Census Trouble Looming!

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Census data dictate the distribution of over $600 billion in yearly grants and subsidies to state and local governments. Credit Spencer Platt/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Census experts and public officials are expressing growing concerns that the bedrock mission of the 2020 census — an accurate and trustworthy head count of everyone in the United States — is imperiled, with worrisome implications.

Preparations for the count already are complicated by a sea change in the census itself: For the first time, it will be conducted largely online instead of by mail.

But as the Census Bureau ramps up its spending and work force for the 2020 count, it is saddled with problems. Its two top administrative posts are filled by placeholders. Years of underfunding by Congress and cost overruns on the digital transition have forced the agency to pare back its preparations, including abandoning two of the three trial runs of the overhauled census process.

Civil liberties advocates also fear that the Trump administration is injecting political considerations into the bureau, a rigidly nonpartisan agency whose population count will be the basis for redrawing congressional and state legislative districts in the early 2020s. And there is broad agreement that the administration’s aggressive enforcement of immigration policies will make it even harder to reach minorities, undocumented immigrants and others whose numbers have long been undercounted.

Taken together, some experts say, those issues substantially raise the risk that the 2020 count could be flawed, disputed, or both.

“There’s a set of unprecedented challenges that collectively threaten to create a perfect storm in 2020,” Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant and a leading authority on the census, said in an interview. “If public confidence in the objectivity and quality of the 2020 census erodes, then another pillar of our representative democracy could be compromised.”

John H. Thompson, who led the Census Bureau from 2013 until June, said the agency appeared on track to conduct its crucial and only “end-to-end” dry run of the count in Providence, R.I., in April. “The career staff at the Census Bureau are really, really good and really committed to an accurate count,” he said. “They will do the best job they can for the money and public cooperation they get.”

Still, he added, “There’s an issue with funding, and there’s an issue with operational readiness. And there’s an issue with accuracy.”

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, a onetime census-taker himself, said in a statement on Saturday that he was “keenly aware” of the challenges facing the Census Bureau, which is part of the Commerce Department, and that he had put in place new management to address some of the 2020 issues. The top acting officials at the bureau are career employees with decades of experience; with those changes and more money, he said, “I am confident in our ability to conduct a full, fair and accurate 2020 census.”

A department spokesman, James Rockas, noted that Mr. Ross was seeking nearly $750 million for advertising and outreach programs to persuade members of hard-to-reach groups to participate. The Obama administration had “severely underestimated” both the cost and technical challenges of moving to a digital census, he said. Outside experts disputed that charge, noting that Congress had ordered the Census Bureau to spend no more than $13 billion on the 2020 census, and then cut even more from Obama administration budget requests that sought to meet that mandate.

Consternation about pulling off an accurate count has been part of the run-up to past censuses, especially regarding funding challenges. During the last census, worries ranged from undercounting military personnel and their families on bases to fairly accounting for large inmate populations in rural Republican districts.

A bungled count could have profound consequences. Data from the census — which aims to count everyone, whether citizens or not — dictate the distribution of more than $600 billion yearly in grants and subsidies to state and local governments. Demographic data from the count are the bases for surveys that are benchmarks for major businesses, governments and researchers.

The census results also will determine which states will gain or lose seats in the House of Representatives and how those lines are drawn when redistricting begins in 2021. Serious undercounts would invite lawsuits that could hogtie that process, some experts said, and sap public trust in one of the government’s core functions.

The census is the gold standard of data collection not just in the United States but in the world, said Phil Sparks, a director of the Census Project, a network of organizations promoting an accurate head count in 2020. “The last thing we want to do in this current debate,” he said, “is to make this a base metal.”

The bureau has been working on the 2020 count since the 2010 census was completed. The complete overhaul now underway seeks to shrink the count’s costliest and toughest task: sending hundreds of thousands of enumerators to find and interview the millions of people who fail to fill out their census forms.

An online head count, the reasoning goes, should reach more households more efficiently than mailed forms. The enumerators who track down those who do not respond (in 2010, almost 3 in 10 households) will use smartphone apps that instantly send data to the bureau’s computers and track the canvassers’ progress.

The bureau also hopes to mine federal databases and even satellite images for information that could reduce wasted trips by enumerators — to vacant buildings, for example — and automatically fill in personal data like addresses and ages.

The goal is to rein in the ballooning cost of censuses, from $1.22 per person counted in 1970 to more than $42 in 2010. Paradoxically, however, Congress’s demand to keep the 2020 census within the $13 billion cost of the 2010 tally backfired, as the underfunded shift to a digital census only led to later cost overruns, including $300 million for a key initiative to centralize data processing.

