Census Crunch Time
President-elect Barack Obama has pledged to quickly nominate a commerce secretary after his first choice, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, withdrew this week. Frankly, the far more pressing task at the Commerce Department is to name a new director of the Census Bureau.
With only a year to go before the nationwide count in 2010, Mr. Obama needs to nominate a strong new director who can move swiftly to counteract years of political meddling and neglect that have left the bureau ill prepared to conduct the next census.
This page has issued many warnings about the bureau’s state of unreadiness, as have members of Congress and advocates for groups that tend to be undercounted in a less-than-robust census, especially racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, the poor and the disabled. In November, Congressional investigators named the 2010 census as one of 13 issues requiring Mr. Obama’s immediate attention.
Any further delay increases the chances, which are already too high, of a botched census in 2010. That would be a very expensive failure of a constitutionally mandated duty on Mr. Obama’s watch. The damage would be compounded in 2012, when the new census data will be used by state governments to redraw electoral districts. If the census is not accurate, the electoral map also would not be — for years to come.
If Mr. Obama and his team need any more reasons to act now to rescue the census, they should note that the party most likely to benefit from a faulty count is certainly not their own. That’s because an inaccurate census generally overcounts people who tend to fit the Republican profile — white, English-speaking and suburban — and to undercount diverse, mobile urban populations.
The census also is used to allocate federal aid to states — an increasingly important issue in the midst of the country’s deep economic troubles.
More than a month ago, this page noted that the director of the acclaimed 2000 census, Kenneth Prewitt, would be the obvious choice to pull the 2010 census out of the hat. If the Obama team has a better candidate, it’s past time to put his or her name forward.