The 2020 Census seems far in the future, but funding decisions being made this week could imperil the quality of the results we get 6 years from now.

Congress will pass an omnibus appropriations bill in the next few days to fund the federal government for fiscal year 2015 (only 3 months behind schedule, and with some homeland security funding only temporarily funded in order to delay a battle over the President's executive order on illegal immigration). However, despite the best efforts of MRA and our Census Project coalition allies, the decennial headcount and American Community Survey (ACS) will not get the funding they need.

The one bright spot is that this legislation does not include the amendment passed by the House in June to gut the ACS by making response voluntary.

With only $840 million for 2020 Census preparations, $123 million less than the White House's budget request, the Census Bureau may have to make do with significantly less research and development than necessary. That will lead to a significantly more expensive decennial headcount (at least $5 billion more) with much less reliable data.

As the Census Project's Terri-Ann Lowenthal explains, "2015 is a pivotal year: the Census Bureau will conduct three major field tests to inform its selection of the 2020 Census design by next fall. A fourth test, scheduled for late summer, will evaluate revised questions on race, ethnicity and household relationship, as well as strategies for boosting Internet response and for helping language minorities participate."

Both the House and Senate hacked away at the President's budget request for Bureau operations during the regular funding process this year, so this end result is unfortunately not a big surprise. The Census Bureau has already spent the last few months operating under a "continuing resolution" for their funding, without the requisite funding "anomaly" to provide respite from the stinginess.

If we're going to still get a 2020 Census, other parts of the budget will have to get squeezed out. As Terri Ann postulates, the Census Bureau could:

  • "trim American Community Survey coverage of group facilities such as college dorms, military barracks and nursing homes";
  • cut out key ACS data products;
  • slow down planning for the 2017 Economic Census; or
  • abandon the the construction of "an enterprise system for data collection and processing, which it hopes will replace numerous (and costly) survey-specific systems."

America faces dire federal financial decisions. However, the Constitutionally-required functions of the 2020 Census and the ongoing ACS are not the place to scrounge for pennies under the federal couch cushions. It is unfortunate that our policymakers can't see beyond the short-term fiscal battles to consider the long-term costs of under-funding the Census.

Your colleagues are helping to turn the tide -- but are you? Join MRA today.

UPDATE: On December 12, the House passed this omnibus appropriations bill by a 219-206 vote, and the Senate did the same, 56-40, on December 13, to send the bill to the President for signature.