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Census Bureau says funding for 2020 count could last into early February if shutdown continues. But experts say survey could be at risk sooner.


By Tara Bahrampour Tara Bahrampour Reporter focusing on aging, generations and demography Email Bio Follow January 10 at 8:52 AM The Census Bureau, operating with sharply reduced staffing, says it has enough money to continue preparing for the 2020 Census for six to eight weeks, but experts say that estimate is optimistic given the complexity of the work at a crucial time in the run-up to the count.

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In the meantime, dozens of other surveys the bureau conducts have been stopped, leading to information gaps that could destabilize the U.S. economy, economists say.

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The bureau is relying on $1.056 billion in forward funding from the fiscal year 2018 bill, which can be used only for 2020 Census activities and not for other work, to last into late January or early February

But Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee, estimated it would be hard to work full-bore on that amount of funding until then. “I believe they will be able to last that long only if they delay or slow-walk some of the less urgent but no less important preparations,” she said

Census Bureau spokesman Michael C. Cook Sr. said the bureau disagrees with the assertion that it is slow-walking any work. Deputy Director Ron Jarmin said in a statement to The Washington Post that “2020 Census operational planning and execution is continuing at full capacity. Congress has appropriated the necessary funds to continue 2020 Census work during the partial lapse in appropriations. In contrast to the 2010 Census, we have completed the design of the 2020 Census, it is fully tested, and we are on schedule in the scale-up of our systems and operations.”

But the bureau did not answer a question about what it plans to do if the money runs out before the shutdown ends

The decennial count is mandated by the Constitution and is used to allocate more than $800 billion in federal funding, apportion congressional representation and redraw congressional districts

Preparation for the count goes on for 10 years , and the final months before it takes place can be compared with the run-up to a space launch: The countdown has begun, and countless complex gears must all work in tandem to ensure a successful event

That is why a government shutdown coming in the final year before the count of all people residing in the United States is akin to turning off the engine just as the rocket is revving up, critics say

“You cannot put a big, big, important agency doing a big, big important project on what is basically a life-support system,” said Kenneth Prewitt, a former Census Bureau director. “They clearly cannot fulfill everything they want to be doing right now.”

Current 2020 preparations include hiring local partnership specialists, opening and staffing local offices and developing a communications strategy. These take place on a “relentless schedule” that is hard to accomplish in discrete bites, Prewitt said

They’ve got to open offices, but [potential contract employees] will say, ‘Well, how do we know we’ll be paid after three weeks?’” he said

Time-sensitive activities include negotiating leases, testing IT systems and printing survey materials. Missing those deadlines could be costly, said Robert Shapiro, former undersecretary of commerce and chairman of Sonecon, an economic advising firm. “Unlike some other surveys, it’s much harder to make up things which get pushed off in the decennial.”

At the bureau, which is part of the Commerce Department, 9,600 of its 15,200 staff were working as of the end of December during the shutdown because of the remaining funding, Cook said

But it is unclear what will happen if the 2020 money runs out before the shutdown ends. A bureau employee told The Post, “My branch chief has told us that it’s far from certain that we will get paid for the work we are doing now.” A second employee echoed that

“Everyone at the Census Bureau who is currently working will get paid,” Cook said

The bureau is also responsible for dozens of other surveys. Some, which are funded by other agencies, are continuing — for example, data the bureau collects for the Department of Labor Statistics

But many have been suspended due to the shutdown, including the American Community Survey (ACS), which collects information about a subset of U.S. households each month

In 2013, when the government was shut for nearly a month, ACS data was not collected, though the bureau was later able to make up for the information it had missed

But the longer preparations are delayed, the more it will cost to make up for lost time, experts say. And snapshots of the country at a given time may be impossible to re-create. “Into the future you’re in a weaker state in terms of trying to interpret and make intelligent decisions” due to gaps in comparative data, Prewitt said

The shutdown has also stopped work on the bureau’s five-year Economic Census and its monthly reports on economic indicators such as durable goods, residential construction and sales, imports and exports, and manufacturing and trade. That data, which the Census Bureau collects for the (also-closed) Bureau of Economic Analysis, are used to generate GDP, GNP and national income reports

Cook said the missing data will be released once the shutdown ends. But going for too long without reliable estimates could cause economic havoc, Shapiro warned

“This is really bad news for things which are driven by big macro developments,” he said. “If the collection and analysis of all the basic economic data stops, the collateral damage will be very measurable. That is significant. I can’t say what it would be because it’s never happened before . . . No responsible government would ever allow this to happen.”

Former Bureau of Economic Analysis director Steve Landefeld warned that gaps in GDP estimates could have concrete consequences on an already volatile Wall Street

“People would like a baseline for what’s facts, and the bond buyers want one set of facts,” he said. “There are always people who have an interest in GDP growth being higher or lower.” In the absence of clear data, he added, “people begin to make up their own facts about the state of the economy.”

For now, analysts and investors will turn to less comprehensive, and less reliable, data sets, said Maurine Haver, CEO and founder of Haver Analytics, an economic information company

They give you an impression of how people feel and what they think is going on,” she said. “But without the federal data to anchor them, we’re flying blind.”

For example, she said, “perhaps the euphoria over the 312,000 jobs created last Friday might have been tempered by the release of some other statistics that we missed from Census.”

The lack of data could already be hurting the country, she said. “You have this trade war going on, and we’re not going to have any trade data from our side, whereas China, they’re collecting their data, and they know exactly where they stand.”

Overall, she said, “more uncertainty tends to lead busi­ness­ peo­ple to reduce hiring and reduce investment.”

Shutdown aside, the bureau is facing a raft of other challenges. Its funding for fiscal year 2019 is still undecided, and its newly confirmed director , Steven Dillingham, who was sworn in Monday, inherits a half-dozen lawsuits challenging the government’s addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 count

After criticism that the question had not undergone the rigorous testing a new addition to the survey typically undergoes, the bureau said it will test the citizenship question this summer. The results of that testing will probably come too late to affect the litigation, but it could help analysts understand how the question affects the survey’s accuracy. Critics of the question say it will depress response rates among immigrant groups

The government also announced this week it has entered into a $114.6 million contract with a new company, R.R. Donnelley & Sons, to print census materials, after its previous pick went bankrupt

But to print and use the forms and meet other deadlines, the flow of funding will have to resume

“At a certain point, it’s too late to do a census,” Prewitt said. “We’re not at that place yet, but logic would tell you you can’t payroll a million people the last month” before the count. “It’s so terribly unprecedented that I don’t know what they would do.”

Backroom discussions are already taking place about what would happen if the census were done but the results were judged inadequate, Prewitt said

“Scientists wouldn’t send a mission to the moon if they thought that their stuff wasn’t airtight, and the Census Bureau wouldn’t release results where economic data would be askew,” he said

“Trendlines are the bread and butter of policymaking,” Prewitt said. “Trendlines really matter to a functioning democracy, and these trendlines will now have holes in them . . . If there’s enough of that interruption, it will have consequences we can’t anticipate well into the future.”