Why the 2020 Census could blow a huge hole in the federal budget

The 2010 Decennial Census --the last time the government sought to count every person and household in the country -- proved to be a rocky and costly venture.

Chaotic operations and mounting staff needs drove the budget through the roof. Plans for census takers to use state-of-the-art, hand-held devices to record data in the field had to be scrapped when the devices proved unreliable. The Census Bureau had to quickly hire thousands of more workers and train them to record their findings the old fashion way -- on paper forms.

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At the same time, the rate of return of census questionnaires by mail, historically the primary method of collecting data, sharply declined from 78 percent in 1970 to just 63 percent in 2010 -- a telltale sign of declining cost-effectiveness.

In the end, the 2010 Census proved to be the costliest census in U.S. history, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The $12.3 billion spent on that venture was 31 percent higher than the $9.4 billion cost of the 2000 Census, adjusted for inflation.

Incredibly, the average cost for counting a single housing unit surged from about $16 in 1970 to roughly $92 in 2010, measured in 2020 constant dollars.

Small wonder, then, that the 2020 Census operation now just a few years off is getting close scrutiny by government watchdogs and was included recently in the GAO's latest report listing "high risk" government programs and agencies.

The 2020 Census was one of three programs or functions added to the list, along with management of federal programs that service Indian tribes and the federal government's environmental liabilities. In all, there are 34 "high risk" governmental programs and areas that GAO asserts are particularly vulnerable to waste, fraud and abuse or in dire need of "broad-based transformation."

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The decennial census unquestionably is one of the most important functions of the Commerce Department's Census Bureau – a laborious and sometimes highly imprecise operation mandated by the Constitution.

The census generates vital information and data for the nation that is used -- among other things -- to reapportion the seats in the House of Representatives, realign the boundaries of legislative districts in every state, and provide invaluable social, demographic and economic profiles of the country essential in developing public policy and conducting research.

The data is also used by the federal government in allocating billions of dollars in federal financial assistance to state and local governments for highways construction, social services, grants and other assistance.

At a time when President Trump and his conservative allies are questioning the accuracy and validity of economic and scientific research, making sure that the Census Bureau conducts an accurate and smoothly run count will be of extreme importance.

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The coming census will require the counting of an increasingly diverse and growing population of about 330 million people, according to the Commerce Department. Census takers will be attempting to contact and interview people in more than 140 million housing units.

To get an accurate count, the Census Bureau must build an accurate address list for every housing unit, find ways to maximize the number of people taking it upon themselves to respond to requests for information, and then follow up with people and families that don't respond.

The 2017 Commerce Department budget plan for the 2020 Census will include "sweeping design changes in four key areas:

  • New methodologies to conduct address canvassing.
  • Innovative ways of optimizing self-response.
  • The use of administrative records to reduce the nonresponse workload.
  • And the use of technology to replace manual tasks.

Commerce officials believe the new approaches will save the government more than $5 billion compared to the previous census costs. Yet given past costly snafus and mission creep, there is no assurance the 2020 census will cost far more than the last one.

The challenges will be many – not the least of which will be overcoming the reluctance of many undocumented immigrants to cooperate with a census taker when immigration agents are rounding up illegal immigrants for deportation.

With the Trump administration pressing for major cuts in most domestic programs to offset the cost of a $54 billion increase in defense spending next year, the Census Bureau could feel increased pressure to curtail spending and hiring.

Related: Trump's 'Hard Power' Budget Gives Billions to Defense, Guts Domestic Programs

Still, the administration signaled in its new budget proposal the need to get the census right. While the White House Budget Office proposed a 16 percent overall cut in the Commerce Department's spending in 2018, it provided $1.5 billion for the Census Bureau – an increase of more than $100 million from the previous year to continue to prepare for the new census.

"This additional funding prioritizes fun­damental investments in information technology and field infrastructure, which would allow the bureau to more effectively administer the 2020 Decennial Census," Trump's budget document declared.

In 2010, the bureau operated 506 census offices throughout the country with 550,000 staff on the ground. Last year, the bureau floated a "cost effective" census-taking plan for 2020 with as few as 150 offices nationwide and just 200,000 staffers.

"A complete count of the nation's population is an enormous challenge as the Bureau seeks to control the cost of the census while it implements several new innovations and manages the processes of acquiring and developing new and modified information technology (IT) systems supporting them," the GAO said in its recent report on "high risk" government operations. However, the GAO added, it's time for the Census Bureau to get on the stick and make improvements before the next census is upon us.

Over the past three years, the GAO has made 30 recommendations to help the Bureau design and implement a more cost-effective census for 2020. So far, only six of them had been fully implemented as of January.

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