The White House has requested more funding for the Census Bureau next year, but the prospects, and the math, are complicated.

President Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2014 (FY14) includes $982.484 million for the Census. While that is an increase of $12.1 million from the fiscal year 2013 (FY13) request, it is $58.3 million more than the level in the last continuing appropriations law, but effectively $138.5 million more than the post-sequestration funding level.

The mandatory-response Decennial Census and the American Community Survey (ACS) are essential aspects of the Bureau’s budget for the survey, opinion and marketing research profession because the resulting data is used to ensure the statistical validity of almost all research in the United States. Researchers should be heartened by the proposed $486 million in funding for these programs.

Terri Ann Lowenthal, co-director of The Census Project coalition (of which MRA has been a longtime member), estimates that the president's requested funding increase is quite modest, considering that FY14 is the final year of the research and testing phase of Census 2020 planning. However, the reduced FY13 funding levels, due to sequestration’s last-minute across-the-board funding cuts, make the requested increase appear much larger than it otherwise would in the "ramp up" for the next census (activities that include and rely on the ACS), leaving the Census Bureau vulnerable to insufficient funding in FY14.

What will all this mean for Census funding by the end of the federal appropriations cycle? Since the baseline of year-to-year funding has decreased (thanks to cuts in the continuing appropriations measure and sequestration), the House of Representatives is likely to offer significantly less funding than the President’s request. They are also likely to vote on an amendment to make the ACS voluntary or eliminate the survey entirely, as they did last year. The Senate will likely aim for more funding than the House, but whenever a final funding agreement gets signed into law for the next fiscal year, we can assume it will not be as generous as the Administration’s budget.

MRA’s view
Legislators have a long history of shortchanging the funding needs of the Census in the early part of each decade (when research, development, testing and decision-making all must be done) and then scrambling to shovel emergency funding into it near the end of the decade. Many measures that could be taken early in the decade cost significant money in the short-term, such as developing an online-response system, but will save significant money over the long-term. Members of Congress tend to focus only on the here and now, but MRA and our coalition allies will continue to highlight the negative impact of such shortsightedness over the decade-long “lifecycle” of a Decennial Census.