Is the Census Out of Control?


In non-Comey news today, the director of the Census Bureau, John Thompson, is stepping down:

The director of the U.S. Census Bureau is resigning, leaving the agency leaderless at a time when it faces a crisis over funding for the 2020 decennial count of the U.S. population and beyond….The news, which surprised census experts, follows an April congressional budget allocation for the census that critics say is woefully inadequate. And it comes less than a week after a prickly hearing at which Thompson told lawmakers that cost estimates for a new electronic data collection system had ballooned by nearly 50 percent.

The basic background here is that Republicans are demanding that the 2020 census be conducted for no more than it cost to conduct the 2010 census. Inflation and population growth essentially mean that Republicans are asking the Census Bureau to conduct the census for about a quarter less than it cost to conduct the 2010 census. Democrats find that ridiculous, and presumably Thompson resigned because he felt like he was being set up for failure. With the budget he was given, the census would be a fiasco and he’d take the fall.

So are Republican demands unreasonable? I’m sure there’s a massive backstory here, but just to get started here are the costs of the past five censuses plus a projection of what a flat budget means for the 2020 census:

The Republican argument, obviously, is that the cost of the census shot up in 2000 and 2010 and it’s time to rein it back in. The Democratic argument, presumably, is that the census is more complex today and costs more to run etc. etc.

I don’t want to pretend to be an instant census expert, so I’ll stop here. But the questions we should be asking are: Is the census a lot more complex than it was in 1990? If so, why? Does it have to be, or can we scale it back? What would we be losing?