The director of the US Census Bureau announced Tuesday that he would resign. The announcement comes amid widespread concerns over the agency’s budget for its decennial 2020 population-counting mission, raising fears among civil rights leaders, who say census data is a crucial tool for ensuring people of color and other marginalized groups receive their fair share of electoral representation and government resources.
Census Bureau Director John H. Thompson will retire on June 30, according to the Commerce Department. Thompson has served as director since 2013, and he spent 27 years at the agency before that.
Thompson’s announcement comes just one week after he faced criticisms from Republicans about the size of his agency’s budget during a congressional committee hearing, and less than a month after Congress allocated a budget for the Census Bureau that advocates say is far below what the agency needs to prepare its 2020 count, one of the government’s largest civilian undertakings.
Advocates say the budget shortfalls would seriously weaken efforts to collect better data in marginalized communities, where populations have been disproportionately undercounted in the past. Government agencies and civil rights activists rely on census data to address inequalities in resource distribution and political representation.
Traditionally, budgets for the Census Bureau are significantly increased in the two or three years leading up to a major national census, but that hasn’t been the case this year as congressional Republicans and the Trump administration eye cuts to domestic spending. Funding for the census is far lower at this point in the 10-year cycle than it has been in the past, when budgets increased by 75 percent or more in preparation for the decennial population count, according to The Census Project.
The Government Accountability Office recently named the 2020 census a “high risk” program due to budget problems. GAO has offered 30 recommendations to help the bureau with cost-saving efforts over the past three years, but only six were implemented by January 2017.
Census data is vital in enforcing the Voting Rights Act and implementing and monitoring voting reforms that combat efforts to gerrymander, or redraw electoral districts, in ways that reduce the power of communities of color at the polls, according to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human rights. Census data also helps civil rights leaders fight for equal opportunity in housing, education, health care and the job market.
“The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights urges the White House and Congress to provide the Census Bureau the funding and resources it needs to do the job well,” said Jeff Miller, the Leadership Conference’s vice president of communications, in an email to Truthout.
The last decennial census in 2000 missed 16 million people and double-counted 17 million more. Communities of color are disproportionately undercounted because of lower response rates in low-income neighborhoods, language barriers and distrust or suspicion of the government, particularly in immigrant communities, according to the Leadership Conference.
“The health and wellbeing, as well as the political power of all of the diverse communities the Leadership Conference represents, rests on a fair and accurate count,” said Wade Henderson, the conference’s director, in a recent statement.
Support for Republican political candidates among people of color tends to be low, and over the past decade GOP-controlled state legislatures have implemented voting restrictions that courts have repeatedly ruled were designed to prevent people of color from accessing the polls. Federal courts have heard several cases in recent years arising from southern states where Republican-led legislatures have been accused of gerrymandering to dilute the Black vote.
Census data shows that white voters will be in the minority nationwide by 2044.
The budget shortfalls at the Census Bureau come as Trump and his GOP allies in Congress are increasing funding for a brutal, nationwide crackdown on immigrants, who are causing demographic changes in some areas of the country. The census is supposed to count every person regardless of immigration status. It is “extremely important” for monitoring the growth of immigrant communities so needs for social services and civil rights representation can be properly met, according to the Leadership Conference.
Budget woes could compromise efforts to make the census better in historically undercounted communities, including targeted advertising, language assistance and “special methods” in low-income rural areas, according Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former congressional staffer who worked on census issues and now consults with the Leadership Conference.
The Census Bureau is also working to improve its data collection abilities with new technology-based practices, such as gathering questionnaires online instead of by mail or in person. Thompson told a House oversight committee last week that IT improvements for the 2020 census were expected to go $300 million over budget, prompting sharp criticism from committee Chairman Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), according to The Census Project.
Democrats have countered that the agency’s budget problems are the result of underfunding in the past, and without more money, the budget woes could get worse.
Watchdogs say any delay in naming a new Census Bureau director could cause problems as well. Thompson’s term expired earlier this year, but many observers expected him to stay on board for the remainder of the year, or at least until a successor could be chosen.
Ken Pruitt, who led the agency from 1998 to 2001, recently told Science Magazine that conservatives might be trying to weaken the agency so it performs poorly in 2020, providing a political imperative to privatize the census.
“That system is fragile, and it wouldn’t take much to damage it severely,” said Prewitt, who is now a professor of social affairs at Columbia University. “My real fear is that they don’t care enough to do a good job with the 2020 census. And then after doing a bad job, they decide to let the private sector take over.”
The Commerce Department did not respond to an inquiry from Truthout by the time this article was published. The Washington Post reports that a successor to Thompson has not been chosen, and NBC News reports that the White House has denied asking him to step down. Of the 557 key federal positions requiring a Senate confirmation, the White House has only nominated candidates to fill 40 of them, according to the Post and Partnership for Public Service.
“We urge the president to nominate a highly qualified, consensus candidate who will rise to challenge of an accurate 2020 census,” Miller said.