Four paragraphs into Article I of the U.S. Constitution, the reader confronts a straightforward requirement: Count every person in the United States every 10 years.
The rationale is just as forthright: Tax dollars and national representatives are apportioned by population. An accurate count equals a well-funded country with factual representation.
As simple as that sounds, life in 2019 has made the census a complicated affair.
The most apparent stumbling block is the sheer size of the country. When the Constitution was ratified in 1788, the population of the United States rivaled that of present day Utah, somewhere between 3 and 4 million. It’s uncertain the Framers anticipated building a country that surpasses the 300 million benchmark.
Modern technology is poised to make quick work of the enormous task, but as the census moves largely online for the first time, security concerns abound. To date, the U.S. Government Accountability Office has identified 1,100 system weaknesses, and early tests of the system were limited to only one out of three originally planned test states. Any hint of security risk or lack of confidentiality should be the primary focus of agency officials as they prepare for next year’s roll out.
Still, a flawless system won’t do much to motivate participants either too busy or too apathetic to do their part. That’s where state efforts come in to play, and that’s why Utah would be wise to spend money on promoting participation.
Utah lawmakers chose not to appropriate any funds toward that end during this year’s legislative session. “We may have dropped the ball a bit there. The dynamics of the census have changed,” said Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City.
Now legislators are considering spending between $500,000 and $1 million to promote the census and help people fill out their surveys. They should follow through with that plan, as the benefits of an accurate count would outweigh the costs of promotion.
Federal dollars flow to the state in proportion to its population, and an undercount would deprive some federal programs in the state of needed funding. As many as 5 percent of children under the age of 5 in the U.S. were missed in the 2010 count, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Should that happen again, programs such as Head Start, Infants and Children and the Special Supplemental Program for Women, whose federal funding relies on counts of children under the age of 5, may not be able to fully serve their populations.6 comments on this story
Moreover, underserved and vulnerable communities especially deserve full representation in the decennial survey. Utah has moderately sized populations of undocumented immigrants and rural residents — two communities that may prove hard to reach yet which have important needs that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Even though Utah most likely won’t gain a new congressional seat — perhaps the most discussed consequence of the census — lawmakers shouldn’t look past the effects on transportation, infrastructure, education and family policy that a good count would offer. If that takes some money, fine, but getting there should be straightforward.