Four years from now, Americans will take part in the nation’s most inclusive civic activity: the 10-year population count. While it might seem premature to worry about the outcome of the 2020 census, decisions being made in Congress now will determine whether the next census is fair and accurate, or if millions of people are overlooked in some of our most underserved communities.
As the top Democrat on the House subcommittee that funds the census and a state legislator in Florida, we are committed to making the best use of limited resources for a proper count. Unfortunately, our fellow lawmakers often try to piggyback on census funding to pay for other programs.
This year, both the House and Senate bills would continue underfunding the U.S. Census Bureau. It needs about $260 million more for final testing, development of complex IT systems and other preparations. The House legislation is set to shortchange the bureau by more than $160 million. The Senate version budgets $115 million less than needed.
The Census Bureau has been working for years on sweeping reforms that could save taxpayers $5.2 billion, but those changes could be risky if not fully tested to ensure they will work equally well in all communities.
The census is more accurate than ever, but there remains a troubling undercount of racial and ethnic minorities, low-income and rural households, immigrants and young children.
There are important reasons Congress must invest now to eliminate this inequity in 2020. First, the census is a constitutional requirement and the foundation of our representative democracy. Legislative districts at all levels of government are determined using census numbers, and the constitutional principle of “one person, one vote” is based on a comprehensive count.
Second, census numbers are used to allocate $450 billion a year in federal money to states and localities for important initiatives.
State and local agencies rely on the data for smart planning and to target resources. Businesses use census data to make decisions about where to invest, locate services and hire workers.
Finally, time is running short.
To stay on schedule, the Census Bureau must finish testing the 2020 design before a dress rehearsal in 2018. Innovations include updating address lists using aerial imagery, GPS tools and commercial data; multiple ways to fill out the forms, with an emphasis on the internet; using technology to track down non-responsive households; and reducing costly follow-up visits with information collected by other government agencies. Unfortunately, the House bill’s funding may cause the bureau to return to costlier, outdated methods.
The strength and inclusiveness of our democracy is the backbone of our nation. Congress must take its constitutional duty seriously and fully fund planning for the 2020 census this year.
Rep. Michael M. Honda, a San Jose Democrat, represents California’s 17th Congressional District and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Florida state Sen. René García, a Miami Republican, is chairman of the Board of Hispanic Caucus Chairs and can be contacted at email@example.com .