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Funding the Census

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.

  • Alexis Farmer
Published: March 26, 2018

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.