Illustration by Angelica Alzona.
Do you care about the 2020 census? You should. We all probably should care more about the 2020 census, because John Thompson, the director of the Census Bureau and the man in charge of running the 2020 census, stepped down last week. It’s hard to overstate what huge news this is, and yet the story isn’t getting a ton of attention—possibly because there’s a lot of other huge news too, and, well, the human brain can handle only so much.
Losing the director of the Census Bureau at this stage of the game is a big deal, because a leaderless Census Bureau means a possibly not-especially-accurate census in 2020, and that will have knock-on effects that will affect literally every area of American life. Thompson’s stepping-down might not be such a big deal if we had an administration that was prioritizing a fair and accurate census—but it looks like the White House has its hands full with other stuff, to put it mildly.
To get an idea of what Thompson’s departure means, I spoke to Kenneth Prewitt, former director of the Census Bureau and the current Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs and the Vice-President for Global Centers at Columbia University, about why we should care. And more important, why everyone should care, because it would be too easy to let this story disappear in the maelstrom of the current news cycle.
1. Literally every American social program uses census numbers to allocate resources.
Your fire department, your schools—the data gathered in the decadal census, determines, for example, whether new schools are opened or current schools are shut down. Transportation grants and education grants, among others, are distributed proportionally. If the Veteran’s Administration wants to place a hospital for elderly veterans, they obviously want to select a location heavily populated by elderly veterans. If the numbers are off, the hospital gets mis-sited—and the vets don’t get health care.
Prewitt continues, “Or take emergency relief. After every census, [fire departments] recalibrate [their] entire system of emergency relief: where have people moved, what’s the age structure, do they have telephones, are they elderly, do they live alone? All of that is stuff that gets absorbed by fire departments, so when they get an emergency—there’s a flood, there’s a tornado—they know where the people are who have to be rescued. If they’re wrong, they don’t find people.”
If you want your community to have the services it needs, your neighbors need to be counted. “If you’re trying to govern a society and respond to citizen needs, you’ve got to know who they are, what their conditions are, and where they are,” says Prewitt.
2. Running an accurate census takes money.
Thompson stepped down amidst budget disputes. Prewitt tells me, “Right now they are underfunded. The other thing that is seriously underfunded right now is the [census’] advertising campaign,” which was handled by professionals for the first time in 2000 and 2010. “It’s very sophisticated stuff….and you can’t turn that on in the last 15 days or even last 15 weeks…and they don’t have the budget now to get it underway.”
To ensure an accurate census, you need to open field offices, run outreach efforts, and hire a huge temporary workforce. Not enough money means not enough workers to conduct the census, and that means people will be undercounted. “People who are undercounted are invisible.”
3. Fair representation hinges on a fair census.
The census determines how the 435 members of the House are allocated among the states. Every decade the population goes up in some states and down in others, and reps are redistributed accordingly. As Prewitt notes in this recent interview in the Washington Post, “Repeated reallocation is fundamental to the fairness of our representative democracy.”
4. You need a director who knows what they’re doing.
If a new, qualified director isn’t ready to step in on July 1, even on an acting basis, other staffers will start to leave for other jobs. “There will be a morale problem, and there will be people who will have job opportunities who will go someplace else. Especially the high-powered math statisticians. They love the census because it is a big deal,” says Prewitt. A skeleton crew is not going to get a good count.
5. Everyone wants a good census.
This is a bipartisan issue. Everyone wants their neighborhood and state counted and wants accurate numbers; fire departments and schools want adequate counts; retailers want accurate estimates of residents before investing in a given community. Prewitt notes: “The business community wants good numbers. They don’t want to mis-locate a Wal-Mart because they misunderstood the population base. In some respects the commercial sector is one of the best defenders of a quality census.”
6. But one could put one’s finger on the scale, either deliberately or through underfunding.
Black Americans have historically been undercounted in the census; Prewitt also identifies “hard-to-count” communities: the poor, the non-English-speaking, immigrants, people who are suspicious of the government. It takes a big effort to find and count those people, and that effort takes money and an organized staff. “In fairly quiet ways, small ways, you can selectively undercount. You do it by where you spend your advertising dollar. You do it by where you put your best staff. You do it by where you open up offices.”
Prewitt stresses that he’s not implying that anyone in the current administration is angling for selectively undercounting, but that even ordinary bureaucratic problems, like lack of funding or disorganization, can really foul things up. Vigilance is important.
7. The time to take action is now.
Planning, testing, and advertising efforts need to get underway now. Prewitt tells me that “these two or three years leading to the census are every bit as important as the census itself.” You can’t postpone the census—it’s constitutionally mandated to occur every ten years whether we’re ready or not. And you can’t re-do a botched census. Community groups may scream, mayors may say, “hey, we have a lot more people than that here,” but what’s done is done. Which means we need to talk to our reps (and our other community leaders) now. “I don’t know how you get the average citizen to pay attention to it until it’s too late. That’s the really scary thing,” warns Prewitt.
8. So do something.
Start by talking to your mayor’s office, the chamber of commerce, churches and community groups, and veterans’ groups in your area. If it seems like no one’s doing anything, or they say “the census is three years from now, who cares?”, start a movement yourself in your community. Pressure your reps to care.
Prewitt says if he were trying to mobilize people, he would frame it this way: “I would say that President Trump can have a huge census. He can have a bigger census than Obama’s census in 2010, a bigger census than Clinton’s census in 2000. Indeed a bigger census than George Washington’s in 1790. The president of the United States can have the biggest and best census ever conducted….[Trump] likes big numbers, and he likes big numbers he believes he’s responsible for. He can actually be responsible for the biggest and best census ever done.”
Got it? Somebody start a hashtag.