Responses to mail-in questionnaires — still the chief data collection method for the census — and door-to-door interviews have been declining for years, a G.A.O. report said.
The bureau — criticized in the past by government watchdogs and Congress for cost overruns and management missteps — is strapped for cash in a critical preparation year. The bureau could need an increase of more than $300 million to its $1.5 billion budget to install new technology and conduct a comprehensive test in time for 2020, according to an analysis of bureau budget requests and projections by Terri Ann Lowenthal, a census expert. So far, the Trump administration and Congress are recommending an increase of about one-tenth that amount, according to the Census Project, a nonpartisan census advocacy group.
The bureau hopes to bolster its door-to-door “clipboard” force by automating the force’s work and introducing online reporting. But there’s not much money to test whether the approach actually works on the census: The bureau scrapped three field tests slated for this year, and two more for next year, including tests among rural people, who are traditionally one of the most seriously undercounted populations. There’s also less money to protect the online system from hacking of the kind that crashed Australia’s online count last year.
The census has always been vulnerable to political attack, and is especially so now. In 2009, Tea Party conservatives in the House tried unsuccessfully to kill off the bureau’s annual American Community Survey, a continuing tracking of respondents’ occupations, education, homeownership and other topics, as a supposed intrusion on privacy. A joint study by the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution this year calls the survey data “indispensable” in helping local governments plan.
Mr. Trump poses an additional threat: His repeated efforts to discredit voter registration data and government employment numbers leave census officials worried that a random tweet from him could discourage more people from participating. Census professionals worry that the administration’s efforts to deport undocumented immigrants could make them wary of providing information about themselves and where they live.
The census is the federal government’s chief source of data about the American people and economy, a sweeping endeavor. “If you don’t do the investment at the…