Penny wise, pound foolish: 2020 Census needs funding now
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With everything going on in Washington, you may have missed the recent news that the 2020 Census has been deemed a “high risk” federal program by the Government Accountability Office, which is concerned about the Census Bureau’s “ability to conduct a cost-effective enumeration” in 2020.

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Should you be concerned? Yes, absolutely.

 

While 2020 seems far away, decisions being made this year by Congress and the Trump administration will determine whether the Census Bureau has the resources it needs to do the job well. And getting the census right is important to everyone.

  • Fair, proportionate voting representation in our democracy depends on valid census data. That’s why the census is required by the U.S. Constitution.

  • Federal agencies rely on census data to monitor discrimination and implement civil rights laws that protect voting rights, equal employment opportunity, and more.

  • Local leaders use census data to identify and address emerging needs for health care, education, housing, food and income security, rural access to broadband, and other services

The census is required by the U.S. Constitution, and Congress is responsible for making sure the job gets done right. There aren’t any do-overs.

The Census Bureau is currently operating at last year’s funding levels, under a temporary measure that expires on April 27. But the agency needs a steady “ramp up” in funding to finish planning and start preparations for the 2020 Census. This isn’t unfamiliar news to members of Congress; funding for the decennial census traditionally increases significantly as we get closer to the census year.

As a result of Congress’ failure to allocate sufficient funds for the Census Bureau, there have been significant delays, cancellations, and cutbacks in census planning activities, including the testing of complex technological advancements. Just last year, the Bureau was forced to cancel three field tests for 2017 that would have allowed it to evaluate new, special methods for counting American Indian reservations and other sparsely populated and remote areas. A census operations test in Puerto Rico was also scrubbed.

The Census Bureau cannot afford to delay preparations any longer. The fate of equal representation for all communities rests on a fair and accurate count. Communities of color, urban and rural low-income households, immigrants, and young children are all at risk of being missed at disproportionately high rates.

As living situations across the country continue to become more complex, we must support the Census Bureau’s efforts to conduct rigorous tests — not hamstring an already challenging task with insufficient funding. So in addition to a funding increase, the Census Bureau must be exempt from the federal hiring freeze to start hiring workers soon for the 2018 End-to-End Census Test, which serves as a “dress rehearsal” for the 2020 Census.

While a cost-effective census is a praiseworthy goal, saving money cannot come at the expense of an inclusive census that accurately reflects our population. Being undercounted deprives already vulnerable communities of fair representation and vital resources.

So Congress has two options: invest now in robust development of modern, cost-effective methods, or pay a lot more later for outdated operations that might not get the job done. Let’s hope lawmakers make the right decision.

Wade Henderson is president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.


The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.