Why is the Census Important?

Census 2020

We will increasingly hear about the 2020 Census. What is it and why are people sounding the alarm about it?

Every 10 years, since 1790, we set out to count everyone in the U.S. The Commerce Department, run by Secretary Wilbur Ross, oversees the Census Bureau. The census is mandated by the Constitution. Its main purpose is to determine how many seats the House of Representatives should get, based on what the population is.

The census tracks the changing demographics of the country–like how many people live in cities vs elsewhere and what the racial/ethnic breakdowns are. State and federal government use the census info to plan for future hospitals, housing developments, school districts, public transportation and infrastructure needs, and inform emergency planning. The federal government uses the census to allocate more than $400 billion in funds annually for a host of community programs and services. The business sector also uses census info to determine where to put factories, banks, offices, shopping centers, etc.

By law, the Census Bureau cannot share your answers with others, including any other government agency. In fact, to encourage honesty and accurate answers, the law mandates that individual census forms are kept private for 72 years.

The 2020 Census is already in trouble. The director of the Census Bureau resigned back in May which was cause for concern. Congress cut the Census’s budget which is problematic because the Census needs these funds to began its prep work.  Additionally, the advertising budget was cut which hamper the Census’s outreach efforts. Congress is underfunding the Census Bureau at the very moment that it needs money to began ramping up efforts to conduct the 2020 Census.

In 2018, the Census will undergo its first critical test. The Census Bureau “will run a crucial field test that is the last chance to work out any kinks in new data-collection methods.” (The 2020 census will be the first conducted primarily online.) Congressional hearings this fall have revealed that preparations, even for this early test, are behind schedule. Secretary Ross has even asked for more funding.

If the Census data collection is not effective, it could undercount the US population. A state might not get the extra congressional seat it deserves; school districts might find out too late that they have way more kids than they projected; a community may not receive the welfare services it needs based on its population. Even though the director resigned back in May, most said that if Congress funded the Bureau and it secured strong leadership quickly, the 2020 Census would be ok. So far, neither has happened.

Trump still hasn’t nominated anyone for the Bureau director (who would need to be confirmed by the Senate). Recently, media reported that Trump was leaning towards Thomas Brunell to take the #2 spot at the Bureau. Brunell is an academic with no management experience–the deputy director’s job is to run the day-to-day operations of the Bureau. He is also highly partisan (he’s pro-gerrymandering)–the job traditionally goes to a nonpartisan civil servant.

Additionally, some groups are sounding the alarm that there is growing mistrust of how this administration might use the census data. These concerns could cause some folks to avoid the census. The Houston Chronicle reported that “Latino leaders are warning of a developing crisis in the 2020 census and demanding that the Census Bureau act aggressively to calm fears in immigrant populations about data misuse.” According to the Chronicle, Latinos have been skeptical of Census in the past and the actions by the Trump Administration are exacerbating the problem.

Another ominous concern, aired by former U.S. Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-CO): “States that have lost population are not interested in an accurate census.” Several Midwestern states will most likely lose representation in Congress in the next Census to the western and southern states if it is accurate. An inaccurate census could benefit several of these states.

An accurate 2020 Census, run by competent, nonpartisan people is something we should all demand and keep a watchful eye on.

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Categories: Explainers

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2 replies

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  1. Fri 8/3: It just takes one census question on citizenship to steal power from our state. Comment now to stop this! Deadline Tuesday, Aug. 7th. – INDIVISIBLE VENTURA
  2. Mon 9/17: Last minute action! – Stop the census citizenship question. Comment Deadline Today, 9/17, at 11:59 EST! – INDIVISIBLE VENTURA

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