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Census Chief Resigns: Here's Why You Should Care

by Countable | 5.11.17

The head of the U.S. Census Bureau has resigned, according to widespread media reports. John H Thompson headed up the bureau since 2013.

This sudden change comes just as the Census Bureau is gearing up for the next big count of the United States' populous -- in 2020. And his resignation follows months of red flags from officials, concerned that the Census budget is not big enough.

Here's why this matters.

Statistics are second only to financial statements in their ability to cause most people’s eyes to glaze over and their ears turn off. There are some who would disagree, sure, but for most of us statistics are not sexy.

But here’s the thing. Governments cannot make accurate decisions about how to portion out financial resources or update systems of citizen representation without solid data. Businesses cannot estimate their potential impact in new markets without solid data. Data may not be king, but it is the power behind the throne.

The Census Bureau has conducted comprehensive surveys of the U.S. population every 10 years since the founding of the republic, as mandated by the Constitution. The information is used to apportion seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and to define legislature districts, school district assignments and other important functional areas of government. The data is also used to provide adequate services for the elderly, build new roads and schools, locate job training centers, staff police and fire departments.

More than $400 billion in federal funds is distributed each year to states, local communities and tribal governments for neighborhood improvements, public health programs, education and transportation and more based off of Census data.

In the three years leading up to the Census, funding for it climbs steeply in anticipation of the massive data collection effort. Tens of thousands of staff are hired to collect data, new systems to streamline the collection process are tested, publicity explodes to aid participation. The 2010 Census was the largest ever, costing over $13 billion over ten years.

Congress instructed the Bureau to keep the cost of the 2020 count the same as the previous one in 2010. But critics maintain that is impossible. The Washington Post quoted an unidentified congressional staffer who argued:

“They’re not accounting for inflation; they’re not accounting for the 30 million more Americans, for the fact that people don’t have hard [telephone] lines anymore. And you’re going to do the census for the same amount of money? That’s not possible.”

The Bureau, however, did roll out plans for vastly expanding electronic data collection, which is expected to keep costs at approximately $12.5 billion over ten years, assuming testing and preparation are fully funded.

The Trump administration caused further concern with their 2017 budget, which proposed $1.5 billion for the Bureau. That’s $140 million less than the $1.64 billion requested by the department to continue preparations.

Now the Director of the Bureau has resigned. A new director must be appointed by the President. Will Congress encourage the administration to move quickly on that appointment? Will they approve enough money to keep the multi-year preparation effort moving forward as planned? The effects of the 2020 Census will be felt for years at every level of government.

Do you think the administration should prioritize replacing the Census Bureau Director and funding Census preparations? Use the Take Action button to tell your reps what you think!

— Asha Sanaker

(Photo Credit: U.S. Census Bureau via Flickr / Creative Commons )

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