The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Census Bureau says work on the 2020 count can go on for weeks. Experts say they have their doubts

An  envelope containing a 2018 census letter that was mailed to a U.S. resident as part of  a test run of the 2020 Census.  (Michelle R. Smith/AP File)
An envelope containing a 2018 census letter that was mailed to a U.S. resident as part of a test run of the 2020 Census. (Michelle R. Smith/AP File)
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The Census Bureau, operating with sharply reduced staffing, says it has enough money to continue preparing for the 2020 decennial survey for six to eight weeks, but experts say that estimate is optimistic given the complexity of the work at a crucial time in the run-up to the count.

In the meantime, dozens of other surveys the bureau conducts have been stopped, leading to information gaps that could destabilize the U.S. economy, economists say.

The bureau is relying on $1.056 billion in forward funding from the fiscal 2018 bill, which can be used only for 2020 Census activities and not for other work, to last into mid to late February.

But Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee, estimated it would be hard to work full-bore on that amount of funding until then. “I believe they will be able to last that long only if they delay or slow-walk some of the less urgent but no less important preparations,” she said.

Census Bureau spokesman Michael C. Cook Sr. said the bureau disagrees with the assertion that it is slow-walking any work. Deputy Director Ron Jarmin said in a statement to The Washington Post that “2020 Census operational planning and execution is continuing at full capacity. Congress has appropriated the necessary funds to continue 2020 Census work during the partial lapse in appropriations. In contrast to the 2010 Census, we have completed the design of the 2020 Census, it is fully tested, and we are on schedule in the scale-up of our systems and operations.

But the bureau did not answer a question about what it plans to do if the money runs out before the shutdown ends.

The decennial count is mandated by the Constitution and is used to allocate more than $800 billion in federal funding, apportion congressional representation and redraw congressional districts.

Preparation for the count goes on for 10 years, and the final months before it takes place can be compared with the run-up to a space launch: The countdown has begun, and countless complex gears must all work in tandem to ensure a successful event.

That is why a government shutdown coming in the final year before the count of all people residing in the United States is akin to turning off the engine just as the rocket is revving up, critics say.

“You cannot put a big, big, important agency doing a big, big important project on what is basically a life-support system,” said Kenneth Prewitt, a former Census Bureau director. “They clearly cannot fulfill everything they want to be doing right now.”

Current 2020 preparations include hiring local partnership specialists, opening and staffing local offices and developing a communications strategy. These take place on a “relentless schedule” that is hard to accomplish in discrete bites, Prewitt said.

“They’ve got to open offices, but [potential contract employees] will say, ‘Well, how do we know we’ll be paid after three weeks?’” he said.

Time-sensitive activities include negotiating leases, testing IT systems and printing survey materials. Missing those deadlines could be costly, said Robert Shapiro, former undersecretary of commerce and chairman of Sonecon, an economic advising firm. “Unlike some other surveys, it’s much harder to make up things which get pushed off in the decennial.”

At the bureau, which is part of the Commerce Department, 9,600 of its 15,200 staff members were working as of the end of December during the shutdown because of the remaining funding, Cook said.

It is unclear what will happen if the 2020 money runs out before the shutdown ends. Cook said that “everyone who is currently working will get paid.” But some employees are doubtful. “My branch chief has told us that it’s far from certain that we will get paid for the work we are doing now,” an employee told The Post, speaking on the condition of anonymity. A second employee echoed that.

The bureau is also responsible for dozens of other surveys. Some, which are funded by other agencies, are continuing — for example, data the bureau collects for the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But many have been suspended because of to the shutdown, including the American Community Survey (ACS), which collects information about a subset of U.S. households each month.

In 2013, when the government was shut for nearly a month, ACS data was not collected, though the bureau was later able to make up for the information it had missed.

