The U.S. Census Bureau in Suitland, Maryland, prides itself on the quality of the data it collects to help paint a statistical portrait of the country. But ask it how much the 2020 census, by far its biggest and most costly responsibility, will cost, and the numbers get very squishy.
Community advocates say the agency needs at least $2 billion more in the upcoming year than President Donald Trump has requested to assure a successful decennial head count on 1 April 2020. They note that the $5.3 billion request for the 2020 fiscal year that begins on 1 October clashes with a $7.4 billion estimate made in October 2017 by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department includes the Census Bureau. Advocates accuse the Trump administration of lowballing the actual cost as part of its broader goal of reducing overall federal spending on domestic programs.
How much the agency needs in 2020 for the decennial census, which fuels thousands of research studies, is also enmeshed in the bitter legal battle over Ross’s decision last year to add a citizenship question to it. Civil rights groups and a half-dozen former Census directors say the question will suppress participation and that Census officials have greatly underestimated the additional costs required to track down people who do not self-respond to an initial prompting. The agency will deploy more than half-a-million enumerators to conduct such a follow-up, making it the most expensive component of any decennial census.