Enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, the “decennial census” has critical fiscal and political implications at every level of government. It is also one of the most fundamental examples of our government in action. This once-a-decade effort by the federal government attempts to accurately count every person living in the United States—and 2018 marks the year that the U.S. Census Bureau conducts an end-to-end census test, a sort of dress rehearsal for the real thing.
While Census Day will not officially take place until April 1, 2020, the advance work must be done this year, and early signs indicate that the next census is off to a rocky start, and needs our collective and immediate attention.
In January 2017, the U.S. Government Accountability Office sounded an early alarm when it placed the 2020 Census on its “high-risk” list of vulnerable programs and agencies due to fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement. A year later, and a year closer to Census Day, the challenges are greater and the time to solve them grows less.
The U.S. Census Bureau, currently without a dedicated director since last June, is trying to prepare for 2020, which will be the first census conducted largely online rather than by mail. But the Census Bureau is beset by budget cuts, cost overruns and a mandate by Congress to hold the 2020 Census to the same $13 billion price tag as the last census in 2010. Budget constraints and a lack of operational readiness have led the agency to cancel field tests meant to assess the Spanish-language capabilities of the system as well as targeted tests to evaluate rural and Native-American districts. The one and only census test will take place in Providence County, Rhode Island, a microcosm of sorts in the smallest state in the country.
Growing concerns are being raised that a lack of leadership, administrative inefficiencies, and an underfunding of the 2020 Census will only lead to an undercount that will have lasting consequences. An accurate headcount of the population will set the table for congressional apportionment and the redrawing of the boundaries for legislative districts at the state and federal levels. These new legislative districts and the reapportionment of the House of Representatives rely on accurate census data as the baseline of determining political power and electoral votes in presidential elections.
The U.S. Census must count all residents regardless of age, race, ethnicity, gender, and includes citizens and non-citizens. Census data is used to annually distribute, per capita, billions in government grants and subsidies to state and local governments. Hundreds of federal financial assistance programs rely on census data to accurately guide the geographic distribution of government funds to support Medicaid, and everything from highway and transportation construction to school lunch programs.
Because the census literally involves every single person living in the United States, we all should be asking ourselves, and more importantly our elected officials, “What are you doing now to ensure an accurate census in 2020?”
This coming year we should make the resolution to hold the Census Bureau and our federal officials accountable to best prepare to take a comprehensive and accurate census count in 2020. The consequences are critical and the time to act is now. An accurate count is a matter of national importance. Our very future counts on this.