Government Agency

U.S. Census Bureau

Seal of the United States Census Bureau (link)
Website:

www.census.gov

The United States Census Bureau is a permanent government agency which executes the decennial census mandated by Article I, Section 2 of the United States Constitution, among other functions. Since the census began in 1790, the Bureau has expanded to conduct annual surveys of the American population, in addition to a range of other economic and social surveying programs.

In 2018, the Census Bureau introduced a plan to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census, generating massive backlash from the political left, including a lawsuit. Democrats alleged that the measure was designed to discourage immigrants from completing the census, which they claimed would give Republicans an advantage during the congressional redistricting and representative apportionment processes. The lawsuit eventually went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that a citizenship question could not be included on the 2020 census without additional rationale; no question was ultimately asked.

In 2020, after facing delays to the decennial census brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Census Bureau conducted several additional surveys to analyze the social and economic impact of the pandemic on American society. For the first time in history, individuals were permitted to complete census forms online. Though the Bureau increased its surveying, a budget deficit and its resulting lack of testing created concerns over whether the 2020 census would yield accurate numbers.

The Census Bureau has faced controversy in recent years, including allegations of left-of-center influence over the agency. In 2020, the Bureau announced that it would be hiring 18F as its digital service provider, a government agency with a left-wing workforce started under the Obama administration. [1]

History

The United States Census has existed since 1790; a census is mandated by Article I, Section 2 of the United States Constitution. [2] The Bureau is required to conduct a complete count of the United States population every ten years in order to properly apportion the number of representatives allotted to each state in the United States House of Representatives. [3]

The census began with the counting of individuals and their names, but quickly expanded to include data regarding manufacturing, agriculture, and school attendance by 1850. [4] The census then grew to include questions regarding each individuals’ profession, place of birth, and marital status. [5] Towards the end of the 20th century, the Census Act of 1880 replaced United States Marshals, who had previously conducted the annual census, with specially-hired and trained census enumerators in order to collect more data. [6] That year, the Bureau collected so much data on American residents that it took a decade to complete the tabulation and publication of the census results. [7] In 1890, mechanical tabulation of census data began. [8]

In 1902, anticipating the need to maintain a permanent workforce to administer the census, Congress made the United States Census Bureau a permanent agency, responsible not only for population censuses, but also for mid-decade censuses and surveys, censuses of manufacturers, and censuses of war commodities throughout World War I. [9] As the United States experienced the Great Depression, the Census Bureau added additional questions to the census in order to better evaluate the economic impact of the Depression on civilian life. [10]

In 1940, the Bureau began to shift the census to include both the standard questionnaire and statistical sampling in which the Bureau asked about 5 percent of the national population additional questions, including veteran status, native language, and parents’ place of birth. [11] Over the course of the 20th century, the census added additional sample questions, including means of transportation to work, ethnic origin, and occupation five years prior to what became known as the “long-form” census sent out to a fraction of American households. [12]

In 2005, the Bureau unveiled the annual American Community Survey (ACS). [13] The survey collects detailed socioeconomic information, that which was once collected by the long-form census questionnaire, every year, rather than every ten years. [14] The ACS is sent to just 2.5% of American households each year on a rotating basis, with no family receiving the survey more than once every five years. [15] Using the ACS, the Bureau makes socioeconomic estimates regarding demographic, social, economic, and housing characteristics in particular American communities, states, and the nation at large.

As a result of the ACS, censuses including and following the 2010 Census count all residents using a short-form census, including questions regarding name, sex, age, date of birth, race, ethnicity, relationship, and housing tenure of residents in each household. [16] The most recent 2010 census counted nearly 309 million American residents. [17]

Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Effects on Decennial Census

In 2020, the Census Bureau adjusted the 2020 decennial census in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, the Census Bureau announced a plan to suspend all field operations in light of the pandemic until June 1, 2020, when they anticipate Area Census Offices will begin returning to full staff capacity. [18] The Bureau further announced that all in-person activities, including enumeration, will follow current guidelines from authorities regarding pandemic response. [19]

Even in spite of the pandemic, nearly half of all American households have already responded to the census as of April 17, 2020. [20] Nonetheless, the Census Bureau released a statement calling on Congress to provide statutory relief of 120 additional calendar days in order to allow the Bureau to conduct a “lengthy, thorough, and scientifically rigorous” process in order to provide apportionment counts and redistricting information. [21]

As of April 2020, the Bureau has also suspended all in-person interviews for non-decennial surveys, including the ACS, instead opting for telephone interviews. [22]

Household Pulse Survey

On April 19, 2020, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs granted “emergency” approval for the Census Bureau to conduct the Household Pulse Survey within 90 days in order to evaluate the economic and health impact that the coronavirus pandemic has had on the United States. [23] The Bureau’s decision came on the heels of data advocates encouraging Congress to use the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to fund a “robust data infrastructure.” [24] The act did not provide substantial funding for the data collection effort, which cost just $1.2 million. [25]

