By Mona Chalabi. Published in The Guardian.
Here’s a free bit of advice to power-hungry leaders who are concerned about bad PR: don’t publicly take away people’s rights, just stop counting the abuses. After the US Census Bureau was given a painfully tight budget this April, the Director decided yesterday he would not be the one to implement it. He resigned, ending a 27-year career at the Census Bureau.
If you’re not particularly riled up by the words “Census Bureau resignation”, that’s understandable. Normally, this bit of the federal government quietly plods along measuring things like poverty, racial inequality ... oh, and determining congressional representation. That last one’s a biggie.
Though John H Thompson had only served as director of the Census Bureau since 2013, most of us in the statistics community (which is as sexy as it sounds) had assumed he’d stay put for another 6 months at least to help oversee the 2020 census. High-level statistical jobs that require huge expertise don’t change hands too often, or at least they didn’t until recently.
Katherine Wallman was chief statistician of the United States from 1992 up until January 2017. When I spoke to Wallman earlier this year, she wasn’t concerned that the Trump administration would start fabricating the numbers - she was worried they would cut the funding that’s needed to collect them. Wallman wasn’t wrong.
In a bill enacted last week, President Donald Trump has given the bureau less than half its requested budget increase for 2017. The bureau asked for more money because accurately understanding the US population is expensive. The 2010 census cost the US taxpayer $13bn, which works out at roughly $42 for each of the 308.7 million people that were counted.
Budget cuts at the Census Bureau mean counting fewer things. Fair enough right? Except that the subjects that are being targeted for cuts seem conspicuous. So far, the Trump administration has deleted questions on sexual orientation from the 2020 Census and at least two other government surveys. Meanwhile, two Republican-sponsored bills introduced in January say that government money can’t be used to collect data on “racial disparities”.
If you’re still not particularly interested in the Census Bureau losing their director, consider an alternative to the federal government. Imagine if a private company offered to help the Census Bureau fill in the gaps left by budget cuts. Or consider the responsibilities of other federal statistical agencies being taken over by private businesses - the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Center for Health Statistics, the National Center for Education Statistics etc. Are you confident private corporations won’t have any incentives to tweak the numbers?
Kenneth Prewitt, former director of the US Census Bureau and currently professor of public affairs at Columbia University, imagined exactly that scenario. Prewitt explained private companies can “count some people twice and others not at all. And if you can leave people out of the census selectively, you can actually affect, eventually, the drawing of legislative boundaries at the local level, the state level and of course at the federal level.”
It’s not yet clear who the Trump administration will appoint as the next director of the US Census Bureau. What is clear is that they probably won’t have the budget needed to do their job properly.
The numbers from the Census Bureau underpin just about everything we know about the economy, education, health and justice in America. Without them, the US government won’t be making public policy based on public need. That’s an equation that just doesn’t add up.