The 2020 census is at risk due to inadequate funding, planning, and staffing, and the consequences could be quite significant. The practice of counting and collecting information about the populace dates back to ancient times and, in fact, the source of much of our knowledge about the past. In the United States, the first census was conducted in 1790, shortly after the Constitution was adopted, when the total number of residents measured was less than four million. The most recent full census (in 2010) measured nearly 309 million, with the most recent estimates topping 327 million.
The purpose of the census is not simply to provide interesting factoids. Covering a spectrum of issues from income to housing to educational attainment and much more, the census gives us a snapshot of how the population is changing. The wealth of data compiled and maintained by the Census Bureau allows for analysis which can inform public policy, help us understand the relationships between variables such as education and income, and illustrate shifting household choices and conditions.
Moreover, census data is relied on for a number of vital purposes. For one thing, it’s used to determine the allocation of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives. Population changes between the 2000 and 2010 censuses caused eight states to add members and 10 states to lose members in the House of Representatives. The changes reflect relative population trends, with faster-growing states (such as Florida and Texas) gaining members while slower-growing states (such as New York) lost them. State legislatures also redraw their districts based on census data.
The census is also used to determine the distribution of nearly $700 billion in federal funds each year. State and local governments receive federal money for social services, education, Medicaid, highways, housing, and many other programs. The amounts are determined by formulas which rely on census data (population, poverty rate, education level, and family characteristics, among other variables).
The full census conducted every 10 years (and coming up in 2020) is a massive undertaking. A proper count requires major investments in technology, personnel, and expenses. Even as the U.S. population has expanded, the census budget has been cut. That’s a bad idea, and Congress needs to find a way to increase funding.
The role of the Census Bureau extends well beyond conducting the decennial counts. There are also dozens of regular surveys and annual interim estimates, and publications and research are produced almost continuously. (Visit www.census.gov to see the wealth of information.) Again, this data isn’t just interesting, but also integral to the proper working of government at all levels and the economy.
Population changes identified in the census are used in legislative redistricting. Virtually every department of the federal government uses census data to assess programs and their effectiveness. The data is also essential to businesses, which use it to make decisions regarding new store locations, real estate developments, or other investments. I use Census Bureau data almost daily in meeting the needs of my clients and analyzing topics of general economic interest.
As if the lack of funding wasn’t enough of a challenge to the 2020 census, here’s another wrinkle. The Department of Justice recently asked that a question regarding citizenship be added to the 2020 census ostensibly to allow for enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. Such a question hasn’t been included since 1950, though a sample of the population is asked this regularly through the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Even if time allowed for proper testing of a new question (which it doesn’t), critics fear that participation could be negatively affected due to fear of the consequences of admitting a lack of citizenship.
Even though census responses are required by law to be kept strictly private and are protected from requests from anyone (including government agencies), there is still a risk that non-citizens would choose not to respond. Representation and funding could be affected, particularly in areas with higher numbers of non-citizens (such as Texas). Given other actions which have raised fears among undocumented individuals and the lack of progress in the area of immigration reform, a citizenship question would almost certainly cause some people to avoid participating. With systematic undercounting, there will be systematic underfunding. Even in a world where they seem to matter less to many folks than they once did, this is one instance where we really need the actual facts without partisan manipulation.
The 2020 census can still be saved. With a more reasonable budget, staffing, and leadership and a “no” to adding a citizenship question, we can still get an accurate count. The proper functioning of the government and economy depends on a clear understanding of demographic patterns and changes, and we can only get that if we don’t compromise the quality and integrity of the 2020 census.