The Perils of a Compromised Census
The U.S. Department of Commerce made headlines in late March when it announced that, at the request of Department of Justice, it will be adding a question about citizenship to the 2020 Census. Many raised concerns that this move would jeopardize the accuracy of the count, and that the Census was falling victim to political influence. Concerns about the 2020 Census began long before the announcement, however.
Experts have been sounding the alarm about the 2020 Census for some time now. In early 2017, the Government Accountability Office added the 2020 Census to its High Risk List—a report issued every two years at the start of a new Congress that calls attention to vulnerable agencies and programs. Trouble with the Census began back in 2014, when Congress declared the 2020 Census may not cost more than the 2010 Census without controlling for inflation. As Robert Shapiro, who oversaw the Census during the 2000 count, notes, the Census Bureau did what it had to do to stay within budget, for example, by drawing up cost-cutting plans to replace thousands of temporary Census workers and offices with new technologies and online capabilities. The budget constraints also forced the Bureau to do what it shouldn’t have had to do: abort a Spanish-language census; not test or implement new ways to more accurately count people in remote and rural areas; and, end plans to test a range of local outreach and messaging strategies to get people to fill out their census forms, which are crucial to minimizing undercounts in many minority and marginalized communities.
Each decade, the Census Bureau ramps up funding in the years leading up to the count. The Bureau planned to do so accordingly this decade, but the Trump administration cut the Bureau’s 2017 budget request by 10 percent, then flat-lined its funding for 2018. Adding to the mayhem, Census Bureau Director Dr. John Thompson resigned, effective June 2017. Trump’s controversial pick for his successor withdrew his name from consideration in February of this year. Ten months after Thompson’s departure, the Bureau remains without a director.
The Census determines how seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are apportioned and is used to realign state legislative district boundaries. Furthermore, it determines how the government allocates over $400 billion of federal dollars. Beyond the federal government, countless other entities ranging from local governments to private industry to researchers rely on the data included in the Census and its counterpart, the American Community Survey.
Addition of a citizenship question raises major concerns about undercounting—which is a habitual concern for the Census. Vulnerable populations such as the urban and rural poor, minorities, and non-English speakers are already prone to being undercounted. Undercounting results in inequitable political representation, public and private investment, and resource distribution. In light of these concerns and what they mean for the Census’ constitutional mandate to count every person, 17 states, seven cities, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors are currently suing the Census Bureau and Commerce Department to block the inclusion of the question.
A fully funded, robust 2020 Census free from political meddling and undercounting is essential. The Founding Fathers believed so adamantly in the importance of the Census that it is included in the U.S. Constitution, and a census has been conducted every ten years since 1790. Starving and neglecting the Census jeopardizes our democracy. The 2020 Census is headed down a dangerous path, and time is running out to right its course.