What the Shutdown Means for the Census

January 14, 2019 - (3 min read)

Unlike many other federal agencies, the U.S. Census Bureau has an unusual budget that waxes and wanes in 10-year intervals as it prepares for America’s largest domestic mobilization effort — the decennial census. While the Bureau typically survives government shutdowns with minimal long-term impacts, this particular shutdown comes right as the Bureau begins its final year of preparations in advance of the 2020 Census. Preparations for 2020 began shortly after the previous census in 2010, but the timely execution of final preparations this year is essential to proper execution next year.

The good news — During the FY18 appropriations process, Congress provided slightly more than $1 billion for the Bureau to spend on 2020 Census preparations in FY 2019. Members of Congress foresaw a likelihood that appropriations may lapse in FY19, causing a federal government shutdown (or partial one). The forward funding allows the Bureau to retain a sizeable force of temporary workers devoted to 2020 Census preparations, but most of the Bureau’s full-time employees have been furloughed along with the rest of the Department of Commerce.

The bad news — News sources suggest the Bureau can continue uninterrupted preparations for the 2020 Census for six to eight weeks, it remains unclear exactly how long the shutdown will last. Once this funding runs out, the Bureau will have to cease all operations, which would cause major delays at a critical moment for the Bureau. The furloughing of full-time permanent employees has also likely diminished the Bureau’s capacity to fully plan for the 2020 Census, which is truly an “all-hands-on-deck” undertaking. Some experts have argued that the Bureau is stretching dollars and slow-walking preparations to last through the shutdown. Finally, and perhaps most salient at the moment, while the Bureau may continue preparations for the 2020 Census, it must cease all other regular (non-decennial) operations, such as the American Community Survey (ACS), which is conducted on a rolling basis across cities, towns and villages every month.

In sum — While the partial shutdown has not fully paused preparations for the 2020 Census, the Bureau is skirting by, operating on fumes at a time when the tank should be full. Continued failure to fund the government will eventually have real impacts for the Bureau’s ability to execute its mission of providing quality data about the nation’s people and economy.

Other Resources

While the federal government may be partially shutdown, we know cities never stop working. Learn more about how the 2020 Census impacts cities, towns and villages and what local leaders can do today to better ensure an accurate count of their community in 2020. www.nlc.org/Census

Stay Updated

NLC continues to push Congress and the Administration to reopen the federal government. For updates on the status of the shutdown, along with resources for local governments and information about individual agency budgets, visit www.nlc.org/shutdown. NLC is eager to hear from cities, towns and villages impacted by the shutdown, both directly and on social media. Please tweet your #shutdownstories, tagging @leagueofcities, to share how your community and residents are impacted by this prolonged appropriations fight.


About the Author: Brian Egan is NLC’s Principal Associate for Finance, Administration and Intergovernmental Relations. Follow him on Twitter @BeegleME.