber protections to be used for the 2020 systems will be "similar to what was provided in the recent midterm elections" by the Department of Homeland Security and the intelligence community.

Following the 2018 end-to-end test, the bureau has "incorporated all the necessary measures to maintain the confidentiality and privacy of the respondent data," and will be conducting penetration testing, red team assessments, as well as load testing on the 2020 systems,

The public quarterly program management review was also the first for newly confirmed Census director Steven Dillingham.

Census is a major target of oversight for House Democrats. Bills outlawing the citizenship question have been introduced, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is scheduled to testify before the House Oversight and Reform Committee in March.

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