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1 Year Ahead Of 2020 Census Day, The Bureau Has Many Hurdles To Clear

Apr 1, 2019
Originally published on April 1, 2019 6:37 pm
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The 2020 census count will have reached every U.S. household exactly a year from today. The results will determine how political power and federal funding are distributed around the country over the next decade. The Census Bureau has plenty of hurdles to clear before it can carry out the count. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang sat down with the bureau's director for his first news interview since taking on that role earlier this year.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Steven Dillingham's job is to make sure the U.S. government meets its constitutional mandate to count every person living in the country. And looming over him is an issue he can't control; the citizenship question the Trump administration wants to ask - is this person a citizen of the United States? Dillingham was nominated by President Trump to lead the Census Bureau.

Did you have any conversations with President Trump during your confirmation process?

STEVEN DILLINGHAM: I did not.

WANG: You did not speak with President Trump?

DILLINGHAM: No, I have not.

WANG: Have you spoken with him since you've been confirmed?

DILLINGHAM: No, I have not.

WANG: Dillingham said he has been in conversations with White House officials, and the citizenship question, quote, "could have come up."

DILLINGHAM: Actually, it's very interesting, but I was not asked a position on that at any time in the process.

WANG: President Trump, however, made his position clear today when he tweeted that without a citizenship question, the census would be, quote, "meaningless and a waste" of the billions of dollars it cost to put together.

Did you know that he was planning to tweet today?

DILLINGHAM: Actually, I don't follow tweets, but a few minutes ago, someone had mentioned that to me.

WANG: The tweet sent some Census Bureau staffers scrambling. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, has insisted he added the citizenship question to better enforce part of the Voting Rights Act, but two federal judges have rejected that explanation, and Census Bureau research indicates the question will likely scare many immigrants, Latinos and other communities of color from taking part in the census. The Supreme Court is expected to make a final ruling by June.

DILLINGHAM: Our job at Census will be to conduct a census whether the question's in there or if it isn't, whatever the court decides.

VANITA GUPTA: It can send mixed messaging and be really confusing, at best. But I also think it can be incredibly destructive, at worst.

WANG: Vanita Gupta is a former Justice Department official under the Obama administration. She now heads The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of organizations that have kept a close eye on 2020 census preparations. Gupta says she's worried about President Trump's recent budget proposal for the final preparations for the 2020 census.

GUPTA: We're mystified because the current amount is far below what Secretary Ross had originally asked for, and I think that Congress needs to ask why the bureau thinks that they have sufficient funding now.

WANG: Next year's count is estimated to cost a total of more than $15 billion, and it's the first count to allow every U.S. household to respond by paper, over the phone or online, which comes with cybersecurity risks. Low unemployment rates may make it hard to fill around a half-million temporary census jobs. Despite these and other obstacles, Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham said he was excited.

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DILLINGHAM: We are on mission, on schedule, on budget, on message and on course to complete the biggest and best census ever.

WANG: Before the Census Bureau can meet that goal, it needs to print more than a billion paper forms, letters and other printed materials for the census. The bureau says it needs a Supreme Court ruling by June on whether the forms will include a citizenship question so that printing can start as scheduled in July. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF FALTYDL'S "ILLBENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.