By Aarian Marshall. Published in Wired Magazine.
Given the suddent canning of FBI head James Comey on Tuesday, don’t feel bad if you didn’t hear that US Census Bureau director John H. Thompson announced his resignation the same day. And given that the Comey situation may plunge American politics into a 21st century Watergate, you probably don’t care, either.
Well, you should. Thompson’s departure, now slated for June, could further hamper a bureau already starved for funding and scrambling to prepare for the 2020 Census. “The Census is on a relentless calendar, and there’s much, much work to do over the next three years,” says Kenneth Prewitt, who ran the Census Bureau from 1998 to 2001 and now teaches at Columbia University. “With no one in charge, things slow down.”
That’s a problem, because the decennial Census does more than count heads to allocate congressional seats. It provides a vital source of quality, public data on where and how people live. It’s a vital benchmark for government (How many people need a frequent bus route in this neighborhood? Does that town need a new road?) and the private sector (Does this village have enough people to support a ridehail app? How about another ice cream shop?).
“The US has always been a leader compared to other countries in terms of providing data that enables public policy to be more efficient, but also entrepreneurial activity to be more targeted and more effective,” says Gary Dean Painter, an economist who studies immigrant populations at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price Center for Social Innovation.
Nothing good happens if the data gets skewed. So the bureau’s leadership vacuum and current funding fight, combined with the Trump administration’s hints that it’s not quite open to open data, has left researchers sweating.
“I’m personally very worried that if [the government’s] goal is to obfuscate the viewing of what’s happening in particular places by not collecting the right types of data, we’re going to have to make important decisions with less information,” Painter says.
Running the Numbers
The US Census Bureau actually collects and releases population information every year. Planners particularly love the American Community Survey, which collects information on education, housing, and even driving habits from 3.5 million households per annum. But the decennial Census is the constitutionally mandated Dyson, attempting to hoover up granular info on a representative sample of nearly 143 million households—sometimes down to the city block—in one fell swoop.
“It’s considered a gold standard in terms of providing statistics,” says Paul Ong, an economist who studies social stratification with UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs and has served as an adviser to the Census Bureau. It helps that the survey gets an incredibly high response rate (76 percent in 2010), thanks to a law that requires people fill it in and the Census takers who politely hound households. (The 2020 Census will be the first to allow residents to reply on computers or mobile phones, something the bureau hopes could also boost response rates.)
So when transportation and urban planners plot out a bus line or public park, or consider whether to allow that big company to build that big office right there, they call up 10-year Census data. Knowing where new immigrants live, for example, helps cities plan public transit routes. Painter has found newly arrived populations are much more likely to depend on carpools or transit than established residents. And as cities get increasingly smart about linking housing and jobs—and about how those policies affect air pollution and public health—the Census provides need-to-know info.
The Census is also an extra useful check for other data sources. Data that doesn’t comport with the Census might be bad and deserve a closer look. The Census helps researchers and planners statistically weight the models they use to allocate transportation funds across neighborhoods and figure out which projects are most needed—fix this road, or the one a half a mile over? Finally, local governments need Census data to prove to the federal government that their transportation systems comply with laws like the Clear Air Act and Civil Rights Act.
If a decennial Census is off target, vulnerable populations pay, with the next chance to right the wrong a decade away. “It’s along racial lines. It’s low-income populations. It certainly affects immigrant populations, people who live in very dense apartment complexes, and sparse rural areas that are difficult to access,” says Ong. “Those populations tend to be undercounted systematically.”
Despite these challenges, congressional Republicans demand the Census Bureau stay thrifty, ordering the process cost no more than it did in 2010. Last year, Congress granted the Census Bureau $140 million less funding than it requested. In past Census cycles, the federal government has dramatically increased the bureau’s funding the closer it gets to the Census; President Donald Trump’s proposed budget has flatlined it.
Which brings the bureau to this resignation. Less than a week ago, Census Bureau Director Thompson told a combative congressional committee his agency needed an extra $309 million for IT equipment. It’s not clear why Thompson’s resignation came this week, and the bureau did not return a request for comment. But his departure makes a tricky census even trickier to pull off.
Sure, the next big Census is three years away, but the counting process is already kicking into high gear. The bureau should be pulling off a field test of the new tech it plans to deploy right about … now. If it can’t get that right, it’s in the dark going into the big show. And if the test reveals hiccups, it’ll be harder to soothe them by 2020. “It’s like you build a new fighter airplane and roll it out and say, ‘I don’t have anyone to test it. We’ll just put the pilots in and go fight the war,'” says Prewitt, the former Census Bureau chief.
Don’t panic just yet. The resignation “is a big problem, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed,” says Prewitt. Congress could speed along approval for Thompson’s replacement. Congress could fully fund the Census. The bureau could pull the thing off without a hitch, and American planners could continue to build cities and transportation systems that are safe and efficient for all. As long as everyone’s counted.