Trump signs an executive order. Credit: The White House
There are certain things we just expect from our government. Safe drinking water, working street lights and timely help from first responders. Likewise, we simply assume that the federal government will competently and fairly administer the census. In the Age of Trump, however, even that is not a certainty.
Counting every American is a big, expensive job. And today we are not ready to do the job. The Trump administration’s proposed U.S. Census Bureau budget is completely inadequate and puts an accurate census at risk. Worse, some worry that the Trump administration is determined to inject partisanship and immigration politics into the 2020 count. A flawed census would do damage all across the country, including here in King County.
Funding for the census needs to dramatically ramp up each year of the 10-year cycle. The Trump 2018 census budget, however, proposes to only increase spending 7 percent over 2017. In past decades the census budget has sometimes doubled between the seventh and eighth year in its decade-long ramp-up for the decennial count.
The effects of this starvation budget is already being felt. Politico reports: “The bureau is currently conducting its test run for the 2020 census, but it had to cancel components of the test due to limited funding. The agency has also delayed its regular economic census by six months due to funding shortages.”
Even more alarming are signs that Trump and his team might try and use the census to further their political goals. The jobs of director and deputy director of the Census Bureau are vacant. The administration seems intent on appointing University of Texas-Dallas Professor Thomas Brunell as Deputy Director, putting him in charge of the agency. A frequent witness on behalf of Republican redistricting plans, Brunell has no government experience, and in 2008 wrote a book titled “Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections Are Bad for America.”
At the same time, the administration has drafted, but not yet issued, an executive order adding for the first time a question to the census form regarding immigration status and citizenship.
As both King County assessor, and previously, chief deputy assessor, I have worked closely with the Census Bureau. I met with Census Bureau officials in Washington, D.C., earlier this year, and I can tell you they are concerned. They don’t have the tools they need to prepare for 2020.
Nearly $600 billion annually in federal funding is driven by census data, including programs related to health, housing, nutrition, employment and education. And, of course, political representation, in the form of congressional and legislative seats, is based on the results of the census.
Some people would like to do the census on the cheap, using estimates or untested technology. They are wrong. Every person in America needs and deserves to be counted, and for many communities that means doing it the old-fashioned way: knocking on doors.
For a long time, some people have also wanted to use the census in the battle over immigration.
An underfunded, inaccurate census is going to miss the homeless, immigrants and people in many urban areas. Some hint darkly that this is exactly the result the Trump administration wants. Congress needs to make sure this doesn’t happen by appropriating the money the Census Bureau truly needs, and providing oversight to ensure the job is done right.
The most important use of the census is for apportionment of representatives in Congress and state legislatures, but census data are used for planning and allocation of billions of dollars in federal and nonprofit funding each year, programs which affect every city and town in King County. In terms of fairness, democracy, opportunity and addressing the many issues the nation faces, a fair and accurate census is paramount, and that won’t happen without adequate funding and non-biased leadership.