Groups Warn of Effects of Potential Census Budget Shortfall

Will there be enough funding for the next U.S. Census? Organizations that focus on the importance of data are concerned about proposals to limit the budget of the agency that counts every person in America every 10 years.

The 2020 Census is just three years away, and some nonprofits are worried that the U.S. Census Bureau may not have the resources it needs to prepare for the job.

Last week, The Washington Post reported concerns that current proposals for the bureau’s budget are inadequate and may mean that the agency might not be able to afford a test run next year.

In previous Census cycles, budgets often doubled in years ending in 7 and 8 as the organization ramped up preparations. But the increase the Trump administration recommends is roughly 8.5 percent below the $1.64 billion budget the agency requested, though more than $100 million higher than the 2016 budget. And in 2018, the budget could fall far short of the agency’s needs.

“I think Congress is taking a grave risk right now,” Terri Ann Lowenthal, codirector of the Census Project, told the Post. “What Congress does in the next few weeks will really determine how much confidence both the Census Bureau and the public can have in the bureau’s ability to take an inclusive Census in 2020.”

While the Census is required by the U.S. Constitution and therefore faces no risk of going away, the process of acquiring that data, if not sophisticated enough or strapped by budgetary concerns, could lead to questions about the reliability of the result.

Such changes would come at a time when data collection is a lower priority in the federal budget. In comments to FiveThirtyEight last year, Association of Public Data Users Executive Director Ken Poole noted that cuts to agencies could have a severe effect on the data that the government produces.

“Several of the [statistical] agencies have struggled with budgets since basically the early 2000s,” Poole said. “All the agencies would have haircuts, and there’s a point at which you have no hair left and you’re starting to cut into the bone.”

In comments to CNN this month, Sunlight Foundation Deputy Director Alex Howard explained how cuts to public data have negative effects on decisions people make on a daily basis—from where they send their children to school, to the restaurants they visit, to the appliances they buy.

“We’re all carrying around supercomputers in our pockets that are informed by these data sources and become deeply engrained in how we can understand how the world is changing,” Howard told CNN.

Insights Association Director of Government Affairs Howard Fienberg echoed this sentiment in his comments to the Post, noting that a lack of data could hurt business plans in specific geographic areas.

“It’s very easy to open a new business in New York City, but putting it in some small town in West Virginia is much more difficult,” Fienberg said. “You have to have really rock-solid data to be able to make the case. When we have uncertainty, business goes nowhere.”


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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