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Avoiding the Census Fiasco of 2020

(Bloomberg View) -- Ever since the U.S. conducted its first decennial census in 1790, an accurate count of the nation’s people has been a vital federal responsibility. The Constitution requires it, and the government can’t work properly without it. The fact that the census of 2020 is shaping up to be a fiasco is no small matter.

The troubles at the Census Bureau aren’t new. Nonetheless it falls to President Donald Trump to fix the problem -- and to do this, he’ll need to move quickly.

More is at stake than you’d think. Census data shape how states and regions are represented in Congress, and where the federal government puts infrastructure and public services. Private enterprise relies on the same numbers. Which towns and neighborhoods will get a Wal-Mart, or a Whole Foods? It depends in part on the census. A faulty count would misdirect resources, and weigh most heavily on minorities, the poor and immigrants. They tend to be the hardest to track down -- and, these days, they might be especially wary of responding.

The Government Accountability Office has added the 2020 Census to its list of high-risk projects. Costs at the Census Bureau have mounted each decade as the office failed to use new technology, relying on paper forms and hundreds of thousands of human enumerators. In 2010, an aborted effort to use handheld devices cost hundreds of millions of dollars, eroding legislators’ patience with further budget increases. Seven years on, the bureau is struggling to get ready for the next count.

It does have a plan to modernize and keep costs under control. This would use aerial maps and post-office data to verify addresses, rather than depending on shoe leather alone; gather information from existing government records; encourage people to respond to census questions online; and replace enumerators’ clipboards with a smartphone app. But it’s hard to know how much human effort these still-untested systems will save. If the bureau miscalculates, it will have to hire a lot of people at the last minute and at exorbitant cost -- or else end up with a census full of errors.

All this might be surmountable if the bureau had the right leadership and adequate resources. It doesn’t. Its director, John Thompson, announced his resignation last month, and other key positions aren’t staffed. Trump’s budget proposal falls short of what’s needed for next year’s planned test of the new systems -- a sort of dress rehearsal crucial to avoiding expensive mistakes in 2020.

Soon it will be too late to get back on track. Without delay, Trump must nominate competent people to fill the empty posts, and Congress must allocate money for the necessary tests. The census debacle of 2020 is looming.

--Editors: Mark Whitehouse, Clive Crook.

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