Congress Finally Steps Up to Meet the Challenge of 2020 Census Funding

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Congress is allocating $2.814 billion for the 2020 Census in fiscal year 2018. This is a jaw-dropping turnaround. After years of lagging investments to ramp up preparations for the 2020 Census, this appropriation is not only $1.130 billion greater than what was recommended by the Trump administration, it is $966 greater than what census community advocates were hoping to get.

At the moment, the appropriation is proposed.  It’s included in the House Appropriations Committee omnibus appropriations bill released on March 21 which Congress needs to pass by March 23 to avoid a government shut down. The bill covers the fiscal 2018 budget which started on October 1, 2017 and continues through September 30, 2018. As of this writing, the bill has yet to be passed by either house of congress nor signed by the President, though passage is expected.

The bill calls for increasing communication and partnership (community outreach) staff to levels no less than this point in the 2010 Census cycle. This is important because development of the communication plan for the 2020 Census has been delayed by a year due to low and uncertain funding. The bill also establishes a $50 million contingency fund that gives the Commerce Secretary ability to respond to fast changing developments as the Bureau gets closer-and-closer to full scale 2020 Census implementation.

Importantly, the bill suggests Congress is paying more attention and getting the message there is reason to be concerned about the challenges the Census Bureau has been facing due to under-funding. Specifically, they are asking to keep posted about development of plans to increase digital responses and cybersecurity, and seeking regular notices about how increased funds are being spent.

This is good news.  But, there are some concerns.  There is some unclear language in the bill to suggest some of the dollars appropriated today are essentially “down payments” on increased funding needs anticipated for 2019 and 2020. If that’s the case, then this means the Bureau will not be as strapped as it has been by restrictions that come from funding the federal government through temporary CR’s (continuing resolutions). But advocacy will be needed to ensure actual increases federal appropriations to support ramped up activities in 2019 and 2020.

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