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Opinion: Ensuring We All Count

If we don’t act fast, many people will be uncounted in 2020 census

From left, Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves, acting Deputy Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke in December 2010 at an event announcing the U.S. population. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call file photo)
From left, Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves, acting Deputy Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke in December 2010 at an event announcing the U.S. population. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call file photo)

When the Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution, they knew that for our country to be the true democratic republic they envisioned, it must reflect the ever-changing makeup of its people.

To meet this need, they enshrined, in Article I, Section 2, the decennial census. This exercise stands alone as the only constitutionally mandated task of the federal government, required by the framers to be renewed every ten years, to make sure each and every person living in the United States is counted.

A well-executed census ensures everyone has a voice in government, drives the distribution of public funds and informs all levels of government, medical and public health researchers, disaster planning, businesses, and nonprofit organizations about the make up of our nation. Without an accurate census, we would not have equal representation in Congress or in state legislatures. Medicaid and Medicare funding would be distributed inequitably. Businesses and community organizations would lose access to critical information they rely on to make smart, cost-efficient decisions. There is no substitute or alternative for an accurate census and doing it right requires careful preparation and testing, especially in the few years leading up the census.

Unfortunately, due to a severe lack of funding, the U.S. Census Bureau is far behind where it needs to be at this point to successfully conduct the 2020 census.

Budget constraints and chronically low funding levels have forced the Census Bureau to massively scale back its 2018 end-to-end test, an important dress rehearsal during which all new technologies and counting methods are supposed to be tested and evaluated. The bureau has also had to cancel its plan to conduct operations testing in rural and suburban communities and the Spanish language test in Puerto Rico was canceled before the recent hurricanes devastated the island. President Donald Trump has still not even appointed a census director or deputy director and if resources and leadership are not provided quickly, the 2020 census could be a historic failure.

While Congress can’t force the president to hire a new census director, we can at least provide the bureau with the resources it should have gotten a long time ago. That’s why I and other members of Congress have introduced H.R. 4013, the 2020 American Census Investment Act of 2018, a bill to provide the Census Bureau with $1.935 billion, an additional $428 million over the House-passed level and $254 million more than the revised request made by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross ahead of an Oversight and Government Reform hearing on the census last month. These funds are necessary to address the many technology shortfalls in what is expected to be the most digitally advanced census ever conducted.

Beyond funding the planning and development stages, and ensuring the bureau has the technology it needs to conduct the census, we must make sure that the American people know about the census and its fundamental importance to democracy. That is why we have mandated in this bill that funds be used for promotion, outreach, and marketing activities. These are critical to ensuring the bureau receives a high initial response rate, limiting the future need for expensive door-to-door follow-up measures, the costliest part of the enumeration process.

In our view, the choice is simple. We can properly fund the Census Bureau now or ask taxpayers to pay far more later down the road to make up for poor planning, like we did in the 2010 count — or worse, we could fail to fulfill our constitutional duty to deliver a full, fair, and complete count of the nation. We will feel the effects of this failure for decades to come. No one should be left out of the 2020 census but if we don’t act fast, many people will be uncounted.

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney is a Democrat representing New York’s 12th District. She serves on the House Oversight and Government Reform and Financial Services committees and is the ranking House member on the Joint Economic Committee. 

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