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The 2020 Census is at risk. Here are the major consequences

Data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau every 10 years is used to draw voting districts and determine how much funding to give to states, counties and cities, but underfunded and without a director, the agency is now on the verge of collapsing. Hari Sreenivasan is joined by former Census director Kenneth Prewitt to discuss what a crippled census in 2020 could mean for our democracy.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first: The U.S. census is generally considered more technical than controversial, but, in recent months, the once-a-decade population count has been the subject of political debate.

    There has been no move to replace director, John Thompson, since his surprise resignation last spring. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross recently asked Congress for additional funding to keep the agency from collapsing.

    Hari Sreenivasan spoke with former Census Director Kenneth Prewitt to discuss what a crippled census in 2020 could mean for our democracy.

    But he began with a quick look at how the census affects us all.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Here’s a bit of civics 101.

    The U.S. census is an attempt by the government to count every person living in the United States. Every 10 years, the Census Bureau gathers information like gender, age, race and income.

  • Actor:

    We did it. We did it. Hey.

  • Actor: 

    What did you do?

  • Actor:

    We helped mommy fill out her census form. And we mailed it back.

  • Actor: 

    But why?

  • Actor: 

    Because everybody counts in the census form.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But why does the government collect this data? First, the Constitution says to.

  • Former President George H.w. Bush:

     One of the ways the Constitution preserves our rights is to require the government to conduct a census every 10 years.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The founding fathers decided the number of seats in the U.S. House is determined by the number of people in each state. The official count is used to draw voting districts at the national, state and local levels.

    But there’s another important reason the U.S. conducts a census: money.

  • Man:

    And 2.4 million, 2.5 million.

  • Woman:

    The U.S. census isn’t just a population count. It helps allocate federal, state and local funds to your community.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The federal government decides how much funding or grants to give states, counties and cities by looking at the detailed census data. That means money for updating schools, building new hospitals, repairing broken roads, and maintaining public utilities like water, sewage and electricity.

  • Man:

    You can answer census 2000 and get what you need, or you can leave it blank and get this, nothing.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Private companies also make major decisions based on what the census says, like where to build grocery stores or new housing developments.

    But like any other government agency, the Census Bureau needs funding to do its job. And it’s not cheap. The last census, in 2010, cost taxpayers $13 billion, with more than 500 field offices and 635,000 staffers nationwide.

    Republicans already worried about big government have questioned that price tag.

    South Carolina Congressman Trey Gowdy:

  • Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-s.c.: 

    Cost matters. I think it matters, period, new paragraph.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Kenneth Prewitt, thanks for joining us.

    It’s been a significant concern. Budget hawks say, why does the census cost as much as it does? Aren’t there technologies now that can do it better and less expensively?

  • Kenneth Prewitt:

    They’re trying to do the 2020 census at roughly half of the price of the 2010 census, whereas the 2010 was double the price of the 2000. That was the one I was engaged in.

    So, yes, enormous advances have been made in using technology to reduce the cost. But if you are not even funded at that level with these new technologies, well, you’re simply ill-prepared to do the census in 2020.

    The bad news is, it’s not being funded, and we currently don’t have a leader. We don’t have a director in the Census Bureau, so we’re not ready in that more important sense.

    And then another issue, we’re trying new technologies this year for the first time ever in a census. And you have to test them, or you should test them. There’s no money to test them. Just it’s like you had a fighter fly a plane that puts a new technology in it that’s never been before, rolls off the assembly line, and they say, oh, go directly into action.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    There was a draft that was leaked earlier this year that recommended that the U.S. census — quote — “include questions that determine U.S. citizenship and immigration status.”

    Now, there’s indication that that would be included in the 2020 census. But what kind of an effect does that have?

  • Kenneth Prewitt:

    It would scare a lot of people that you actually need to count.

    The census is supposed to count everyone in the country, once and only once and in the right place. That’s a big job.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Considering that we’re in a climate where institutions that we once used to trust are regularly questioned, whether it’s fake news or fake census, what’s the consequence of something like this not being trusted?

  • Kenneth Prewitt:

    Huge, quite honestly.

    If we really have a bad census, one of the things that could happen is the administration could say, let’s not use it, let’s sort of just use the old numbers. And with respect to redistricting, allocation of seats in the U.S. Congress, that means we would go with what we now have.

    A lot of population movement in the last 10 years. So this would really be a setback.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    It seems constitutionally it was designed as a representative tool, not a political one, but over the years, it’s been used by either side that’s in control as kind of a political tool.

  • Kenneth Prewitt:

    I would say the Census Bureau is not political.

    The use of the numbers is political. And as long as we can have the Census Bureau only wanting to produce the most accurate, complete count, then it, itself, is not political.

    If they are misused are used in ways that we — they are gerrymandering now with those census data. So a population which is roughly 50/50 in terms of electoral strength is roughly 60/40 in terms of seats in the Congress and governorships.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Are there vested interests in wanting to maintain the status quo?

  • Kenneth Prewitt:

    Well, yes.

    And I’m trying not to be political here, but if you like the distribution of seats and the distribution governorships in particular in the country now, and you think that by having a good census, you may lose some of the seats, then why would you want to have a good census?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Can the census be salvaged or saved, given the amount of time and the amount of money that we have right now?

  • Kenneth Prewitt:

    Oh, yes.

    If there was strong leadership in place within the next five months — let us say four or five months, and if the budget were where it ought to be, yes, it can be saved.

    There comes a time when you can’t save it. If you have not tested the census in 2018, it’s too late to fix it, even if you tested it in 2019. You don’t have the time to go back and fix any of the problems you encountered in the big test.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Kenneth Prewitt, now of Columbia University, former director of the U.S. census, thanks for joining us.

  • Kenneth Prewitt:

    My pleasure. Thanks.

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