Compounding that, Congress has regularly given the agency less money than it said was needed — $200 million less through fiscal 2017 — forcing officials to slow or eliminate programs.

It also has canceled dry runs of the completed census process in Washington State and West Virginia that would have documented its performance in rural areas with spotty internet service and Indian reservations that do not use standard addresses. It has abandoned plans for smartphone canvasses in group living quarters like college dorms and prisons, and scaled back its culling of information from federal databases.

The Commerce Department has raised the count’s projected cost to $15.6 billion, including a $1.2 billion emergency fund — still less, it said, than the $17 billion a mail-in census would have cost. Secretary Ross asked Congress in October for an extra $3.3 billion to fund that new budget. But while outsiders applauded his commitment to the census, they were uncertain that the White House shared it.

To some experts, the situation recalls the 2010 census, in which the bureau sought to equip its enumerators with digital devices, fell behind schedule and had to spend $3 billion on a last-minute switch to pencil-and-paper forms.

“We basically have a simple choice,” said Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, a New York Democrat who has proposed legislation adding about $440 million to the bureau’s fiscal 2018 budget. “Properly fund the census now, or ask the taxpayers to pay a lot more down the road to make up for poor planning.”

But at least as worrisome as funding is concern over the Trump administration’s impact on the 2020 count.

For different reasons, both civil liberties advocates and census experts say they are troubled by the White House’s purported interest in Thomas Brunell, a political-science professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, for the bureau’s vacant post of deputy director. Mr. Brunell, a scholar of redistricting, has been an expert witness for Republican defendants in several gerrymandering cases. He also has criticized the policy of statistically adjusting census results to account for minorities and others who are undercounted.

Neither Mr. Brunell nor the Trump administration has addressed that interest, first reported in Politico. Former officials of the bureau said in interviews that Mr. Brunell lacked managerial experience for a position long held by experienced executives. Civil rights advocates said they worried that his appointment would signal partisan meddling in a census whose usefulness in drawing legislative districts depends entirely on its credibility.

The deputy director runs the bureau’s daily operations and is a key voice in census decisions. Liberals fear a partisan leader would scale back efforts to reach minorities and other Democratic-leaning groups that already are undercounted. Others said low-income and older rural residents who are reliably Republican also are undercounted, and that the issue was not so much partisanship as accuracy and credibility.

“The politicization of the census would erode what is already fragile trust and confidence in the integrity of the count,” said Vanita Gupta, the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which has worked for years on census issues.

The Trump administration’s heated rhetoric on immigration, race and the trustworthiness of government is fueling fears that minorities, legal and undocumented immigrants and others — from asylum-seekers to victims of the opioid crisis — will be even harder to locate and count. The 2010 census actually overcounted non-Hispanic whites by 0.8 percent and undercounted African-Americans by 2.1 percent and Hispanics by 1.5 percent.

Suggestions by Mr. Trump and others that the census include a question about citizenship or immigration status are especially worrying to many. More than 11 million undocumented immigrants lived in the United States in 2016, eight million of them in the civilian work force. The administration’s hard line on immigration already is having a chilling effect on Hispanic leaders whose support is crucial to an accurate count, said Arturo Vargas, the executive director of the Naleo Education Fund, which promotes Latino involvement in civic life.

“Our membership includes elected officials and other people who have indicated they’re not convinced that they can stand up with confidence and tell their constituents that filling out the census form is safe and confidential,” said Mr. Vargas, who sits on a census advisory committee on issues that affect minorities and other hard-to-count groups. “There’s just a great lack of confidence now.”

A marked undercount, especially one that appeared driven by partisanship, could spark an unsettling battle between the census’s political winners and losers. There is precedent: Article 1 of the Constitution requires a decennial census for reapportionment purposes. But after Republicans took control of Congress and the White House in 1920, the House of Representatives refused to allow reapportionment of House seats, fearing that the rapid urbanization the census had documented would shift political power from rural areas to cities.

A similar refusal to accept the 2020 census’s results “by definition would be a constitutional crisis,” Ms. Lowenthal said. And any loss in faith in the count — whether due to politics, money or poor planning — would do lasting damage, she and others said.

“The record of the census in counting people from all income groups, all racial and ethnic groups, is really extraordinary,” said Steve H. Murdock, a Rice University sociologist who led the Census Bureau under President George W. Bush. “Once you break that belief in the activity, it’s hard to replace.”

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