The Household Pulse Survey, which is set to be distributed to American households by the end of April, will gather data on employment status, consumer spending, food security, education disruptions, and housing. [26] Beyond demographic data, the survey will also inquire as to physical and mental wellness to inform federal, state, and local response to the pandemic. [27] According to Census Bureau officials, the survey may also ask about how individual households are spending the relief payments sent to individuals affected by the pandemic. [28]

The survey will be sent by email, and potentially text message, to a sample of households totaling 13.8 million with a goal of receiving 108,000 responses each week over the course of twelve weeks. [29] Results will then be published weekly on the Bureau’s website. [30] The survey follows the recent launch of the Data Foundation’s COVID-19 Household Impact Survey, a large-scale private survey launched “because our government was unable to act quickly enough to capture the early trends of the pandemic,” according to Foundation president Nick Hart. [31]

The Census Bureau has further requested emergency approval from the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs to conduct a Small Business Pulse Survey, which would be sent to around one million small business across the United States to further determine economic impact of the pandemic. [32] The small business survey will inquire as to how small businesses are coping with location closings, supply change disruptions, and other changes brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak. [33]

Citizenship Question Controversy

In March of 2018, the Census Bureau announced that it intended to ask every American household to record which members of their family have United States citizenship on the 2020 Census form, acting on a request from the Department of Justice (DOJ). [34] The decision provoked an immediate response, especially from states controlled by the political left, with California and 13 other states filing a lawsuit against the Bureau just hours after it released the decision. [35]

The citizenship question, according to the Census Bureau, was designed to provide more information about who is in the United States and to reinstate a question that had been on a version of every census except for that released in 2010. [36] Groups on the political left argued that the question is part of a “broader project by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and company to take America back to the pre-civil rights era.” [37]

Left-of-center groups argued that the addition of a single citizenship question to the 2020 census would deter millions of immigrants from completing the mandatory surveys. [38] If immigrants did not complete the census, the count of individuals in the country used to determine congressional apportionment and allocate federal infrastructure funding would be thrown off. [39] This would primarily impact large urban areas and Democrat-controlled states where Latino immigrants are most likely to live, fueling the lawsuit and the claim that the Trump administration was trying to use the census to intimidate illegal immigrants. [40]

Precedent

Prior to 1950, the census required that respondents indicate their citizenship status. [41] From 1950 until 2000, the long-form census sent to one sixth of all American families included a question regarding citizenship status. [42] When the Bureau abolished the long-form census after 2000 and introduced the American Community Survey, the ACS included a question on citizenship that goes out to 2.5% of Americans every year, amounting to at least 12.5% of the population every five years because families cannot get the ACS more than once in every five years. [43] The ACS continues to collect information regarding citizenship. [44]

Voting Rights Act Claim

When the DOJ requested a citizenship question on the census, it argued that in order to enforce the Voting Rights Act, the Department must know where eligible voters live, which requires the ability to distinguish citizens from noncitizens. [45] According to the DOJ, a lack of citizenship data could dilute the power of voters of color if nonvoters were counted in the creation of a district. [46] Federal circuit courts have ruled in several cases that allegations of minority vote dilution must be backed up with statistics on the citizen voting-age population, not just the population, which would become more possible if a citizenship question was included on the census. [47]

Democrats responded to this rationale by claiming that the Trump administration was using it as a ruse in order to change how seats in Congress are allocated in predominately Democratic states. [48] If citizenship data were accurate and available, the federal government could apportion congressional seats based on the number of citizens per state, rather than people, and allow states to draw congressional districts based on citizen populations. [49] This would decrease the power of left-leaning districts, which may have larger populations of non-citizen immigrants. [50] Democrats also raised concerns that immigrants would avoid filling out the census for fear of deportation if they did not have legal citizenship in the United States, even though the information is protected by Title 13 of the United States Code which prevents the Bureau from sharing any personally identifying information with any other department of the government. [51]

In June of 2019, the lawsuit reached the United States Supreme Court, which temporarily blocked the Trump administration’s plan to include a citizenship question on the grounds that the administration had not provided adequate justification for it. [52] Though the Trump administration initially floated the idea of delaying the census in order to provide new legal arguments, President Trump announced that the citizenship question would not appear on the 2020 census in July of 2019. [53]

Left-of-Center Influence over the Census Bureau

Over the past decade, concerns have grown regarding undue left-of-center influence of the Census Bureau. In 2020, the Bureau’s decision to switch digital service provides to left-wing digital agency 18F sparked fears over the accuracy of online census data, while the Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic, and Other Populations (NAC) has actively promoted a narrative of left-of-center identity policies.

