With time running out, former Census Bureau Directors issue bipartisan call for full funding


October 24, 2019

Seven former Census Directors have penned a letter to House and Senate leaders as well as members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees urging that Congress enact the 2020 Census appropriation as soon as possible.

The seven former Directors, representing both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations, warn that failure to act could result in disruptions in the preparation for, launching, and implementation of peak 2020 Census operations.

“Because we share your goal of a full, fair, and accurate census, as the Constitution requires, we urge you to allocate a full-year appropriation for the 2020 Census as soon as legislatively possible, to avoid disruptions in the launch and steady implementation of robust census operations,” the letter states. “In summary, we believe that the Census Bureau stands the best chance of conducting a census that counts all states, localities, communities, and population groups at equal levels of accuracy and coverage, if the director and senior officials know the resources available for final preparations and the entire enumeration process as soon as possible.”

The letter acknowledges that the Census Bureau, like most of the rest of the federal government, is operating at prior year (FY 2019) funding under a continuing resolution passed by Congress last month to keep government funded till Nov. 21. The stopgap funding bill does explicitly allow the Census Bureau to spend at a faster pace than current-year funding would allow, because it is understood that they must ramp up spending as the 2020 Census approaches.  But, the letter says, that’s not good enough in the run-up to the decennial census. “The Bureau must plan and prepare now for final modifications, such as expanded communications, increased Partnership Program staff, and Questionnaire Assistance Centers (all of which Congress directed),” the letter states. “Otherwise, the window of opportunity (already closing) will be lost as momentum and focus shifts to peak operations. Similarly, the Bureau may face hiring challenges stemming from the low-unemployment economy (as it did in 2000) – a barrier that is best addressed in advance, rather than during the flurry of peak census operations, by carefully considering variable pay increases.”

The letter comes as the full Senate is considering funding for the Department of Commerce and other departments. Commerce has jurisdiction over the Census Bureau.

The seven former Directors who signed the letter worked under Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama.

And the letter comes after 25 Senators previously circulated a letter stating that the Census Bureau must “have certainty of full funding, as well as flexibility, at the start of the fiscal year to ensure that its final preparations and operations for the decennial census are not negatively impacted.”

The Senators, who were unsuccessful in pressing for full funding to be included in the continuing resolution approved by Congress last month, warned that failure to adequately fund the census could depress participation and increase “operational mistakes and failures in 2020, which then would increase census costs by billions of dollars as the census unfolds, diminish public confidence in the results, and put a fair and accurate 2020 Census in jeopardy.”

They wrote that a lack of up-front funding would hurt a variety of efforts, including “recruiting, hiring, and training of field staff; verifying and updating the final address list; preparing and strengthening cybersecurity and other IT systems; completing robust advertising and messaging campaigns; and preparing for the launch of peak counting operations in remote areas of Alaska, which must start in January 2020. Each component of the decennial census is equally important and has been carefully planned out over the past decade.”

2020 Census
Budget and Appropriations