One reaction to 2025 Census budget request: good but not enough

The Biden administration's 2025 budget request includes $1.6 billion for the Census Bureau and an increase of $218 million from what was just enacted for 2024.

The Biden administration’s 2025 budget request includes $1.6 billion for the Census Bureau and an increase of $218 million from what was just enacted for 2024. Good but not enough, according to The Census Project. For more on that, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with project co-director Howard Fienberg.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin Maybe store it out for us. The importance of 2025 request both to the Census Bureau’s current operations and the programs they run between the Big Ten-year counts, which is pretty heavy load. And how this contributes also or should to what they have to do in 2030.

Howard Fienberg Most listeners probably are aware that a ten-year buildup to every decennial headcount. I mean, obviously the biggest amount of money is spent in the year zero. In this case, it’ll be FY 2030. But there’s a lot of preparations that go into it, and it is a funding cycle that of course, Congress struggles with, because it’s a very regular one by logic standards, but hard one based on how Congress funds things. But you know, year zero you spend a ton of money and then you go down to very little for a few years and you start ramping back up again. And we’re in the point where they should be dramatically ramping back up, because this is when the bureau is deciding on its design. It is figuring out what major tests it’s going to need to run, both behind the scenes and in the field in order to prepare for an accurate count of the population at the end of the decade. So, a lot of the major decision making is going on in FY 25.

Tom Temin And in the meantime, though, they have their regular economic surveys that they do. People don’t realize how much they do. So, getting to that request for 2025, do you feel that the blanket covers the bed, so to speak, for what they need to do currently and also what they need to do as set aside activities leading to 2030? Are they got enough.

Howard Fienberg Next to really know? So, I mean, the census project has put out our own budget recommendation prior to the president’s budget urging 2 billion. A lot of that is based on the needs of the American Community Survey, which, of course, part of the decennial program. But it was originally the census long form. And in order to run the ACS every year and continue to get accurate data, it needs some more investment because the sample size, for example, has not increased since probably in 2010. I forget exactly the date, but they’ve not increased the sample size in well over a decade and a half at least, and they have not been able to invest in non-response follow up as well, which is a huge part of this that we found that probably less than a third of the households that need to be contacted for follow up are actually receiving any kind of follow up. So the accuracy and the ability to deliver the most accurate data for the country is impaired, absent some more investment in this critical survey and ACS and decennial together, they are the manner in which, you know, funding is derived and delivered geographically for the country and demographically for hundreds and hundreds of federal and state programs.

Tom Temin Right. So, they need then it sounds like maybe a technological push also because people respond less and less to various forms of mail, even email. Now nobody trusts anymore. Is that a fundamental problem they’ve got to overcome is just making people trust the delivery of the medium that asks for the data that the Census Bureau needs.

Howard Fienberg That’s a piece of it. And certainly, it’s common across any survey, and research studies in general. In my day job, I’m a lobbyist for the Insights Association and the market research and data analytics industry. You know, response rates depending on how you define it, because it’s different across media. But response rates are not what they were ten years ago or 20. So the automatic assumption that everybody under the sun is going to respond to the ACS, and you can’t just make that assumption and the response rates don’t reflect that. You know, it’s something that used to get, you know, 90 to 95% across the board. It’s not really hitting that anymore. And, you know, there is a lack of trust. Certainly, we talk with congressional offices, and they hear from their constituents on a regular basis. Oh my God, what is this that I was sent? And so that’s a normal thing for any congressional office to receive from their constituents, because, you know, people just lack that basic trust in what they’re receiving.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Howard Fienberg. He is co-director of the Census Project. And getting back to the budget request for 2025, you mentioned they have to beef up the American Community Survey. So, it sounds like that’s an expensive proposition. Would helping response rates to that lead to understandings that could help them in 2030 where response rates, that’s going to be an issue also of course.

Howard Fienberg Yeah. And the ACS has always been the test bed and where you test out. What are your messages going to be for reaching the population? How are you going to do the follow up? What kinds of questions can you ask? All the questions that are going to be asked and how they’re going to be asked on the headcount. Those are all seated and tested on the ACS and other surveys and all the back end work that’s going to go into their modernization of their technology, infrastructure, all the things that go on the back end that is really implemented through a survey like the ACS, because the ACS is happening every year.

Tom Temin And the sense that the bureau is on the ball for 2030.

Howard Fienberg Maybe that’s it’s hard to say at this point because we’re still early on it. This is where things started to fall apart in the last few decades, not necessarily because of funding levels per se, but because of the timing. And you can see it happening here just like prior decades. You’re getting sequestration where it’s just an across-the-board meat cleaver approach and just hacking away stuff, but also continuing resolutions. And, you know, like any agency, they have to juggle priorities. And all right, we’re going to put, you know, more things over here. And this activity is going to go by the wayside. That’s not a big deal in some agencies. But at the Bureau over the long term in, you know, say the last decade, the CR is directly resulted in the cancellation of most of their field testing before the 2020 census, and we do not want to see that happen again. So in 2020, they ended up only doing a field test in Providence, Rhode Island, which is not representative of a whole lot of the country and all the rural testing suburban areas, urban areas, all tribal reservations, all these things got wiped out, and we don’t want to see that happen again.

Tom Temin That’s outside of their control in a lot of ways.

Howard Fienberg Correct. But the more that can be done to fund each fiscal year as the decade wears on, that gives them more flexibility to be able to get those activities planned and executed.

Tom Temin And outside of the budget request. How do you think that the influx of illegal migrants that are being shipped all over the United States, and we’ve got this big, huge hairball of a problem? It’s a logistics problem. It’s a political problem, you name it. But those individuals are subject to counting wherever they might be. Correct? The Census Bureau doesn’t count citizens. It counts every person in the United States. Do you think that’ll be a challenge for them just because of the numbers?

Howard Fienberg Yeah. No, it’s always a challenge because yes, they tend to be moving around less likely to respond to government entreaties to, you know, provide their information. It’s a challenge every time. And in particular, at this point, they’re going to be moving around perhaps more than in the past. And it looks like there are a whole lot more of them than there were ten years ago.

Tom Temin Right. And it could introduce the danger of double counting if the migrants that are in are moving around, they could get counted twice or maybe more than once, just because of the mobility that’s available to them now.

Howard Fienberg Presuming they’re responding? Yes.

Tom Temin Presuming they’re responding. Right. So yeah, I don’t know how you figure that one out, but and you know, this is going to be something that Congress is going to have many minds about also.

Howard Fienberg Yes. And there will be battles in Congress about a citizenship question about how the apportionment counts should take account of citizenship or residency, legal, illegal immigration, and so forth. You know, we don’t have a dog in that fight that’s going on already. It’s outside of the Census Project’s concerned.

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