May 15, 2017
Last Tuesday, as the nation was reeling from the shock of Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, many of us may have overlooked another seismic blow: The U.S. Census director John Thompson announced his resignation, which takes effect in June.
Now, the Census may seem anodyne in comparison to the FBI—amassing and analyzing data about the country’s population doesn’t strike most readers as being as urgent as a criminal investigation into election tampering and possible treason. But believe this: His resignation is arguably as terrifying as Comey’s departure from the FBI if not more so, because this is how gerrymandering happens. And this is how democracy gets derailed.
Currently there is no permanent deputy waiting in the wings, and no one from the Department of Commerce there to supervise the fast approaching 2020 United States Census, which has already been suffering from funding issues, and was threatening not to count people who most need to be counted. The Census is the foundational data for, well, everything: Voting rates for Black people? Check. Fertility rates? Check. Median earnings for men and women, broken down by gender and occupation? Check. (Actually maybe don’t click that one—it will just piss you off.) The results of the Census are also used to draw federal and state political districts and determine how a lot of federal dollars get spent. Because of all this, it is vital that everyone gets counted. The Census Bureau is in utter disarray. And this administration isn’t particularly sad about it.
We first caught wind that there were problems when the Census Bureau submitted to our now GOP-led Congress a list of proposed topics, which included questions about sexual orientation and gender identity—new to the Census. The list was revised: Not surprisingly, the new version’s LGBT topics were missing.
The Census initially claimed it was “just a clerical error” and those things should never have been included in the first place. This did little to defuse the outrage over the erasure because prior to the election of Trump, Obama’s director of the Office of Management and Budget underscored how important LGBT-related data collection was in 2015.
“In some cases, such as measuring access to or discrimination from services, we want to know about sexual orientation or gender identity. In other cases, such as in health research, we may want to know about sexual behavior.
When collecting information from young adults, we may want to ask questions about sexual attraction, rather than behavior. And we want to collect that information using language that is meaningful to the LGBT community and yet precise enough for policy needs—such as collecting information about transgender Americans.”
Regardless of whether omitting LGBTQ Americans from the Census is mere clerical error, or nefarious, it is erasure nonetheless.
It’s also nothing new. Census questions have often lagged behind the shifting demographics of the United States or have been used with very deliberate and malicious intent. The Census didn’t really get a handle on how to count Hispanic individuals until the late 20th century. Multiracial individuals were forced to pick a single-race category until the 2000 Census. The Census Bureau even gave up names of Japanese citizens so they could be interned during World War II.
That said, when the Census is at its best, it provides a rich picture of American diversity. That’s probably why right-wingers like the Heritage Foundation hate it when the Census tries to expand its categories:
“Often sold as a remedy for racial inequality, the proliferation of ethnic identity groups actually reinforces cronyism. The gainers are network insiders such as the heads of advocacy organizations formed to “lead” the new ethnicities and the politicians who get elected in the rotten boroughs that emerge from ethnicity-based redistricting.”
It should come as little surprise then that conservatives, who thrive in large part due to a white supremacist nation, would loathe an institution that could help, eventually, undercut that power. It’s also unsurprising that Democrats want to provide robust funding for the Census while a GOP Congress wants the Census Bureau to do its job in 2020 with far less money than 2010 or even 2000.
The people who tend to get undercounted are minorities and the poor. The latter, in particular, are more difficult to accurately count because they live in rentals and may not even receive the mailer that you fill out to be counted. Starting with the 2000 Census, however, the Census Bureau started to effectively address this problem by hiring a veritable army of people to go door-to-door and follow up with everyone that doesn’t return the mailed form, and the undercount plummeted.
But budget cuts mean that the Census Bureau is planning on replacing a lot of that footwork with internet-based counting, which will inevitably undercount poor people and minorities all over again, because both of those groups typically have lower access to the web. Undercounting minorities and the poor—you guessed it—creates underrepresentation and decreases the flow of federal dollars to those communities.
Add to all of this the fact that we also have a president who is utterly unconcerned with accuracy or data, particularly when it doesn’t suit his narrative.
“In August, the then presidential candidate described the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) unemployment numbers as “phoney”, claiming: “The 5 percent figure is one of the biggest hoaxes in American modern politics.” In the same speech, Trump suggested alternative data, adding: “The number’s probably 28, 29, as high as 35. In fact, I even heard recently 42 percent.”
(It bears noting that Trump enthusiastically believes those low unemployment rate numbers now that he is president, however).
Finally, the Census, as you might guess, is a giant undertaking. Right as one finishes, extensive preparations for the next one begin. Beginning in 2013, there have been yearly Census tests that test everything from choosing topics to making sure that the Census’s information technology systems are ready. The smooth operation of Census preparation is vital for the smooth operation of the Census itself. Which is why it is terrible that, along with underfunding and a president who doesn’t believe in data, that Thompson, the head of the Census Bureau, quit last week
There’s no word on why he quit. Thompson had been with the Bureau for 27 years, and director since 2013. Arguably, being head of the place you worked most of your professional life, should be a job they’d have to drag you away from. But when your entire enterprise is hobbled by underfunding, it might make walking away rather appealing.
“In late April Congress approved only $1.47 billion for the Census Bureau in the 2017 fiscal year, about 10 percent below what the Obama administration had requested. And experts say the White House’s proposed budget for 2018, $1.5 billion, falls far below what is needed.”
With an all-Republican government, there’s no reason to think that this underfunding will change. With Trump, there’s no reason to think that his utter refusal to believe in data will change. Both of those things lead to a near-certain conclusion: a person who Trump would nominate and the Senate would confirm is not likely to be someone philosophically committed to data integrity, expanded budgets, and best efforts to count everyone. (That is, of course, presuming Trump will get around to nominating anyone, given that he’s failed to even put names forward for nearly 85 percent of the executive branch jobs that need Senate confirmation.)
A subpar census will have serious, long-lasting consequences. Data about the racial makeup of communities, whether there is enough affordable housing, gender-based pay disparities, poverty levels in rural America—all of these things and more will be utterly compromised by a census that undercounts or does a poor job of counting generally. And of course, if counts are inaccurate, federal and state political subdivisions are inaccurate. America needs a functional census, but it looks like it doesn’t have one right now, and might not for a long time.