Alexis Farmer is a Research and Program Associate in the Democracy Program, where she focuses on issues pertaining to redistricting and campaign finance reform. Alexis graduated with honors at the University of Michigan with a B.A. in Public Policy and minor in International Studies. Her policy focus area centered on the intersection between education, criminal justice, and urban planning.
Prior to joining the Brennan Center in 2016, Alexis interned with Data Driven Detroit, where she advocated for the Detroit Police Department to join the White House’s Police Data Initiative and release data that would help improve community policing practices. Alexis has had the opportunity to work in each level of government and several nonprofits on issues relating to government accountability and transparency, education, and criminal justice.
- April 10, 2017Blogs
- February 13, 2017Blogs
- January 30, 2017Blogs
- November 2, 2016Blogs
What is the Census?
The U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 2) mandates a census every ten years to count every person living in the United States. The first census took place in 1790. Since 1930, Census Day has occurred on April 1 every decade; the next Census Day is April 1, 2020.
The census plays a key role in determining political representation and allocating federal resources. Census data is used to determine how many congressional seats each state receives during the once-a-decade reapportionment process. State legislators and local governments also rely on census data for redistricting, where the data ensures that districts are equally populated and helps guide decisions on whether to draw majority-minority districts. The federal government, likewise, uses population totals to determine how much funding cities and states receive for things like education, health care, and the arts. Businesses also use census data to guide their decisions on investment, marketing, and advertising.
The census form asks one person from each residence to answer a uniform set of questions about the people who live or stay in the residence. For example, the 2010 census included questions about the number of people who lived in a household, their age, sex, and race, and how they were related to the person completing the form. The form also requested information on the ownership of the housing unit and asks whether people living in the households were of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin. Previous censuses have asked about educational attainment levels, home financing, and marital status. But those questions have been replaced in recent years with a longer, separate survey known as the American Community Survey (ACS). The ACS is conducted every year to provide up-to-date information on demographic, social, and economic characteristics of our nation’s communities. The ACS is sent to a small percentage of households on a rotating basis throughout the decade.
Traditionally, the census form has been a paper questionnaire sent to every household in the country. However, the 2020 Census will, for the first time, give people the option to complete their questionnaire online. Respondents will still be able to fill out a paper questionnaire if they choose. They will also be able to give their responses over the phone.
Every household is required to complete the census. Title 13 of the U.S. Code provides that anyone over the age of eighteen who refuses to answer census questions could be fined up to $5,000. The Census Bureau is required by law to keep confidential all information that it collects from individuals. No one except census workers may see a completed census form. A census employee could be fined or imprisoned for disclosing any answers from these forms.
The Constitution charges Congress with the responsibility of conducting the census. Congress has since delegated that authority to the Census Bureau, which operates under the Department of Commerce. The U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and the Government Operations subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform oversee the Census Bureau. The Census Bureau is led by a director and deputy director, who are typically career civil servants with experience with statistical data collection and analysis. The President appoints the director, as required by federal law, subject to Senate confirmation. The deputy director does not require Senate confirmation.
The Census is an expensive undertaking. Since 1960, the cost of census activities has escalated. The 2010 census was the costliest in U.S. history at about $12.3 billion, and the 2020 Census—if fully funded—is expected to exceed that amount.
As all this suggests, the census is a critical underpinning of our democratic systems. As technology develops and our nation’s population continues to grow and diversify, the Census Bureau will continually face challenges to evolve and innovate. Now, and into the future, it must meet these challenges while ensuring that everyone is fairly and accurately counted.
Funding the Census
In order to accurately count everyone in the nation, the census must continue to grow and innovate. The Census Bureau is planning a host of new developments in an effort to modernize the head count, but the funding challenges that the Bureau faces raise concerns that it may not be able to implement the proposed changes successfully.
In 2012, Congress ordered the Census Bureau not to spend more than the $12.3 billion that it spent on the 2010 census, but the costs for conducting the census have risen since 2010. The Washington Post reported census costs have doubled over the last two decades: the 2010 Census cost $96 per American household, up from $70 in 2000 and $39 in 1990. The 2020 Census is now expected to cost $15.6 billion – three times more than the 2000 Census.
Congress has also chronically underfunded the Census Bureau for most of the decade: former Census director John Thompson recounted that the Bureau “has been underfunded by about $200 million” since 2012. The effects have been detrimental. The Bureau cancelled tests in 2017, slimmed down the 2018 End-to-End Test, and has been delayed in testing its IT systems for 2020 because of funding uncertainties.
