The NCSL Blog

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By Patrick R. Potyondy

The 2020 census is in trouble.

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross testified before Congress regarding funding for the 2020 census.The Government Accountability Office has labeled the constitutionally mandated project a “high risk program.” Presently, many experts point out that Congress is not adequately funding it, and neither has the administration appointed a permanent head to the U.S. Census Bureau since its director left in June.

In an age of intense political polarization, groups from the political right, left and center are increasingly joining together to call for a successful execution of the biennial census.

Earlier today, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross testified before Congress to request a funding boost for the 2020 census. He is echoing calls from prominent policy experts.

The Census Project, led by Phil Sparks and Terri Ann Lowenthal, have repeatedly highlighted the inadequate funding going toward the upcoming census. “A census doesn’t happen all at once,” they stress on their website. “While the census year itself is the most expensive, the Census Bureau has to ramp up for the big count with a decade-long cycle of spending.”

NCSL sent its own bipartisan letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi  (D-Calif.) requesting that the 2020 census be given “sufficient funding.” The present allocated amount “is woefully inadequate when compared to years seven and eight ramp-up amounts for prior decennial censuses,” the letter reads. It was signed by state Senator Gerald Malloy (D-S.C.), state Senator Daniel Ivey-Soto (D-N.M.), state Representative Craig Tieszen  (R-S.D.), and state Senator John Murante (NP-Neb.).

Most recently, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP)—two organizations that often disagree on policy matters—jointly urged members of Congress to stop “shortchanging the [Census] Bureau.” “The stakes are high,” they argue. “Census data . . . help businesses and communities decide where to build” just about everything. The two organizations join the likes of the Brookings Institution in their efforts.

The AEI and CBPP also highlighted how census data drives how the federal government allocates billions of dollars to the states. Their point has already been proven by Andrew Reamer’s research detailing how the census helps allocate where more than $500 billion dollars from 16 major federal programs. Via Reamer’s “Counting for Dollars 2020” report you can find specifics on the dollar amounts that return to your state through all sorts of programs such as special education grants and food stamps.

And the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has joined the chorus, too. It has filed a federal lawsuit to compel the Commerce Department to release 2020 Census preparation documents. The NAACP argues the records should be publicly available via a Freedom of Information Act request. The organization is particularly worried about undercounting “communities of color, young children, home renters, low-income persons, and rural residents.”

And that is not all. Professional organization, too, are demanding a proper census. “The 2020 census is in trouble and needs our help,” writes Martin Levine for Nonprofit Quarterly.

All of these organizations—left, right and center—are citing the lack of a permanent bureau director and persistent inadequate funding. “In each of the past four decades, there was a marked increase in years seven and eight to fund a comprehensive field test and develop new techniques,” write Jason Jordan and Trevor Grady of the American Planning Association. “That isn’t happening this time around.”

Patrick Potyondy is a legislative policy specialist and Mellon-ACLS public fellow in NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.