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The Rash Of Troubles At The Census Bureau


It's been a busy, busy year of news, so much so that many important stories didn't get the attention they deserved. One of those stories is the rash of troubles at the U.S. Census Bureau. That agency, of course, is in charge of carrying out a national headcount every 10 years. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has been reporting on the census. Welcome to the program.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Thank you, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I think a lot of people just don't pay attention to the census until the questionnaires that arrive every 10 years come into their mailbox. Why is the census so important, and why should we be worried about it now?

WANG: Well, think about the census like the plumbing in your house. You don't worry about until it's not working. And here's how the Constitution says it should work. Every decade, the U.S. government's supposed to count every person living in the U.S. And those numbers help really form the bedrock of our democracy because they determine how many seats in the House of Representatives each state gets. It also helps determine how more than $600 billion dollars a year in federal funding gets distributed.

And these are really relevant questions right now because in 2020, it's arguably going to be the most ambitious census conducted in U.S. history. It's going to be the first census mostly conducted online. And so this is a brand-new way of doing things. But the bureau is saying that it's not getting enough funding from Congress. And there's also uncertain leadership at the bureau. The last director just left in May - earlier than expected - and a replacement has not been named yet.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So trouble at the Census Bureau. But I also understand that there is some controversy about questions of race and ethnicity and how those may be counted. What can we expect?

WANG: Well, there are two potential changes that may be coming in 2020. One is a new category for people of Middle Eastern or North African descent. And this has been a longtime request from community advocates who have wanted this separate category in order to get numbers to help push for more government resources. The other possible change is how the government counts of the Latino population. And the Census Bureau right now is waiting for some decisions from the White House, which sets the standards for how the government collects race and ethnicity information. It's unclear when those decisions will come out. But the final wording of the questions for 2020 - that's due to Congress by the end of March.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is the White House deciding on specifically?

WANG: Well, one of the main changes is whether to ask for Latino identity - to keep asking for it as an ethnicity question or to ask for it in terms of race and ethnicity. Right now, currently, it's a question of, you know, is the person of Hispanic or Latino origin? And then there's a separate question for race. And Census Bureau researchers have found that that has actually confused a lot of specifically Latino participants in the survey. And so they're worried that if we continue to ask about Latino identity in this way, we may not get an accurate count going forward.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. So what is the Census Bureau doing to make sure that everyone does get counted in 2020?

WANG: Well, a big part of that is relying on local organizations and advocates to encourage people to participate. And there's also an advertising campaign that the Census Bureau's preparing for, specifically targeting communities of color, immigrant communities. The issue right now is that advocates I've been talking to - they're worried about the current political climate. They're worried about the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric and also that there's growing distrust and worry about sharing information with the government right now. And the thing to keep in mind is that Census Day 2020 - that's going to be in the middle of what will likely be another very polarizing presidential campaign.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covers the census and the changing demographics of the United States. Thank you so much.

WANG: You're welcome.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, we say that the Census Bureau's then-director left in May 2017. In fact, he left the bureau in June after his departure was announced in May.]

(SOUNDBITE OF E*VAX'S "THE MULE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 10, 2018 at 11:00 PM CST
In this story, we say that the Census Bureau's then-director left in May 2017. In fact, he left the bureau in June after his departure was announced in May.
Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.