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Driving Blind: The Dangers of Defunding the Census

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It's Public Policy 101: before you step, you should look. Before charting a course and spending money, lawmakers should get the information they need to make the best decision. Take schools, for example: government officials must know where student populations are growing and shrinking so that limited funds for new hiring and infrastructure improvements go to the schools and districts with the most need. Failure means overcrowded classrooms, closing schools with dwindling enrollments, not enough teachers, and disengaged students.

Congress is showing signs of having forgotten this fundamental rule. Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives eliminated the American Community Survey (ACS), a questionnaire implemented in 2005 to streamline decennial Census-taking. The House also adopted a severe cut to the funding requested for 2020 Census preparation and testing, as well as a dangerous and unworkable cap on the cost of the 2020 Census.

The Census Bureau has explained to lawmakers during recent debates that the ACS annually collects vital information about who we are as a nation: how many of us work, with whom we live, where we travel, how we meet our health care needs, and other data indispensible to everyone from city administrators to business executives. We have collected these kinds of detailed data on the demographic, social, economic, and housing characteristics of the nation since the first Constitutionally-mandated decennial Census was taken more than 200 years ago. The ACS, however, obtains this information in a far more timely fashion, and for less cost, than queries on the decennial Census long form, which was used in Census 2000 and earlier enumerations. The House's budget plan eliminates the ACS. In addition, in an effort which would cripple the ACS if it survives, the House's budget plan includes provisions which would significantly impair its efficiency. These provisions make the ACS voluntary rather than mandatory, a move that would increase the cost of conducting the survey by 30%.

In its budget request this year, the Census Bureau communicated to Congress that early investments are needed to save money in 2020. Testing new technologies and outreach methods in between decennial counts is mandatory if the Bureau is to achieve the most robust response for the least cost. But the House of Representatives also denied the requested funds for Census 2020, instructing the Bureau to produce a reliable count, without advance planning, of a population that is growing significantly, at a time when a rapidly-expanding menu of complex technology and tools must be considered and tested. The House also withdrew an additional $24 million of the Bureau's funding for ongoing economic and other polling during the upcoming year.

To add insult to injury, both the House and Senate Congressional budgets place limits on spending for the 2020 Census that fall below 2010 levels, setting up the Census Bureau for likely failure. The agency is tasked with finding drastic savings in its next decennial census with its hands tied in double knots.

I'm reminded of the famous proverb that says, "He who fails to plan, plans to fail." If these plans become law, the Census Bureau will be forbidden from producing in the most efficient manner possible the statistics on which the expenditure of billions of dollars and the decision-making of hundreds of thousands of businesses and public administrators rely. It will be prevented from researching and testing solutions to reduce the cost of the 2020 Census, and then prevented again from spending to cover for the inefficiencies that result.

The NALEO Educational Fund has been at the forefront of efforts to ensure that the Census Bureau provides our nation with the most accurate data possible for more than twenty years. In 2009, we launched the "Ya Es Hora - ¡Hagase Contar!" ("It's Time - Make Yourself Count!") campaign to educate Latinos about the Census and encourage full participation. From our experiences, we have learned just how critical a mandatory ACS and advance planning are to compiling thorough and accurate data at minimum cost. We know that without fresh ACS data, governments, businesspeople, and community organizations will be left flying blind, investing resources on nothing more reliable than a best guess. We know that to prepare for 2020, research must be done into methods of building public trust in confidentiality of internet survey responses; locations of emerging hard-to-reach populations so that mailings target these families more effectively; and creation of improved communication protocols between national and local Census offices.

In these difficult economic times, the Census Bureau, like the entire federal government, must economize for the good of the nation. But lawmakers who determine the future of the Bureau's budget should make their decisions responsibly and carefully. They should consider the impact of incomplete or inaccurate Census data-gathering on the constituents they serve: only those who are counted get their fair share of the 75% of federal grant spending and the Congressional representation that are allocated according to Census information.

For the sake of the safety of communities that depend on federal funding for police and fire departments; for the families whose chance at economic mobility rests on availability of vocational education, Head Start programs, and improvement of failing public schools; for the citizens who participate in elections because they believe that each person has an equal vote and voice, Congress must give the Census Bureau the resources it needs to sustain the American Community Survey and to plan for and conduct an accurate, efficient 2020 count.

Arturo Vargas is the Executive Director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund. The organization is the nation's leading non-partisan, non-profit organization that facilitates full Latino participation in the American political process, from citizenship to public service.