Save the Census
An administration uninterested in staffing federal agencies, at war with facts and eager to help Congress cut the budget is further endangering a cornerstone of American democracy: the duty to count all who live here.
Every decade since 1790, as required by the Constitution, the federal government has undertaken a painstaking census of its people, the accuracy and fairness of which serves the interests of both political parties and of every citizen. The decennial count is used to apportion seats in the House of Representatives and set the boundaries of congressional districts. It determines how tens of billions of dollars in federal aid are divvied up.
The Government Accountability Office already put the 2020 census on its list of high-risk projects early this year, due to uncertainty about its budget and technology, and Americans’ increasing distrust of government data collection.
Then, the Census Bureau’s director, John Thompson, who was expected to remain on the job until at least the end of the year, resigned in June. Mr. Trump has not named a permanent replacement. The agency’s deputy director, Nancy Potok, an experienced statistician, left in January, and she also has not been replaced.
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 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 front end, you can’t fix it later,” says Max Stier, chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan advocate for a more effective federal government.
The census begins on April 1, 2020, and it must be completed in the summer for congressional reapportionment and redistricting to take place. Any failure would be immediately apparent — and it would tar Republicans at the height of the 2020 primary campaign season. Perhaps that reality will help inspire congressional leaders to support an accurate count, demonstrating to Americans that, even in the age of Trump, facts matter.