The longer preparations are delayed, the more it will cost to make up for lost time, experts say. And snapshots of the country at a given time may be impossible to re-
create. “Into the future you’re in a weaker state in terms of trying to interpret and make intelligent decisions” due to gaps in comparative data, Prewitt said.

The shutdown has also stopped work on the bureau’s five-year Economic Census and its monthly reports on economic indicators such as durable goods, residential construction and sales, imports and exports, and manufacturing and trade. That data, which the Census Bureau collects for the (also-closed) Bureau of Economic Analysis, is used to generate GDP, GNP and national income reports.

Cook said the missing data will be released once the shutdown ends. But going for too long without reliable estimates could cause economic havoc, warned Robert Shapiro, former undersecretary of commerce and chairman of Sonecon, an economic advising firm.

“This is really bad news for things which are driven by big macro developments,” he said. “If the collection and analysis of all the basic economic data stops, the collateral damage will be very measurable. That is significant. I can’t say what it would be because it’s never happened before . . . No responsible government would ever allow this to happen.

Former Bureau of Economic Analysis director Steve Landefeld warned that gaps in GDP estimates could have concrete consequences on an already volatile Wall Street.

“People would like a baseline for what’s facts, and the bond buyers want one set of facts,” he said. “There are always people who have an interest in GDP growth being higher or lower.” In the absence of clear data, he added, “people begin to make up their own facts about the state of the economy.”

For now, analysts and investors will turn to less comprehensive, and less reliable, data sets, said Maurine Haver, CEO and founder of Haver Analytics, an economic information company.

“They give you an impression of how people feel and what they think is going on,” she said. “But without the federal data to anchor them, we’re flying blind.”

For example, she said, “perhaps the euphoria over the 312,000 jobs created last Friday might have been tempered by the release of some other statistics that we missed from Census.”

The lack of data could already be hurting the country, said Maurine Haver, CEO and founder of Haver Analytics, an economic information company. “You have this trade war going on, and we’re not going to have any trade data from our side, whereas China, they’re collecting their data, and they know exactly where they stand,” she said.

Overall, she said, “more uncertainty tends to lead busi­ness­ peo­ple to reduce hiring and reduce investment.”

Shutdown aside, the bureau is facing a raft of other challenges. Its funding for fiscal 2019 is still undecided, and its newly confirmed director, Steven Dillingham, who was sworn in Monday, inherits a half-dozen lawsuits challenging the government’s addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 count.

After criticism that the question had not undergone the rigorous testing a new addition to the survey typically undergoes, the bureau said it will test the citizenship question this summer. The results of that testing will probably come too late to affect the litigation, but it could help analysts understand how the question affects the survey’s accuracy. Critics of the question say it will depress response rates among immigrant groups.

The government also announced this week it has entered into a $114.6 million contract with a new company, R.R. Donnelley & Sons, to print census materials, after its previous choice went bankrupt.

But to print and use the forms and meet other deadlines, the flow of funding will have to resume.

“At a certain point, it’s too late to do a census,” Prewitt said. “We’re not at that place yet, but logic would tell you you can’t payroll a million people the last month” before the count. “It’s so terribly unprecedented that I don’t know what they would do.”

Backroom discussions are already taking place about what would happen if the census were done but the results were judged inadequate, Prewitt said.

“Scientists wouldn’t send a mission to the moon if they thought that their stuff wasn’t airtight, and the Census Bureau wouldn’t release results where economic data would be askew,” he said.

“Trendlines are the bread and butter of policymaking,” Prewitt said. “Trendlines really matter to a functioning democracy, and these trendlines will now have holes in them . . . If there’s enough of that interruption, it will have consequences we can’t anticipate well into the future.”

Clarification: A spokesperson for the Census Bureau earlier told The Washington Post that the bureau had enough funding to work on the 2020 Census for 6 to 8 weeks after the shutdown began. He subsequently told the Post that funding will be available for 6 to 8 weeks after January 1, 2019. The story has been updated to reflect the change.