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Scientists fear pending attack on federal statistics collection


NASCAR used its car races to help promote the 2010 census.

U.S. Census Bureau

Add the U.S. Census Bureau to the list of government agencies whose activities may be threatened by the election of Donald Trump and the new Congress.

The bureau has traditionally maintained a fairly low profile among federal agencies. At the same time, it symbolizes many things that the president-elect and congressional Republicans say they don’t like about government—and soon will be in a position to change.

For starters, the Census Bureau needs a hefty budget increase this year to continue preparations for its constitutionally mandated job of conducting a decennial census in 2020. But that request goes against the Republican mantra of curbing government spending. The decennial census and other surveys also generate reams of statistics that may clash with Trump’s penchant for disregarding data or making up his own. Then there’s the questions themselves, which some people regard as intrusive or unnecessary.

That’s not all. Congressional foes of the American Community Survey (ACS), a 70-question successor to the long form of the census sent to 3.5 million homes each year, are expected to revive previous attempts to eliminate the survey or make it voluntary. This time they will have a powerful ally in the White House in the form of Representative Mick Mulvaney (R–SC), who Trump has chosen to lead the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Mulvaney voted in 2012 for an amendment before the House of Representatives that would have defunded the ACS, and last summer he urged Census Director John Thompson to exempt those who don’t want to fill it out.

Thompson himself is in limbo, thanks to a 2012 law that stipulates a 5-year term for the census director, beginning 1 January of years ending in 2 and 7. That was intended to ensure continuity in leadership and protect the bureau from politics. But it may now have the opposite effect. Thompson took office in August 2013, and his term ended last week. Although the president can extend his tenure for up to 1 year, Thompson can be sent packing at any time if Trump decides he wants a new census director.

Social scientists acknowledge that Trump so far has said nothing about the agency’s budget, how it operates, or who he wants to lead the agency. But that silence is hardly reassuring, says Terri Ann Lowenthal of the Census Project, a Washington, D.C.–based effort to build support for the agency. “The biggest immediate worry is the huge number of unknowns,” she says. “It’s important to have certainty on the amount of resources available and potential modifications to its operations.”

One silver lining: The person on the Department of Commerce transition team assigned to the bureau, A. Mark Neuman, once handled congressional relations for the agency under George H. W. Bush. “He’s devoted to the bureau and committed to its mission,” Lowenthal says. “I’m delighted that he’s part of the transition.”

Selling the census

The first test of the bureau’s ability to stay under the radar may come this spring, when the new administration and congressional Republicans try to finish work on the 2017 budget and spell out spending and policy priorities for 2018 and beyond. Sticking out like a sore thumb is the Census Bureau’s request for a 20% increase, some $263 million more than in 2016, to continue preparing for the 2020 enumeration of all 143 million U.S. households.

Census officials have an ambitious plan to pare $5.2 billion from what would otherwise be an exercise costing upward of $20 billion. (That’s more than what the government now spends annually on NASA, one of the country’s most beloved agencies.) The changes include two new options—the internet and a telephone hotline—as alternatives to the traditional paper questionnaire, as well as giving fieldworkers mobile devices to track down and follow up with residents who have eluded repeated attempts to be contacted. That follow-up effort is what makes the census so expensive. But it’s also the only way the census can meet its mandate to count everybody in the country.

However, each new wrinkle needs to be thoroughly tested and integrated into the overall operation before the actual census takes place in April 2020. And a failed attempt to use hand-held devices in the 2010 census has increased pressure on census officials to get it right this time around.

“This is the first time that they will really need to sell the census, which seems ridiculous,” says Gary Bass of the Washington, D.C.–based Bauman Foundation, one of several philanthropies supporting projects to increase public awareness of the upcoming census and its value to local communities. “Given its constitutional mandate, I don’t think the bureau has ever had to think about justifying itself.”

Andrew Reamer, a research professor in public policy at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., thinks the agency has done “a crappy job” of explaining the value of its data to individuals, businesses, and local and state officials. The ACS alone determines how the federal government allocates nearly $500 billion each year, thanks to funding formulas embedded in various laws and regulations. And many businesses use ACS data to inform marketing and product development efforts. Bureau officials “have always assumed people would fill out the census because the government says so,” says Reamer, who studies the role of federal statistics in economic development. “But that’s not the world we live in anymore.”

