Omnibus boosts Census funding


The 2018 funding bill gives the Census Bureau a much-needed shot in the arm as it enters a make-or-break testing period.

The omnibus spending bill allocates more than $2.8 billion for Census in fiscal year 2018, with over $2.5 billion going to "periodic programs," which include the decennial census, other surveys conducted by the bureau and support programs.

The boost represents more than a $1.3 billion increase over enacted fiscal year 2017 levels --  and more than $1 billion over the administration's adjusted fiscal year 2018 request.

The bureau's critical dress rehearsal, which tests many of the IT systems that will be used in the main event, is currently underway in Providence, R.I.

"This is a bipartisan acknowledgement that the administration's numbers were totally underfunding the planning cycle for 2018," said Phil Sparks, co-director of the watchdog group the Census Project. "It's a lot of money, but we have a lot to go, according to Census's own plans."

In addition to the money, Sparks said he was encouraged to see the communications and partnership programs, which had been previously deferred by Census due to budget constraints, receive a shout-out in the bill.

An accompanying legislative report  directs the bureau to staff and conduct its partnership and communications programs "no less than that conducted during fiscal year 2008 in preparation for the 2010 decennial census."

Even with a major boost provided by the omnibus, Census still has a lot to do in the home stretch of decennial prep. In addition to the testing and integration of 40-odd IT systems, cybersecurity and low response rates, especially amongst historically hard-to-count and minority populations, also pose risks.

Census advocates also have concerns the White House's budget for fiscal year 2019 isn't enough for the 2020 ramp-up.

Perhaps the biggest looming threat to an accurate count, experts say, is the Trump-Pence campaign's push to add -- and fundraise off the possibility of adding -- a citizenship question to the 2020 census. Census experts and civil rights groups have consistently opposed adding the citizenship question.

"If the question is on there, they're certainly going to have to increase their budget, because they're going to substantially have to increase their non-response follow up" due to the depressed response rates, said Sparks. "That's going to be a significant cost problem."

House Dems push back on possible Census citizenship question

In response to the Trump-Pence campaign email, House Democrats introduced legislation March 20 to prohibit the addition of such a question.

The bill, introduced by co-chair of the House Census Caucus Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) would prevent the secretary of Commerce from adding "any major operational design" -- including a question -- that hasn't been researched and tested for at least three years before the start of a decennial. It would also require the Government Accountability Office to certify that the topics and questions on the decennial have been adequately researched and tested "to the same degree as in previous decennial censuses."

Reps. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) and Darren Soto (D-Fla.) are co-sponsors to the bill, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) added her support in a statement.

"Make no mistake, our census is at great risk," Maloney said at a press event, adding the bill would "safeguard against this administration's clear desire to politicize and compromise the 2020 Census."

"We cannot accept an incomplete or unfair count in 2020 -- too much is at stake," she said.

In December, Department of Justice requested the bureau add a question on citizenship question for the first time since 1950, citing the need to "fully enforce" violations of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In a March 20 House hearing, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told appropriators no decision on the citizenship question has been made yet.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter


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