Our View: Is it time to kill off the Census as we know it?

April 16th, 2018 11:32 pm

The ad blitz and ground work is still more than 18 months from now, but the 2020 Census is already making headlines due to a hastily added citizenship question.

Pennsylvania intends to fight it, and California has already sued to block it because they fear it would discourage non-citizens from taking part in the once-a-decade count.

The same query was removed from Census forms way back in 1950. So, this should be a settled issue — dump the question.

But the debate got us thinking about the Census in general and wondering if it’s still worthwhile to pour so much manpower and many billions into this massive undertaking.

To be clear, we are not arguing the Census’ importance. It’s used by the government to dole out some $675 billion in federal funding each year, according to The Washington Post.

And a decennial census is mandated by the U.S. Constitution, which calls for an “enumeration” to determine representation in Congress.

But it does not specify how that enumeration, or counting, should be carried out. That leaves plenty of room for modernization — or letting computers and mathematical models do the work.

In 2020, Americans will get mailers encouraging them to fill out a Census form online. But people can still get the old-fashioned paper form. There will also be call centers — a new option — for people who want to phone in their Census information.

For those who still resist, the Census Bureau will send people to knock on your door up to six times, says The Post.

That’s an awful lot of effort — not to mention expense (the 2010 Census cost more than $12 billion) — to find folks who you could probably add to the national count via other means in this age of deep data and digitization.

What do we mean?

Look no further than the United Kingdom, which is going forward with a census for 2021 but in subsequent years is “exploring the possibility of a census based on linking together administrative data supported by survey information,” according to the UK’s Office for National Statistics.

This “administrative data” refers to information citizens have already supplied to the government. That combined with targeted surveys to just some of the population could achieve the same effect as an exhaustive house-by-house count.

Certainly, the U.S. government has the ability to do the same thing. Between federal tax returns and the issuing of Social Security numbers, Uncle Sam already knows at least a little, if not much more, about all of us.

Meanwhile, some of the Census has already been replaced by the surveys the Brits are talking about.

Every month, the Census Bureau sends about 295,000 addresses the American Community Survey, which is mandatory to answer. The ACS replaced the Census long form in 2010. But it doesn’t just aim to count people. It asks questions like where you work and what your monthly mortgage payments are. The social, economic and housing information collected from the surveys helps the Census Bureau keep its information as up-to-date as possible rather than at 10-year intervals only.

There’s not enough time to change anything about 2020.

But we ought to think long and hard about how we should conduct the Census in the years going forward.

The information and statistical methods already exist to replace the old way. It’s probably time to do so.

— Times Leader

This March 23, 2018, photo shows an envelope containing a 2018 census test letter mailed to a resident in Providence, R.I. The nation's only test run of the 2020 Census is in Rhode Island, and it's drawing concerns from community leaders, good government groups and others about how it's being run. (AP Photo/Michelle R. Smith)
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/web1_120170145-95c4e9934a854c3ebe0b9169220847e1.jpgThis March 23, 2018, photo shows an envelope containing a 2018 census test letter mailed to a resident in Providence, R.I. The nation's only test run of the 2020 Census is in Rhode Island, and it's drawing concerns from community leaders, good government groups and others about how it's being run. (AP Photo/Michelle R. Smith)


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