Why Did the U.S. Census Director Resign?

The departure raises questions over the fate of the upcoming 2020 population count.

An aerial view of The Villages retirement community in Central Florida, June 27, 2015. The Villages has been the fastest growing metro area in the nation for two years running, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. (Carlo Allegri / Reuters)

The Department of Commerce announced on Tuesday that Census Bureau Director John H. Thompson will step down at the end of June, creating the possibility of a leadership void at the bureau in the run-up to undertaking the 2020 Census.

In a statement, Thompson, who will retire on June 30, said he plans to “pursue opportunities in the private sector.” Thompson was sworn in as census director in 2013, and had reportedly been expected to remain in the role through the end of 2017.

The results of the United States census, which takes place every decade, are crucial for determining the allocation of government resources for schools, law enforcement, and housing. Information collected by the census also has a direct bearing on how American citizens are represented in federal government since the population count serves as the basis for how congressional districts are carved out.

News of the director’s impending departure arrives at a time when census experts have raised questions over whether the bureau’s funding levels will be adequate to carry out the task of completing the upcoming census.

Michael Li, a senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, said it’s crucial that “the bureau be fully staffed and fully funded so it can do the critical testing to make sure it gets everything right.” Li added: “The 2020 Census is going to be unlike any in U.S. history—with a lot of data collection proposed to be online for the first time and things like a potentially big re-working of how the Bureau collects information about race and ethnicity. That creates a lot of risk of an undercount.”

Trump’s budget blueprint, released in March, called for $1.5 billion for the U.S. Census Bureau’s work on the 2020 Census, and according to The Washington Post, Congress recently approved $1.47 billion for the bureau for the current fiscal year. Number-crunchers and outside observers have warned, however, that amount won’t be enough at a time when the bureau needs to be ramping up its spending ahead of the 2020 population count.

FiveThirtyEight explained how the current funding compares to what the bureau may need to carry out its work in a post published last week:

The budget for the census is highly cyclical. Every 10 years, spending soars as the bureau hires hundreds of thousands of census takers to complete the constitutionally mandated population count. Spending drops in subsequent years before ramping up again ahead of the next census.

At least, that’s how it is supposed to work. The Census Bureau is now in the ramp-up period for the 2020 count; next year, it will run a crucial field test that is the last chance to work out any kinks in new data-collection methods. (The 2020 census will be the first conducted primarily online.) The Obama administration requested a budget increase of more than $250 million for the Census Bureau in 2017, with much of the extra money dedicated to getting ready for next year’s test. The final budget increase will be less than half that big.

Still, the bigger threat to the quality of census data could come next year. Trump’s preliminary 2018 budget would give $1.5 billion to the Census Bureau, effectively keeping spending flat in a year when, based on past 10-year cycles, it should be increasing by 60 percent or more.  

In testimony to a House commerce, justice and science subcommittee last week, Thompson told members of Congress that he was “pleased to report that we are on schedule and remain on the critical path to readiness in 2020.”

Reacting to the news of the director’s departure, Representative Jose Serrano, the top Democrat on the House panel, told the Post that “without strong leadership at the bureau,” the 2020 Census could be “imperiled.” Serrano added that “robust funding” is needed “in order to have a successful and accurate operation in 2020.”

The results of the upcoming census will play an important role in the redistricting process set to take place in state legislatures once the population count is in. That process, which could significantly redraw congressional maps and have major implications for which party ultimately controls Congress, is just one of many efforts that could hinge on the completion of the census.

President Trump has the power to nominate a new census director. The timeline for that appointment is unclear.