Lots of People, Not Enough Money to Count Them

Former Directors Sound Warning on 2020 Census

Posted by Dale Eisman on August 25, 2017

Two former directors of the Census Bureau, with experience serving Democratic and Republican presidents, are sounding an important warning this morning about the Trump administration’s preparations to count the nation’s population in 2020.

Distilled to its essence, their message is that there’s a leadership vacuum at the Census Bureau and that Congress is running out of time to provide the money census takers need to ensure a full and accurate count.

In a Washington Post op-ed, Vincent P. Barabba and Kenneth Prewitt argue that decisions made now at the White House and on Capitol Hill will determine the success of the count that begins in just over 28 months.

“This is a critical period in which to begin operations, including well-researched advertising messages, staffing and training an army of temporary workers, opening field offices and testing new technology,” the pair write. “The Census Bureau cannot do any of this at the last minute, just as the Defense Department cannot prepare for military action when a threat is imminent.

The Census Bureau has been without a director since June and President Trump has not nominated a replacement. Deputy Director Nancy Potok left in January and also has not been replaced. The Trump administration’s proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning in August is $279 million less than the Census Bureau projected it would need a year earlier; veteran census analyst Terri Ann Lowenthal estimates that the bureau really needs another $303 million “and possibly more to maintain the quality of its programs and continue on a path to a fair and accurate 2020 census.

Constitutionally required, the decennial census is among the federal government’s most important and least appreciated tasks. If we don’t know how many people live in our country and where they live, we cannot fashion political boundaries that ensure that each person has an equal voice in Congress, our state legislatures, city, county and town councils, and school boards.

An accurate count also is vital to the economic health of our communities. Barabba and Prewitt note that more than $600 billion in federal aid is distributed every year to state and local governments for highway construction, low-income energy assistance, maternal and child health, and food assistance based on census data. Businesses and nonprofit groups also use census data to target their services.

The count is a complicated chore, particularly in a modern, mobile society like ours. There are now more than 300 million Americans and many don’t want to be counted, for a variety of reasons. Some who would have no objection to being counted live in out-of-the-way places or are more likely to be missed because of uneven internet access or they will be traveling or serving overseas during the months the count is underway in 2020. Like votes cast on machines tied to computer systems, census records may be vulnerable to cybersecurity threats.

“The nation needs a Census Bureau director with the capabilities to navigate these minefields credibly and deliberately,” Barabba and Prewitt write. “He or she must have the confidence of public officials from both sides of the political aisle, at all levels of government, as well as the confidence of the American public.”


Office: Common Cause National

Issues: Voting and Elections

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