There have been some positive budgetary developments recently: Congress has now allocated $2.814 billion for the Census Bureau for FY2018 – a $1.13 billion increase from the Trump Administration’s adjusted FY2018 request of $1.684 billion. The final FY2018 budget includes $50 million in contingency funds to meet unforeseen challenges and directs a rapid ramp-up of the communications and community partnership program to match 2008 levels.
With the budget for 2018 passed, attention has turned to the 2019 budget, where obstacles remain. President Trump has requested $3.8 billion for the Census Bureau, $3.015 billion of which consists of funding for the 2020 Census. The Administration’s proposed funding level is $437 million below the Commerce Department’s revised FY2019 cost estimate of $3.452 billion. In comparison, the Bureau received nearly $4.2 billion in funding in 2009.
Even if the Bureau’s funding matched the Commerce Department’s cost estimate, watchdogs inside and outside the government question whether the estimate is high enough to put the Bureau back on track given the sheer volume of cancelled and suspended tests and the large number of projects that still need development. Many are worried that if the Bureau does not get the funding it needs to complete testing and development on time, it might be forced to use older and more costly methods in 2020. As a result, the Bureau’s funding will remain a point of keen interest for the remainder of this decade.
Digitizing the 2020 Census
The 2020 Census will be the first to be completed largely online – if the Census Bureau’s plan goes off without complications. An online census is one of several technological innovations that the Census Bureau has designed to respond to the challenges of counting an increasingly large and diverse society, while also complying with strict cost constraints that Congress has imposed.
The Bureau developed these technological innovations – which also include redesigning its address canvassing process and incorporating administrative records as sources of information on households – to help save it an estimated $5.2 billion on the upcoming census. Nonresponse follow up – the process through which the Bureau captures responses from households that haven’t submitted their census forms themselves – is the Bureau’s largest and most costly field operation. It is also a significant contributor to the census’ escalating costs. Each decade since 1970, the Bureau has had to invest more resources to improve initial responses to census forms. After running the costliest census ever in 2010, the Bureau has decided to scale back door-to-door canvassing and follow-ups and, instead, rely more heavily on new technology to count everyone.
Under the Bureau’s plans for 2020’s online census, 80 percent of households will receive an invitation to submit their responses over the internet. The Bureau estimates that 45 percent of those households will respond to the census online. The Bureau will mail paper questionnaires to the remaining 20 percent of households, targeting those with low internet access or large older-adult populations. Questionnaires will also be mailed to those households that do not respond online in the first instance. Households that receive paper questionnaires will still be invited to respond to the survey online, but will have the option to submit their answers by mail. Each household will also have the ability to report its answers by phone. If households still do not respond, the Bureau will send census field workers, known as enumerators, door-to-door to collect their data using mobile devices and tablets.
Although moving to a digital platform has its advantages, it also has its risks. The Census Bureau must address key design elements to ensure that it and others are not susceptible to cyber-attacks. Carol Cha Harris, the Director for Information Technology Acquisition Management Issues at the U. S. Government Accountability Office, stated in testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that, given the volume of personal information the Census receives, “it will be important for the Bureau to ensure that only respondents and Bureau officials are able to gain access to this information.” In January, the Bureau reported that 24 out of 44 systems needed for the 2018 End-to-End Test – the only process approaching a dry-run for the census before 2020 – are ready for use. Several critical IT systems, including cybersecurity methods, will ideally be tested in the lead up to the 2020 Census to ensure that they are functional.
In addition to these cybersecurity challenges, the move to an online system faces another hurdle that the Census Bureau must overcome: the difficulties many traditionally undercounted communities face accessing the internet. Racial and ethnic minorities, urban and rural low-income households, immigrants, and young children have been historically undercounted at disproportionately high rates. Transitioning to an online platform could lead them to being undercounted even more severely. Some rural areas lack broadband or any internet service. People with lower incomes are less likely to have a smart phone or internet at home.
In addition to encouraging people to respond online, the Bureau is also considering using administrative records – data that people have already given to the federal government for purposes like tax returns, government assistance programs, and the like – to reduce the need for door-to-door visits to households and help improve the quality of the data that it collects. The Bureau estimated that using administrative records in these ways could save it $900 million.
But previous results show disparities in those whom administrative records benefit and hurt. A 2016 report investigating the impact of administrative records and the internet on hard-to-count populations revealed the difficulty of matching administrative records to people who belong to racial and ethnic minority groups, increasing the risk of these groups being undercounted.
Overall, new technological developments present both opportunities and risks to the Census Bureau. How it navigates them over the next two years will have a significant effect on the ultimate fairness and accuracy of the 2020 Census.