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.