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The Risks Of An Underfunded Census


The director of the U.S. Census Bureau, John H. Thompson, announced his retirement this week in the wake of a disagreement with Congress over funding for the 2020 census. The census is conducted every 10 years. The results determine how many seats in Congress and electoral votes that each state receives, and it helps guide how more than $400 billion is spent each year on education, health and infrastructure.

We're joined now by Robert Groves. He's former director of the U.S. Census Bureau. He's now the provost of Georgetown University. Mr. Groves, thanks so much for being with us.

ROBERT GROVES: Good morning. Great to be with you.

SIMON: Congress has approved nearly $1.5 billion to fund the census this fiscal year, and it's supposed to be the same for next year. Is that enough?

GROVES: Well, I'm not sure I can say what is enough. I do know that the Census Bureau has a unique feature to its budget in that it goes up and down in a 10-year cycle. And about this time every decade, this is an issue as the ramp up begins.

SIMON: So you need to spend more the closer you get to actually counting people?

GROVES: Absolutely. In the 2010 census that I was involved in, at one point, there were 600,000 employees of the Census Bureau knocking on doors around the country to follow up those who didn't respond on their own.

SIMON: Well, what would the risks be of a census that is not done well?

GROVES: So a census has to be credible both to the American public and to those elected officials whose lives are affected by the census. The reapportionment of the House of Representatives takes place months after the census is taken. That has consequences both for the current elected officials but also how states play their role in influencing national policy.

SIMON: I imagine a lot of people might be wondering that there are so many different ways in which people feel that they're being counted and measured every day because of a variety of interactions that we have online. I mean, you buy a pair of socks nowadays, you have to fill out a form. Is there some way of mining the vast amount of information that private companies have about Americans to get it to supplement the census?

GROVES: The Census Bureau has been examining that very vigorously. What tends to be a common result is if you use data from retail, you tend to under enumerate those who aren't connected economically. That tends to be poorer people, transient people, children - precisely those that are hard to enumerate in general.

So the world of the future I think we all think is some complicated blend of these organic digital sources with traditional methods. You can't use one or the other. We need to use both. And some of the innovation proposed for the 2020 census actually involves trying to use those data wisely when we can.

SIMON: Robert Groves - he oversaw the 2010 census and is currently the provost of Georgetown University. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

GROVES: It was wonderful talking to you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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