The funding picture for the Census Bureau is not looking so hot. The decennial Census and American Community Survey (ACS) provide the baseline for all research conducted in the U.S., without which private and public sector survey, opinion and marketing researchers could not develop statistically representative samples for any study. So we need the decennial headcount and the ACS to be as accurate and efficient as possible.

Unfortunately, neither the House nor Senate have yet met the Obama Administration’s budget request for the Census Bureau of $1.5 billion for Fiscal Year 2016, including $663 million for the 2020 Census and $257 million for the ACS.

Census funding in the House of Representatives

Despite some moral victories for us in the House Appropriations Committee markup of the CJS appropriations legislation, quashing some attempts to cut funding and helping to rally Congressman Mike Honda in support of full funding, that bill saw more money deducted from Census Bureau programs during House floor debate. Equally worrisome, the House passed Rep. Ted Poe’s amendment to make the ACS voluntary instead of mandatory by voice-vote, the third time the House has done so.

The House CJS Appropriations bill (H.R. 2578) allocated $730.7 million for the Periodic Census account, less than the FY15 funding level, even as decennial headcount preparations must start to dramatically ramp up. In its report accompanying H.R. 2578, the Appropriations Committee capped spending on the 2020 Census at $400 million (compared to the request of $663 million). That amount will presumably be lower, since amendments passed on the House floor before passage of the bill cut an extra $117 million from that account. The House committee report also placed a $200 million cap on ACS spending, $57 million below the White House’s request and about $42 million below the level needed to preserve the current ACS sample size.

Census funding in the Senate

We were able to convince members of the Senate Appropriations Committee not to make the ACS voluntary, as Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) had suggested he might pursue, but despite our discussions and entreaties, the Committee also hacked away at necessary funding for Census programs. The Senate Appropriations Committee bill still allocated $358 million less than the President’s budget request for the Periodic account ($1.22 billion ), imperiling the Census Bureau’s ability to properly plan and develop a cost - effective and accurate 2020 Census.

Current funding situation for Census programs

The current Continuing Resolution funding the federal government expires on December 11, and Congress is expected to approve an omnibus funding bill by then that will include legislation funding Census programs.

MRA advocacy

We’ve been talking with Members of Congress and their staff, making the case for increased funding. We spoke on a panel at a Congressional briefing on the importance of the ACS. We joined a meeting with the Office of Management and Budget to advocate for Census program funding as a top priority for the Obama Administration. In November, MRA called on Congress’ Appropriations Committee leaders to fully fund Census programs, and joined our Census Project coalition allies on similar letters to the House and Senate (echoing coalition letters sent in September).

Fallout from insufficient funding for the Census and ACS

The current funding situation has already caused problems for data users. The Census Bureau stopped offering 3-year estimates from the ACS for population areas of more than 20,000 people thanks to insufficient budgeting for Fiscal Year 2015. ACS sample cutbacks have led to reports of wonky numbers in certain rural areas and some Members of Congress very cranky that some of their communities’ federal funding streams are being reduced or cut off because of bad data.

As stated in MRA’s recent letter, “If Congress does not fund 2020 Census planning at a level significantly closer to the Administration’s request of $663 million, it could end up costing billions of dollars more over the next few years.”

“Even more worrisome, the ACS sample size would have to be cut if the House appropriations level maintains, leaving small communities, rural and remote areas, and American Indian reservations, as well as smaller population groups (such as racial/ethnic subgroups, the disabled, and veterans), with less reliable data to inform public and private decision-making and the allocation of scare resources.”

And, of course, if Congress decides to keep the House language making ACS response voluntary, it would cause costs to skyrocket, and data won’t be available on rural areas and small towns. Not to mention the fallout for the survey, opinion and marketing research business, which would be deprived of a statistical baseline for sampling the nation.

The Office of Management and Budget’s Statement of Administration Policy on the FY2016 CJS Appropriations bill includes an alarming warning about the consequences of inadequate funding for the decennial Census and ACS: “The reductions in the bill would curtail critical testing, scale-up, and implementation of efforts to improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the 2020 Census ... The bill could also force Census to make drastic cuts to other bedrock sources of economic and social indicators.”

MRA and our allies continue to talk with Congressional negotiators, and we’re anxiously hoping the final (likely in the next two weeks) funding deal will appropriately take care of the needs of the decennial census and the American Community Survey.