Amid shutdown, 2020 census operations stay afloat. But for how long?

The Census Bureau has six-to-eight weeks of carryover funding to stay afloat during a partial government shutdown.

But if the shutdown lasts “months or years,” as President Donald Trump said Friday, then the bureau would have to pause its work on the 2020 count.

“It’s really just an amount of money that they can use to keep their heads above water and to keep planning on track,” Mary Jo Hoeksema, the co-director of the Census Project, said in an interview Friday.

However, President Donald Trump in a press conference warned Friday that the shutdown could last for “months or even years.” If that were the case, the statistical agency would have to pause its work on the 2020 count.

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The agency, according to the Census Project, has enough funding for its decennial count operations to withstand a shutdown lasting six-to-eight weeks.

“When that runs out, then their ability to continue even the work on 2020 ceases,” Hoeksema said.

In the same press conference, Trump also told reporters that the shutdown will “be over with sooner than people think.”

The Census Bureau has exempted about 10,000 temporary workers brought onboard to handle 2020 count preparations, but beyond that, there are only 43 exempt employees in the agency’s permanent workforce of nearly 15,000.

“There are staff working at the Census Bureau as we speak on activities related to the 2020 census planning,” Hoeksema said.

The Commerce Department furloughed more than 80 percent of its total workforce.

New Census director to play ‘pivotal role’

The Senate on Wednesday night approved Steven Dillingham to serve as the agency’s head in a unanimous voice vote. He’ll be the first permanent Census director in more than a year.

Ron Jarmin, the former associate director for economic programs at the agency, had served as the Census Bureau’s acting director after the last permanent head, John Thompson, stepped down in the summer of 2017.

Jarmin will take over as the permanent deputy director of the Census Bureau, according to an announcement last July from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

“Great news! Looks like I can start performing exclusive duties again,” Jarmin said Wednesday in a tweet celebrating Dillingham’s confirmation.

Dillingham previously served as the head of the Peace Corps’ Office of Strategic Information, Research and Planning. He also led the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

While the Census Bureau has already awarded all the major IT contracts in preparation for the first count where households can respond online, Dillingham will still oversee a significant amount of the spending for 2020 operations.

More than 60 percent of the total lifecycle cost each decennial count happens in the final two years of preparations, Hoeksema said.

“He’ll be playing a pivotal role in making some decisions, certainly with respect to funding,” she said. “I think he’s going to be tackling some unique issues, certainly with respect to the IT that’s going to be used, and he will be overseeing the spending of a large sum of money heading into this last year.”

Aside from the nuts-and-bolts logistics of conducting the nationwide population count, the Census Bureau also finds itself in the middle of a drawn-out legal battle over the last-minute inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 forms.

Arturo Vargas, the CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund, a group that opposes the citizenship question, urged Dillingham to ensure that all demographics feel comfortable responding to the population count.

“It is not too late to save the Census, but action from the top is needed now. Director Dillingham will need to develop a sound plan and strategy, and fast, for following-up with Latinos, immigrants and other hard-to-count communities who prefer to participate through non-online options if we want a successful count of the nation,” Vargas said in an email. “He will also need to guarantee that the personal information collected during Census 2020 cannot be shared with any person or agency outside the U.S. Census Bureau.”

The Census Bureau didn’t immediately return comment regarding Dillingham’s confirmation.

“Due to the federal government shutdown, I am unable to access e-mails or telephone voicemails,” an agency press official wrote in an auto-reply email.

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