Politicization of the 2020 Census?

Numerous stories appeared in the media last week about the possible appointment of Professor Thomas Brunell, a GOP redistricting expert with no known management experience, to be deputy director of the Census Bureau.

Professor Brunell would be a political appointment replacing a career employee in the chief day-to-day operations job at the bureau. Several articles spell out the consequences of such an appointment by the Trump administration:

 

 

The American Community Survey: Blessed by the Founding Fathers

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

I’ve been losing sleep ever since several members of Congress (including a former judge!) posited at a congressional hearing last month that the Census Bureau was overstepping constitutional bounds by requiring people to answer questions on the American Community Survey (ACS).  The ACS relieved the decennial census of its long-form burden after Congress urged the Census Bureau to streamline the decennial count and provide policymakers with more timely information.  But more on that in a moment.

Now, I’m an advocate of informed decision-making.  I think we Americans have a duty to help our nation understand its collective condition and shared future direction.  But an unconstitutional government intrusion into our private lives?  Not on my watch.  The idea that our census agency has been violating fundamental tenants of our treasured founding blueprint since the nation … well, became a nation … has been keeping me up at night.

Fortunately, none other than “Father of the Constitution” James Madison has come to my rescue.  When the House of Representatives debated the very first census bill in 1790, this founding patriarch and primary author of the Bill of Rights observed that lawmakers now had “an opportunity of obtaining the most useful information for those who should hereafter be called upon to legislate for their country if this bill is extended so as to embrace some other objects besides the bare enumeration of the inhabitants; it would enable them to adapt the public measures to the particular circumstances of the community.  In order to know the various interests of the United States, it was necessary that the description of the several classes into which the community was divided, should be accurately known; on this knowledge the legislature might proceed to make a proper provision for the agricultural, commercial, and manufacturing interests, but without it they could never make their provisions in due proportion.”  (As cited in Government Accountability Office, Legal Authority for American Community Survey, B-289852, April 4, 2002)

I couldn’t have said it better myself (though heaven knows I’ve tried).  But let me translate into 21st century English.  The census gives us a chance, Madison said, to collect data that lawmakers can use to make informed decisions that meet the needs of the nation’s people and communities — decisions related, for example, to the agricultural, business, and manufacturing sectors.  A range of data beyond the number of people in each household, which backers of a voluntary ACS suggest is the only constitutionally permissible purpose of the census, would ensure that Congress allocated resources based on actual conditions.  Imagine that!

As for the ACS, it was Congress, starting in 1991, that not-so-gently nudged the Census Bureau to give up the traditional vehicle for collecting demographic and socio-economic information — known as the “long form” — and to continue its “embrace … of other objects” (to quote the oh-so-eloquent James M.) on a more frequent basis from a sample of households spread out across more years.  Congress never suggested that the ACS would not continue to be a part of the census, perhaps knowing full well that lawmakers had tied half a trillion dollars annually in domestic program funding to the results.

Of course, Congress has been known to pass legislation that doesn’t quite pass constitutional muster.  That’s why we have the Supremes, who determined in 1870 that Congress has unquestionable power to require both a population count and the collection of additional statistics in the decennial census.  (The Legal Tender Cases, Tex.1870; 12 Wall., U.S., 457, 536, 20 L.Ed. 287)  It’s just what our fourth president envisioned to help the legislature, of which he was then a part, make wise decisions.  Whew!

I’m sleeping better already.  Sweet dreams!

Know Your Customers (All of Them)

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

Earlier this fall, business watchers were abuzz about the fallout from Netflix’s decision to separate its Internet streaming and DVD services into two distinct accounts. “How Netflix Lost 800,000 Members, and Good Will,” screamed a New York Times headline (10/24/11). “Netflix prides itself on its analytical, data-driven approach to making decisions,” the article explained. “But it made a classic business misstep. In its reliance on data and long-term strategy, the company underestimated the unquantifiable emotions of subscribers who still want those little red envelopes, even if they forget to ever watch the DVDs inside.”

That got me to thinking about the Census Bureau’s road from mail to cyberspace, a path which is now inevitable, given stern directives, coupled with tight budget reins, from Congress.

Netflix’s CEO reportedly told shareholders he was not sure if focus groups reviewed the proposed account changes before the company unveiled them. The New York Times article later opined, “How Netflix came to be so out of touch with its customers is a cautionary tale for other companies that try to transform to new media from old.”

Federal lawmakers have concluded that Americans will embrace electronic response to the next census with a vengeance, with traditional mail or hand-delivery almost an afterthought. Of course, Congress sometimes — how shall I put this tactfully? — gets it wrong. And the people’s representatives haven’t exactly been generous with funding to ensure appropriately comprehensive research and testing of how Americans of all ages, races and ethnicities, incomes, and places of abode feel about the pending changes.

My father is 80, retired, active on boards and in community and political affairs. Given the family genes, he’s likely to be around for the next population tally. But email? Can you spell F-A-X? He swears by it. Cell phone? Never had one. In March 2020, Dad had better get a nice white envelope bearing the official seal of the U.S. Census Bureau in his traditional silver suburban mailbox, along with a postage-paid return envelope. Otherwise, he might miss being counted in his ninth decennial enumeration.

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Up next: An Internet Census and the Digital Divide