The White House and Congress are botching the Census

The Trump administration isn’t doing enough to address the Census Bureau’s needs. And it could have disastrous results.

Students at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minn., prepare to hang a banner as others sign a pledge that they will fill out their census forms, (CREDIT: AP Photo/Jim Mone, Jan. 2010)
Students at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minn., prepare to hang a banner as others sign a pledge that they will fill out their census forms, (CREDIT: AP Photo/Jim Mone, Jan. 2010)

The Trump administration and Congress have overlooked the U.S. Census Bureau’s financial needs in preparing for the 2020 Census, and it could result in significant undercounts of the historically hard-to-count populations — including African Americans, Asian Americans, the Latinx community, and the poor.

The Census, which was first implemented more than 200 years ago, surveys every person in the country and uses the data to distribute government resources to states and localities, draw congressional districts, and provide vital investment information to businesses.

Shortly after the 2010 Census, Congress mandated that the 2020 Census must not exceed the $12.5 billion spent on the previous one. The bureau’s former director John Thompson, who left the agency in June and whose post is still vacant, had ensured that the bureau would not go over the limit.

“The only way this could be done is through heavy reliance on information technology,” which the bureau began exploring after the 2010 census, Phil Sparks, communications consultant and co-director of The Census Project, told ThinkProgress.

“But, as that process went on, you have to have real money upfront in order to purchase equipment, do planning, and hire staff,” said Sparks. “And the Congress has consistently underfunded the Census.”

At a House Oversight Committee hearing last week, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said Thompson’s projection that the bureau would not exceed the $12.5 billion limit may have been “overly optimistic,” adding that the agency would need to spend $15.6 billion to conduct a “full, fair, and accurate census.”

But it is unlikely that the bureau will see a funding increase anytime soon. Last month, Congress denied funding for the Census Bureau in its passage of the three-month continuing resolution. While the Trump administration’s proposed 2018 budget calls for $1.5 billion for the Census Bureau, it falls more than $300 million short of what is needed “to maintain the quality of its programs and continue on a path to a fair and accurate 2020 Census,” according to The Census Project.

“They basically put off the high cost of the Census until very late in the decade because they were sure if they kick the can down the road, the money will be there,” Sparks said.

But not only has the money failed to materialize, some members of Congress have even questioned whether the Census Bureau is necessary at its current level. At the House Oversight hearing last week, Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX) said, “It seems to me that the Census Bureau has this attitude of, ‘We’ve got to do it ourselves,’ and aren’t looking to products that may be already out there or companies that you may be able to contract with to save some money.”

That’s a “pipe dream,” Sparks said. “If it could be done by [the private sector], believe me, they would do it.”

Funding constraints have led to major delays in preparations for the survey. Earlier this year, the bureau missed the deadline to start the Economic Census, which surveys American businesses and is critical to U.S. economic planning, pushing the date back several months.  

The move could harshly impact states and localities who rely heavily on the demographic, housing, economic, and transportation data collected by the Census. A survey released by the Sunlight Foundation on Monday found that 74 percent of city officials believed federal data to be “very important” or “important” to their department’s mission. The majority also believed federal data was published too infrequently and that the information was not specific enough to help cities make key decisions on the allocation of resources and the prioritization of major infrastructure projects.

The Census Bureau has also had to cancel two of the three field tests it scheduled for 2018 — tests that are critical to ensure the information technologies work efficiently. These tests were especially important in rural areas that lack broadband connection, Sparks said.

An advertising campaign aimed at alerting people, especially hard-to-count populations, of the upcoming census was also delayed. And, in an effort to save money, the agency decided not to hire partnership specialists tasked with talking to African American, Asian American, and Latinx communities to ensure they feel comfortable about filling out the survey.

“There’s no question that the hard-to-count population will be the most impacted by lack of funding and lack of planning,” Sparks said.

At a time when fears related to deportations and travel bans have heightened government distrust among minority and immigrant communities, this reality is especially concerning, as it is likely that hard-to-count populations will be even more unwilling to share their information with the government.

A high undercount of minority populations could award Republicans with additional seats in Congress, as the Census uses the numbers to determine congressional redistricting. Even though these populations are traditionally Democrat, they often live in Republican districts. This is likely due to the numbers from the 2010 Census, which under-counted African Americans by 2.1 percent, Hispanics by 1.5 percent, and Native Americans by almost 5 percent, while over-counting whites by about 1 percent.

In an effort to reach a more accurate count reflecting the country’s diversity, the Census Bureau has proposed adding a Middle East/North African category and efforts are underway to disaggregate data on Asian American populations for the purpose of developing specific subcategories in the Census. But with limited funds, the reality of under-counting is in danger of repeating itself.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that the Census Bureau is facing major problems, but little has been done to address those challenges.

“And they’re getting no direction from the Trump administration,” Sparks said.