Every Penny Hoarder Should Care About the 2020 Census. Here’s Why

Census Data
Former Census Bureau Director Robert Groves announces results for the 2010 U.S. Census, Dec. 21, 2010. Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo

Once a decade, we know it’s coming. The government sends out surveys in hopes of tallying every man, woman and child for the U.S. census.

The questionnaire and the ongoing American Community Survey help determine more than you might imagine.

The numbers measure how populations shift over time. They’re used to determine how seats in the House of Representatives are divided among each state and how resources are spent to serve the needs of communities all over the country.

As you would probably guess, surveying every person in America is a massive undertaking that requires an enormous amount of planning, time, money and manpower.

Kenneth Prewitt, former Census Bureau director, told The Washington Post there are “only a handful of people in the country equipped for the very difficult challenge” of pulling off a successful 2020 census. One of those few people is John Thompson.

The good news is that Thompson was already appointed to the job as Census Bureau director. The bad news is that he just submitted his resignation and is retiring from public service at the end of May.

His unexpected resignation came after disagreements with Congress over the estimated $12.5 billion cost of the 2020 census. That’s about $200 million more than was spent in 2010, which would make it the most expensive census in history.

Earlier this month, Congress issued a mandate to cap the census budget at $12.3 billion, which is what it cost in 2010. That lower budget did not leave room to pay for a new technology-driven data collection system that costs nearly $1 billion.

The $1.47 billion Congress allocated for 2017 was already 10% below what officials under the Obama administration believed was needed. And experts feel the $1.5 billion the White House proposed for 2018 will fall far short of what the bureau will need.

As Thompson prepares to step down at the end of the month, many are worried that his departure will have a negative impact on how the census is conducted. Thompson says that stepping down now leaves time for his replacement to get acclimated before 2020 arrives.

What Happens When Census Data is Wrong?

The census doesn’t just measure population sizes. It also collects data about factors like income, age and military status.

Mistakes in the collection of that data — like counting too many or too few people — could lead to the misallocation of essential resources over the next 10 years, Prewitt told The Washington Post.

“The consequences of not reaching that goal are substantial,” Prewitt said. “The Veteran’s Administration wants to put a new hospital where it can serve elderly veterans. To do so, it needs measures of age and of veteran status that are accurate. A significant undercount puts the hospital in the wrong town. A poor-quality census means policies that miss their mark.”

A miscount could also put resources for the poor or disabled in inaccessible places, making those resources effectively useless.

What is Needed for a Good Census?

Although Thompson has resigned, the show must go on. A census will still be conducted in 2020 as it has been done every decade since 1790.

President Donald Trump will nominate a new director, who will then go before the Senate for confirmation. The Trump administration has not revealed any candidates yet. That person will have to take on the big job, and the No. 1 goal will be accuracy.

“A good census counts everyone in the country, counts each only once, and counts all in the right place,” Prewitt told the Post.

Desiree Stennett (@desi_stennett) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder.