The Census Big Con: It Doesn't Add Up
By Eran Lillestrand (not verified)
April 15, 2008 - 3:34pm ET
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It is easy to forget about the Census. Every ten years, a knock on the door, a letter in the mail. Maybe you remember that the Census helps to create voting districts (a-not-so-flawless-process) and determines how many representatives each state gets. But Census data also helps distribute resources: It pinpoints what areas need Head Start or highway money, it lets municipalities figure out how to distribute public health assistance, it even helps with disaster aid. In the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, rescuers used Census data to figure out who was still missing on each block.
But like the bridges, the aqueducts, the levees and the roads, the Census is falling victim to The Big Con.
Some background: The Census Bureau decided to go digital for the 2010 census, and contracted out a company to design hand-held computers for Census takers. Back in 2005 Harris Corp, the company contracted to design the computers, hit technological snags and asked the Census for more money. The White House Budget office quashed the idea.
Flash-forward three years. In early April, Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez (whose department oversees the Census) admitted that the entire digitization project had failed. The 2010 census will be forced to use paper and pencil. In order to buy all that paper and pencils, the Census needs $232 million. But here comes the twist. The White House won't give them the money. Or, rather, they want to strike a deal. Here's an outraged New York Times editorial on the matter:
...the White House insists on cutting other Commerce Department programs to come up with new money for the census. Most of the targeted cuts are from programs the White House tried to kill or reduce in 2008, but were rescued by Congress: such as spending for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, marine sanctuaries, pollution control, Chesapeake Bay restoration and economic development grants for Appalachia.
It is petty for the White House to use the census as a way to challenge the outcome of a lost budget battle. It is unconscionable to hold the census hostage to such demands when administration officials are the ones responsible for the Census Bureau's dysfunction.
The episode illuminates a key tactic in the Big Con playbook. Call it the "Impossible Choice Maneuver," I.C.M for short. Instead of outright cutting of programs, you offer a choice: Get money for essential program A, but programs B,C, and D have to go. Crafty stuff.
Nerd note: For more information on the many important roles the census plays, check this out.
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