In summary

The budget-cutting efforts in Congress putting the U.S. government on the verge of a shutdown could become a fixture. The current spending proposals put Census Bureau funding on the chopping block, which could have lasting impacts if California’s population remains undercounted.

Guest Commentary written by

Ed Kissam

Ed Kissam

Ed Kissam is an expert on the census and a co-trustee of the Werner-Kohnstamm Family Fund.

Manuel Pastor

Manuel Pastor

Manuel Pastor is a professor of sociology and the director of the USC Equity Research Institute.

With the U.S. government on the brink of a shutdown, many are emphasizing the costs that will be incurred in delayed paychecks, stifled operations and even national security. But this is not just about shutting down the government but about shutting down democracy. If the House of Representatives was actually allowed to vote on a stopgap resolution, it would surely pass with bipartisan support.

This affront to democracy also extends to portions of federal operations that are crucial to the long-term future of California. Already, proposed spending this fiscal year for the Census Bureau – the agency that produces the data that determines the state’s share of federal funding –represents a 20% cut to the Biden administration’s request. It is also more than 30% below experts’ recommendations for what is needed to maintain and improve census data quality. 

What is now transpiring in Washington D.C. will almost certainly become a fixture in budget-cutting efforts, particularly by GOP representatives, and is likely to persist throughout the decade

For California, these cuts would be especially damaging. The accuracy of data derived from the 2020 census and the yearly American Community Survey, or ACS, is crucial for assuring that California receives its fair share of available federal funding. Low-income communities with concentrations of Latinos, American Indians and African-Americans were seriously undercounted in 2020 – and as a “minority-majority” state, California was particularly vulnerable.

Anticipating the shortfall, California invested $187 million in efforts to encourage people to respond to the census. Despite these funds and the hard work of many community organizations, there were scores of low-income neighborhoods throughout California that were missed, especially immigrant ones in urban Los Angeles and rural farmworker communities throughout the state. The pandemic contributed to this problem, but the undercount of marginalized communities has been documented for more than half a century.

It will get worse as housing becomes more expensive and public trust in government continues to decay.

The Census Bureau has acknowledged serious shortcomings in the census and annual survey data. Dr. Robert Santos, its first Latino director, has committed the agency to a decade-long effort to fix it. With the Census Bureau working hard to overcome longstanding problems, this is the moment to expand – not shrink – fiscal support.

All of this is threatened by the likely shutdown and the political jockeying it represents. It is also not surprising that politicians whose rhetoric and legislative proposals are consistently anti-immigrant would find it convenient to hamstring Census Bureau efforts to reliably portray U.S. diversity and starve programs covering education, food security and health care.

The public investment needed to support the Bureau-wide research that can effectively allocate money to more than 340 federal programs is about $2 per household, less than the cost of a soft drink at the movie theater. That seems to be an affordable investment in good government – but it’s clear that what worries some is that we will get the count right, that we will distribute funds fairly, and that political representation will be more reflective of our future than our past.

As has happened on climate, immigrant rights and worker well-being, California may need to step up to offer a different path. The state’s Congressional representatives, business leaders and others should demand adequate funding for the census.

What’s at stake is not just dollars but democracy.

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