The Census Bureau is the cornerstone of the federal statistical system and the critical data resource for a vast array of local decision making in the public and private sectors. It is a irreplaceable resource. And, it's in jeopardy.
That was the message delivered by former Census Bureau chief John Thompson in his address at APA's 2017 Daniel Burnham Forum.
Thompson noted the challenges faced during the 2010 count and he pointed to congressional funding decisions this year and next as vital to a successful 2020 Census. He called on planners and others who depend on a range of census data and products to make a vigorous case for the Census on Capitol Hill.
In an appearance before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross echoed Thompson's views. Secretary Ross told the committee that the Census is "the bedrock upon which we construct our system of democratic representation." His testimony highlighted new estimates that the 2020 Census would need $15.6 billion, an increase of $3.3 billion from 2015 estimates.
Funding challenges related to the 2020 count pose problems for other essential Census Bureau projects and products. The same week that Secretary Ross noted the "urgent need" for decennial count funding, the Census Bureau announced that the Economic Census would be delayed by at least six months. The Economic Census provides key data about economic activity and employment. The delay will likely have negative effects later on both companies and local governments who rely on the data.
Similar problems could be in store for other Census activities, including the American Community Survey, as the Census Bureau shifts already strained resources to cover 2020 preparation shortfalls.
Census isn't alone among federal data agencies when it comes to facing long term funding challenges. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has seen it's budget fall by 10 percent since 2005. And, in an era when communities and companies are grabbling with major changes associated with ride sharing, safety, and the emergence of autonomous vehicles, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics has suffered a 21 percent decline.
At a time when the federal government should be modernizing its data and statistical systems to keep pace with growing demands and a changing "big data" and "smart cities" landscape, these vital agencies look likely to fall further behind.
At the same time Congress underfunds statistical agencies, a congressionally mandated, bipartisan task force has released a new report on "evidence-based policymaking" urging a variety of governmental reforms but also lamenting "insufficient resources and limited flexibility." Leaders on both sides of the aisle hailed the report but what impact it has on the more challenging work of crafting appropriations bills remains to be seen.
Over the next few months, Congress will wrap up work on current fiscal year spending bills and begin work on next year's budget framework. Now is the perfect time to urge Congress to provide the funds necessary to ensure that communities have the information and data needed to plan well.
Top image: U.S. 2010 population distribution by census tract. Image created in CensusViewer.com and shared on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).
About the Author
Jason Jordan is APA's director of policy.