The US Census, a monumental program that only occurs once every 10 years and provides the basis for huge sums of money being apportioned to public programs, is set to commence in 2020. Yet, advocacy groups worry that there isn’t enough money to complete an accurate count, which could cause major problems for governments of all sizes across the nation.
The nonprofit New Mexico Voices For Children recently issued a news release that cites an estimate that the feds will have as much as a $1 billion shortfall to pay for the count, along with the dire prediction that “Trump’s underfunding … is likely to hurt NM.”
Former Under Secretary of Commerce for Economic Affairs Robert Shapiro wrote in 2017 that the problem really began when Congress decreased funding for the program as far back as 2014, to the frustration of Census officials.
"It is no coincidence that the director of the Census Bureau, John Thompson, resigned in May, effective in June," Shapiro wrote. "It's a serious loss, since Dr. Thompson directed the 2000 decennial count and is probably the most able person available to contain the coming damage to the 2020 count."
After critics raised the profile of a potentially underfunded census, the Trump administration did slightly increase funding, according to a spokeswoman from the bureau.
“After concerns with the Census budget were raised by the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Commerce’s own initial review, [US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross] commissioned a new lifecycle cost estimate, the result of which was a projected cost of $15.6 billion, an increase of $3.3 billion from the previous evaluation, which will ensure the Decennial Census has the required resources to complete its Constitutionally mandated task,” public affairs specialist Kristina R Barrett writes in an email to SFR.
But some say it's not enough. The lifecycle cost estimate covers the entire effort across the decade, and the revised estimate is still below what they believe the census requires.
Mary Jo Hoeksema, co-director of the Census Project, the advocacy group that published the estimate cited by advocates, says the president’s administration has requested $7 billion for the entire Census Bureau in 2020, despite census stakeholders expecting the 2020 Census alone to need $8 billion, not to mention other day-to-day operations and projects.
“We typically, historically, every cycle, have spent twice the level of funding between years nine and zero,” Hoeksema tells SFR of the Census Project’s methodology. In 2019 (year nine) the bureau spent $4 billion. “That gets us to the approximate $8 billion that we think the bureau needs to conduct 2020 Census activities alone.”
The consequences of an inaccurate count could indeed be serious, ranging from poorly drawn districts to major budget shortfalls when states don’t get enough money to serve their populations, according to Judy Williams, the president of the New Mexico chapter of the League of Women Voters.
“It’s everything from Medicaid rates to highway money to food stamps to children’s services,” Williams tells SFR. “Basically we could lose a lot of money. Millions of dollars.”
Over $800 billion is distributed geographically to around 300 federal programs, according to a paper published by George Washington University. The report, using data from the last census in 2010, estimates that in the event of a 1 percent undercount, New Mexico would lose $1,121 in federal funds per person missed, resulting in more than $23 million in lost federal funding.
Accusations of under-funding come on the heels of a highly publicized decision to add a question about citizenship status to the 2020 Census, which many see as an attempt to dissuade undocumented people in the US from answering the census.
“That question is meant to scare people away, we all know that,” Williams says.
The Supreme Court is set to hear a case challenging the question in April.
To make matters worse, New Mexico is among the hardest states to properly count, according to Williams. A rural state with a high number of children, high poverty rates and a relatively spread-out population that includes hard-to-reach groups such as undocumented immigrants, members of Native tribes, and people suspicious of the government all make some of the state’s residents hard to pin down.
People in rural areas without broadband will also have a tough time being counted, according to Williams. New Mexicans are hard enough to reach through the traditional means of collecting census data, like mail-in counting, phone drives and door-to-door efforts. But budget cuts have shifted the onus onto residents.
“Now instead of pushing it out they’re trying to get us, the citizens, to reach out and do it on the internet, which is kind of crazy if you don’t have a computer or access to the internet,” Williams says.
Advocates say that, despite only being three months into 2019, there is no time to waste preparing for the census, and encourage concerned citizens to reach out to legislators and tell them to push for full funding. Personnel is being hired and preparations are being made now, and data collection will begin in earnest at the beginning of April next year.
"We only get one chance every 10 years to get this right," writes James Jimenez, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children.
“Basically, start planning last year,” Williams says. “Start as soon as possible. It needs to be gearing up now. It’s a year away and this stuff takes planning.”