The next census is five years away, but it is already in trouble.
Not the same trouble that dogged the 2000 census, which was plagued by partisan battles over the quality of the door-to-door count and whether the official tally should be statistically adjusted to compensate for people who were missed. Then, congressional Republicans were intent that the Census Bureau had enough money to do the best possible door-to-door count, so sampling would not be needed.
This time, Census Bureau officials have said that sampling would not be practical. Now they are having money trouble. For the second year in a row, the Senate approved an appropriation that Census Bureau officials say is so low they would have to pull the plug on their game plan for the 2010 head count. The replacement, they say, would provide less information and end up costing more in later years.
Last year, the bureau and its supporters successfully persuaded House-Senate conferees to go with the higher House-approved budget figure. Census officials and their allies in social science, civil rights and business groups have mobilized again, but this year they are making their case in a tougher environment, as soaring spending for hurricane relief and the war in Iraq is prompting talk of across-the-board budget cuts.
Virginia Davis, a spokeswoman for Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Census Bureau, said, "Senator Shelby recognizes the important work being done by the Census Bureau, but he believes that we must balance that with the tight budget constraints that Congress is facing."
The Senate's Census Bureau appropriation, included in the Commerce Department budget, is $727.4 million, which is $17 million less than the agency received last year, even as it is expanding its preparation for the next census. The House approved $812 million.
Census Bureau Director C. Louis Kincannon said in an interview this week that he will have to kill a monthly household survey that is supposed to replace the long form, abandon plans to automate data collection for the 2010 count, scrap a test census in two counties next year, and lay off thousands of employees unless Congress approves the House budget figure.
Reinstituting the long form would cost $1.3 billion more than the currently projected $11.3 billion to administer the census for fiscal years 2001 to 2013, according to the bureau. But if money is tight, the agency is floating the idea of a 2010 census with only a short-form population and race count to satisfy the constitutional requirement that House seats be reapportioned every decade. That would mean no long-form data about commuting times, housing costs, immigration patterns, marital trends, income inequality or other topics that help shape public policy.
"If the Senate mark stands, or anything materially below the House mark, then we are in trouble," Kincannon said. "If they split the difference, we are in trouble."
Kincannon said the Senate cut was a "big surprise" to Census Bureau officials, who thought the funding issue had been settled last year. "I don't envy their job," he said of Congress, "but they have to decide now what kind of census they are going to be doing -- one that moves forward . . . or whether it goes back to pen and ink, pencil and paper, or whatever it's going to be."
Dan Scandling, a spokesman for Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House subcommittee that funds the Census Bureau, said Wolf "understands what's at stake if the budget is cut dramatically." He said House negotiators "will push to keep it at House levels."
The centerpiece of the reengineered 2010 census is the ongoing monthly American Community Survey, on which the bureau has spent $700 million. It asks the same questions as the long form, but by spreading questionnaires through the year, census officials say they can better handle complaints that some questions are an invasion of privacy and take too long to answer -- though complaints have continued, including some from Alabama residents to Shelby's office. For localities, the survey's selling point is that it produces updated data each year, not once a decade as the census does.
"Change happens so quickly that the notion of an ACS has become essential to a well-functioning market economy," said Andrew Reamer, deputy director of the Urban Markets Initiative at the Brookings Institution, which will sponsor a panel discussion today on its concerns about the funding cuts.