The United States is scheduled to undergo its 23rd National Population Census in the year 2020. Since 1790, this decennial event has been practiced by the Government of the United States in order to enumerate citizens and to reapportion congressional districts, the two goals laid out by the US Constitution.
In the centuries after its establishment, the country grew into a superpower, and the needs of its government changed. The Census began to include surveys, specifically designed to capture the nuanced details behind the everyday lives of Americans, from all different geographic, religious, and cultural backgrounds.
The Census has been riddled with controversy and questionable practices since its inception– it took sixty years before the bureau started to include women, children, and slaves in its tabulations, another ten years after that before American Indians were counted, and even then, only if they had “renounced tribal rules”. Today, these defects are echoed in current census rules and data collection methods that have proven disadvantageous to entire communities.
People of ethnic or racial minorities are three times as likely not to be counted, which leads to inadequate government allocation of resources to disadvantaged communities, and can have a huge negative impact on representation in congress. Criminal Justice groups have raised issues with practices such as listing prisoners’ addresses as their place of incarceration, claiming that it leads to misleading data on racial demographics. And in what was widely considered a disappointing move, the US Census Bureau announced that the 2020 census will not be enumerating a tally of LGBT Americans, something the community had been lobbying for.
There’s more. Like most things, the census has recently become a partisan issue. Democrats tend to be in favor of using modern statistical sampling techniques as a way of getting more accurate information without such a massive spending of government resources. Republicans argue that the US Constitution specifically states that an “Actual enumeration” is required, and suggest that with statistical sampling, Democrats might try to manipulate congressional redistricting in their own favor (This is called gerrymandering. It is commonplace, and something that both Republicans and Democrats are widely known to practice). Democrats contest that the constitutional argument on specific details regarding the census is moot, considering that the same section of the constitution also includes the following paragraph:
“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”
This part of the US Constitution lays out the ground rules for the census. It also considers enslaved people subhuman. So maybe we shouldn’t follow if verbatim.
But I digress. The partisan controversy is still not the biggest problem that the next census, now just two and half years away, is facing. The Census Bureau is in a state of unpreparedness that is unprecedented in American History, highlighted by the resignation of Bureau Director John Thompson last month. President Trump has still not nominated a replacement, and it’s possible that he won’t put forward a nominee anytime soon, considering that he is yet to put forward appointees for over 80% of the positions that he is meant to fill.
The Census Bureau is requesting an additional $300,000,000 to its $1,500,000,000 2020 budget, meant for IT and Security upgrades that are meant to put the census online, but it’s unlikely that congress will earmark those additional funds. The Government Accountability Office has labeled the census as “high-risk”, calling into question whether it can “conduct a cost-effective enumeration”, which puts it in especially dangerous funding territory under an administration eager to cut costs.
The US Census’ importance can not be understated. The data it collects is important not only for the distribution of hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer money, but is also used widely in the private sector. Incomplete data in 2020 would stifle the voices of whole communities for the following decade. Yet at this rate, it’s entirely possibly– likely, even –that the 2020 Census will be lacking in leadership, ability, and credibility, undermining the public’s faith in yet another government institution.