Saving the 2020 Census Is Now Up to Congress

The Trump administration has renewed its assault on the 2020 Census. Congress should act to ensure that the government discharges a duty essential for good government: counting every person in America.

The decennial census is so crucial to the proper functioning of democracy and the economy that it’s enshrined in the Constitution. It determines how seats in the House of Representatives are apportioned among the states, how legislative districts are drawn, how hundreds of billions in federal dollars are allocated. It informs decisions on where to put schools, roads and grocery stores. It ensures the accuracy of government reports such as the annual American Community Survey and the monthly jobs report.

The 2020 Census has been in trouble from the start. Even before President Trump’s election, the project was behind schedule, as an underfunded Census Bureau struggled to introduce innovations such as online response and aerial mapping. Then came the coronavirus, forcing a long delay in the most difficult stage, in which enumerators go door to door, counting all the people who did not or could not respond on their own. Given this and other challenges of gathering information in the midst of a pandemic, the bureau asked for a four-month extension, to April 30 next year, to deliver preliminary results.

The administration now says no such extension is needed. It says it will finish collecting data by Sept. 30 and provide population totals by Dec. 31. This would leave enumerators, under exceptionally testing conditions, with a month less than usual to complete their work. And it’s only the latest of many deliberately placed obstacles. The administration tried — unsuccessfully — to include a citizenship question that didn’t need to be asked, embroiling officials in a legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court. The president then demanded data that would allow undocumented immigrants to be left out of the count, which would be both constitutionally questionable and bad policy.

The administration’s actions form a clear pattern: They increase the likelihood that the census will fail to reach hard-to-count immigrant and minority households, an outcome likely to benefit Republicans (or so they believe) when congressional seats are dispensed and legislative districts drawn. The risk of such an undercount is high and growing. As of early August, about a fifth of census tracts had response rates of less than 50%, and their combined population was disproportionately Black and Hispanic.

Congress needs to act quickly. Legislators should insist that the bureau take the four-month extension that it first requested, and expand the enumeration period as needed. They should also appoint an independent institution (such as the National Academies of Science) to produce metrics (such as the percentage of households on which information was obtained) for assessing the quality of the count, as four former bureau directors have proposed. If the results fail to measure up, Congress should consider postponing apportionment until a better count is done.

This willful bungling of the census should trouble everybody. An accurate census — a good-faith effort to establish basic facts about the country — is a prerequisite of competent government. Congress needs to act.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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