18F

For the first time in 2020, Americans have the option to complete the census online. [54] On February 13, 2020, the Government Accountability Office announced that the Census Bureau would begin using left-wing digital agency 18F as its digital services provider, in place of its previous provider, due to “scalability issues.” [55] The move is estimated to have cost around $167.3 million, though that figure includes services beyond the software abandoned by the Bureau. [56]

18F has strong ties to former President Barack Obama’s administration and was formed in 2014 in order to house President Obama’s Presidential Innovation Fellows. [57] The Fellows consisted of individuals on year-long sabbaticals from other technology jobs, but 18F also hired a staff of long-term professionals outside of its fellows. [58] Once the Trump administration came to power, cofounder of 18F Jennifer Pahlka said in a column that she and her colleagues were “deeply disturbed by and in many cases fearful of Trump’s proposed policies.” [59] Pahlka then encouraged colleagues at 18F to stay in government in order to form an internal “resistance” to conservative policies. [60]

Jessi Hempel, head of editorial content for Backchannel, implied that for certain conservative policies, including the deportation of illegal immigrants, left-of-center technology workers in government departments should slow down government in order to prevent the policies from being enacted. [61] The Bureau’s sourcing of digital services to 18F has sparked fears that left-of-center workers could impact the results of the census. [62]

The National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic, and Other Groups (NAC)

The NAC serves to advise the Census Bureau on issues related to racial and ethnic populations, a role which it has frequently used to promote greater division within the American population. The NAC was chartered in 2012 during President Obama’s administration, but it traces its roots to an informal special census committee which began in 1974 as a coalition of ethnic-interest representatives to advise on which ethnic categories should be added to the census. [63]

The NAC is composed of 31 members who purport to represent various American ethnic groups, including leaders of left-of-center identity politics organizations including Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO), and the National Urban League. [64] Other NAC seats are reserved for members of various identity groups, including the Supreme Court Committee on Minority Concerns, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services. [65]

In January 2018, the NAC proposed two left-wing changes to the 2020 census, which the Census Bureau rejected. [66] The first change proposed the creation of another ethnic identity group for Americans whose ancestors come from between Morocco and the Iran-Afghanistan border, designated MENA for Middle East, North Africa. [67] The second change would have placed the ethnic designation of “Hispanic” in the same category as the historical “races.” [68] Such decisions have been openly criticized by even members of the American left, who have suggested that the creation of broad, institutionalized ethnic labels are not representative of American attitudes towards race and ethnicity. [69]

In a meeting with NAC stakeholders, left-wing activist Linda Sarsour directly noted that the creation of new categories, specifically MENA, is about gaining political power and tax dollars, claiming that individuals who would be classified as MENA “lose out dramatically because we don’t have a separated category.” [70] NAC efforts to delineate broad ethnic groups have been considered efforts to institutionalize left-of-center, identity politics grounded in narratives of the oppression of minority ethnic groups. [71]

2020 Budgeting Concerns

Even before the increase in surveying and disruptions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Census Bureau faced a budget shortage in conducting the 2020 census. [72] In 2019, former Bureau director John Thompson claimed that the Bureau has been “underfunded by about $200 million” since 2012. [73]

In response to the budget shortfall and rising costs of the census (approximated at around $15.6 billion before the COVID-19 pandemic), the Bureau attempted to adopt streamlined technologies to cut costs. [74] Nonetheless, the Bureau was forced to cancel all field tests in 2017 due to high costs, in addition to limiting the 2018 end-to-end rehearsal test for the decennial census to just Providence, Rhode Island. [75] The lack of tests has produced skepticism that the 2020 census will represent an accurate count of the country, given that the Bureau is anticipated to encounter unforeseen issues which would otherwise have been exposed by test runs. [76]

This presented a particular problem as the Bureau was limited in its ability to test new technologies. [77] During the sole end-to-end test run in 2018 in Providence County, Rhode Island, census workers faced multiple technical issues, including a software glitch which led to canvassers working the same block and an inability to log collected data. [78] Moreover, an audit by the Commerce Department’s Office of the Inspector General discovered that the Bureau’s data storage method was not secure, and that it could be “potentially catastrophic” if hacked. [79]

People

Steven Dillingham, a career civil servant, is the current director of the Census Bureau. President Trump nominated Dillingham in 2018, and the Senate unanimously voted to confirm his nomination on January 2, 2019. [80] Dillingham has a long career in public service, having previously served as director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. [81] Dillingham also worked as director of the Peace Corps Office of Strategic Information, Research, and Planning and is member of the Federal Senior Executive Service. [82] Dillingham holds six advanced degrees. [83]

Ron S. Jarmin is deputy director and chief operating officer of the Bureau. [84] Jarmin has worked with the Census Bureau since 1992, where he has served as chief economist, chief of the Center for Economic Studies, and a research economist. [85] From 2011 to 2016, Jarmin served as assistant director for research and methodology. [86] During the 2017 Economic Census, Jarmin oversaw a move to 100 percent online data collection. [87]

References

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