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Census Bureau Stops Plans For 2020 Census Advisory Committee

The U.S. Census Bureau hosts public meetings of its advisory committees at the agency's headquarters in Suitland, Md.
Claire Harbage
The U.S. Census Bureau hosts public meetings of its advisory committees at the agency's headquarters in Suitland, Md.

Updated at 12:54 p.m. ET, July 27

The U.S. Census Bureau has stopped plans to form a new committee of advisers for the upcoming 2020 census, according to a letter obtained by NPR.

The decision comes as the agency prepares for the once-a-decade head count of every person living in the country while battling multiple lawsuits over a new citizenship question and cybersecurity concerns about the first U.S. census to allow all households to respond online. Similar advisory committees were put in place before the national head counts in 2000 and 2010.

According to the letter provided by Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, the bureau "carefully reviewed" its plans and decided instead to rely on its current group of advisers within the Census Scientific Advisory Committee and the National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations. Vargas serves on the National Advisory Committee as a representative of the NALEO Educational Fund. All committee members serve as volunteers, who are reimbursed for travel expenses from attending periodic meetings at the Census Bureau's headquarters in Suitland, Md.

Asked why the bureau decided to not create a new committee as planned, Census Bureau spokesperson Michael Cook replied in a written statement, "In light of our well-versed existing external resources, the National Advisory Committee (NAC) and Census Scientific Advisory Committee (CSAC), the Census Bureau decided to utilize its current advisors."

The bureau is accepting nominations for five new members of the Census Scientific Advisory Committee until September 25. It has extended the deadline for submitting nominations for seven new members of the National Advisory Committee to September 4, "in response to public demand for more time," according to a Federal Register notice. Cook said the bureau "welcomes" nominations of those who were previously nominated for the now-defunct 2020 Census Advisory Committee.

Members of the 2020 Census Advisory Committee were supposed to offer advice on all aspects of the constitutionally mandated headcount, which is facing a bevy of new challenges including the use of iPhones by census workers collecting responses door-to-door and the expanded use of existing government records to obtain information about unresponsive households.

"The previous Census Bureau Director had a strong desire to create an additional advisory committee whose exclusive focus would be on execution of the 2020 Census decennial, as opposed to all of the programs and functions of the Census Bureau," Vargas says in a written statement. "Given how dire the implementation plans are proceeding for the 2020 Census, it would have been helpful for the Bureau to have had this support at this critical time."

The committee was first announced in December 2016, when John Thompson was leading the agency. Ron Jarmin, a career official, has been serving as the Census Bureau's acting director since Thompson left last June. The Trump administration recently announced Steven Dillingham as its nominee to replace Jarmin.

"I don't want to knock the current committees because I think they're really good," Thompson says. "But I don't think that you would get the full breadth of potential users and stakeholders in the census data."

In recent months, both of the bureau's existing committees of advisers have issued strong criticism of the recent addition of a citizenship question approved by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the census. While Ross has said the Justice Department needs responses from the question to better enforce the Voting Rights Act's provisions against racial discrimination, Census Bureau research suggests asking about citizenship status could discourage noncitizens from taking part in the 2020 census and harm the accuracy of the head count. Internal emails the Trump administration recently released as part of the lawsuits over the citizenship question have raised questions about whether Ross' decision was politically motivated.

"The bureau needs to hear from and consult with advocates who are immersed in hard-to-count communities about the real challenges it will face in 2020, no matter how painful it might be to hear those truths," says Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House Subcommittee on Census and Population who now serves as a consultant on census issues, in a written statement.

Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League who chaired the 2010 Census Advisory Committee, says he thinks the Census Bureau is making a "mistake."

"What this all feeds into is whether there's a intentionality to prevent a complete count or that the [Census Bureau] doesn't want transparency, doesn't want accountability," he says.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 3, 2019 at 11:00 PM CST
In the audio, as in a previous version of the Web story, we describe the 2020 census as the first online U.S. census. It would have been more accurate to say it will be the first census in which all households will have the opportunity to reply online. In 2000, there was an online option, but it was only for the short form and only in English. The Census Bureau says 63,053 households were counted using only the online option.
Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.
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