The Trump administration acknowledged Thursday that billions more dollars are “urgently needed” to ensure a fair and accurate count during the 2020 Census.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told a House panel that new cost estimates show the 2020 Census will cost $15.6 billion, about 27 percent more than earlier projections.
Among the factors for the higher cost estimates, according to Ross, are tightening labor markets and overly optimistic projections from the Obama administration about the savings new technology would provide. He said Americans’ growing privacy and security concerns also discourage people from participating. Those fears require the Census Bureau to do more follow-up work to count them.
The census, which is required by the Constitution, determines how many seats in Congress each state receives and how hundreds of billions of tax dollars are distributed.
“We are now just 30 months away from the 2020 Census. There are still many challenges ahead. These additional resources I have described are urgently needed,” Ross told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
In the end, Ross said that if the Congress provides the additional resources requested, “I’m confident we’ll have a full, fair and accurate Census.”
Congress takes some blame
Some lawmakers aren’t so optimistic. Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland said “we must recognize the gravity of the situation we are facing.”
While Ross pinned some of the blame on the current state of preparedness on the Obama administration, Cummings said Congress deserves much of the blame. It has provided less funding than the agency requested every year since 2012. It failed to acknowledge two key drivers of cost increases, inflation and population growth, while overestimating how much money could be saved through new technology, he said.
“The problem is that when you starve the Census Bureau year after year, it cannot make the investments needed to implement these innovations,” Cummings said.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said he was concerned that the focus on budget shortfalls would obscure the Census Bureau’s inability to put into place dozens of information technology programs that the agency will use to conduct test runs for the 2020 count. He said only four of 43 programs have been completely developed and tested. The testing is important to make sure the Census goes smoothly in two years. Government auditors told lawmakers that the new systems have not been “effectively planned or managed.”
“We’re talking a whole lot about disaster relief in every other area. Today is the day we need to start talking about disaster relief for what will be a disaster if we don’t get on this today,” Meadows said.
Vacancies to fill
The Government Accountability Office told lawmakers it was also concerned that key vacancies for director and deputy direct of the Census Bureau and a turnover in leadership, despite having interim leaders in place, have hampered preparedness for the 2020 Census. The GAO said filling those top two positions should be a high priority for the Trump administration and Congress.
The once-a-decade count has enormous political ramifications. Lawmakers and advocacy groups voiced concerns that the poor, immigrants, people living in rural areas and regions struck by natural disasters won’t be fully counted in the Census, which skews where tax dollars go in the ensuing decade.
“Being hard-to-count can deprive people and their communities of equal political representation and their fair share of vital public and private resources,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.