A financial squeeze

One pressing problem for the agency is the fate of its 2017 budget request. All federal agencies are now under a budget freeze through April. Census received an exemption last month in the most recent extension of what’s called a continuing resolution (CR), allowing officials to ramp up spending in preparation for the 2020 census. But the agency didn’t get any more money, meaning that at some point the money will run out before those interim targets are met. Census officials have already canceled three field tests planned for 2017, and a yearlong freeze could have even more drastic consequences on the agency.

The House committee that oversees the bureau recently scolded Thompson on his response to the first CR, a decision to shift $120 million out of planning for the 2020 census while preserving other activities, notably the ACS and the upcoming once-every-5-year economic census of some 4 million businesses scheduled for the fall of 2017. “Let me be clear: If we’re going to cut the budget, it shouldn’t come from the 2020 census,” said Representative Mark Meadows (R–NC), who chairs the committee’s government operations panel, which held a 16 November 2016 hearing on preparations for 2020. Meadows even offered to “camp out in the lobby” of the offices of members of the House appropriations committee to secure more money for the decennial census.

But Meadows was being disingenuous, says a former census official, who believes Meadows’ real target is the ACS. “The CR allows census to spend at a higher rate but under the same cap,” says the former official, a longtime Democratic congressional aide and now a lobbyist. “So what the House is really telling them is, ‘Fund the shortfall [by taking money] out of ACS. And we don’t care what you do to save money—eliminate some questions, or do less follow-up.’”

Going after the ACS

Meadows’ indirect swipe at the ACS is part of a broader attack on the survey that goes back several years. Some Republican legislators say their constituents regularly complain about being asked the number of flush toilets or disabled family members in the household, believing such information is none of the government’s business. They also say that people also resent the threat of a $5000 fine and jail sentence for not responding to the survey, although neither penalty has ever been levied.

“Why are we doing [the ACS]?” Mulvaney asked Thompson at a 9 June 2016 hearing on the census by the same House oversight panel. “Do we need to do this to fulfill the constitutional obligation of carrying out a census?” The government shouldn’t be trying to bully people, Mulvaney told Thompson. “There is stuff that they might not want to tell you,” he lectured the director. “And to tell them that they might go to jail if they don’t [fill out the survey] might not be the best way to go.”

As OMB director, Mulvaney will be in a stronger position to make changes to the ACS and other census programs. Census advocates fear that the Trump administration could strike at the ACS as part of an across-the-board reduction in all federal regulatory activities. The move would be packaged as one step to reduce the so-called “administrative burden” on taxpayers from complying with federal surveys and questionnaires. And OMB would have the authority to enforce such an order.

Social scientists say that making the ACS shorter and voluntary would be a big mistake. It would undermine the quality of the data and lessen its value to a host of users, from local school officials trying to forecast enrollment to companies looking for the best place to build a plant or locate a shopping center.

Reamer has done research explaining how ACS data are used to allocate federal resources, with the goal of reducing the undercount. “The message is: If I participate, my community gets more money,” he explains.

The questions themselves can have a big impact on the results, social scientists say. For example, just-retired Senator David Vitter (R–LA) tried repeatedly to add a question about citizenship and immigration status to the decennial census as a way to determine how many people are here illegally. Social scientists and civil rights group fought the proposal, which was never adopted. “If we are asked to put in a question on citizenship, we know it will drive down response rates,” says former Census Bureau Director Kenneth Prewitt, now a professor of public affairs at Columbia University.

Likewise, Prewitt says, legislators who want to remove questions about race and ethnicity are often seeking to weaken federal efforts to help minorities. “To get rid of affirmative action, you need to get rid of the denominator—the total pool. And you can do that by eliminating the question.”

Bass, of the Bauman Foundation, shares the fears of Prewitt and other social scientists about the ultimate goal of such efforts. But the new president’s background also could be a good omen for the bureau, he notes. “Trump comes from the business world, and the census is critically important to business,” Bass says. “Maybe he’ll be even more supportive than previous presidents.”

Bass and the leaders of other philanthropic organizations backing census activities—the Ford and Annie E. Casey foundations and the Carnegie Corporation—have a focus much broader than the new administration and Congress. Their bottom line is nothing less than preserving the U.S. form of government.

“The funders see the census as a foundation of democracy,” Bass says. “It’s required by the Constitution. And we undermine all of that if we don’t do it right.”

Source: Science Mag