Editorial Board

A Failed Census Would Harm America

Does Donald Trump really want to be remembered as the president who bungled the count?

The count matters.

Photo: Fox Photos/Getty Images

Enshrined in the Constitution, the census is among the federal government's most fundamental responsibilities. It is also one the government is perilously close to flunking, unless Congress and the administration act now. 

The decennial census is arguably the most important data set the government produces. It determines how many representatives each state sends to Washington, who sends them there, and how much Washington sends back in funding for federal programs. It informs decisions about public and private spending, on everything from roads and schools to hospitals and supermarkets.

Yet the 2020 Census is already in deep trouble. The Census Bureau has fallen behind on plans that would use new technology -- including aerial mapping and online questionnaires –- to bring the exercise into the 21st century. Underfunding has forced it to forego research and field tests crucial to ensuring that it reaches all Americans, including hard-to-count groups such as immigrants and minorities. To complicate matters, the bureau’s director quit in May.

A botched census would benefit no one. A count that lacked the resources to reach the inner-city poor would also miss rural dwellers, affecting Democratic and Republican constituencies alike. Bad population estimates could give municipalities across the country grounds to sue the bureau. Worst of all, the failure to fulfill such a basic responsibility would undermine confidence in government.

People across the political spectrum recognize the danger. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has appealed to Congress for an added $3.3 billion through 2020 to complete the census. U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat, has introduced a bill that would provide even more immediate funding. Two former Census directors, from Democratic and Republican administrations, have urged action.

Even if it gets the money, Census will still need a capable leader. Instead of seeking a qualified director, however, the administration is reportedly considering Thomas Brunell, a Texas political science professor with no government experience, for the separate position of deputy director. That person oversees the day-to-day operations of the bureau and, crucially, does not require Senate confirmation. Brunell, who has served as an expert witness in support of Republican redistricting efforts, does not have the background typical for the position.

Judging from its approach to data on climate and crime, the current administration does not place a high priority on transparency and reliability. But bungling the census would represent a whole new level of incompetence -- one that would not only render many of the president's own voters invisible, but also skew policy for at least a decade. Does Donald Trump really want to be remembered as the president who oversaw a failed census?

    --Editors: Mark Whitehouse, Michael Newman.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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