WASHINGTON — A nonpartisan government audit says preparations for the 2020 census are dangerously behind, weeks out from the nationwide launch, but the official at the helm told lawmakers Wednesday that the largest and most complex population count in U.S. history is on track.
“We are confident that we are on mission, on budget and on target,” Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said in testimony to the House Oversight Committee.
The committee met this morning to parse a new report from the Government Accountability Office that says the Census Bureau has failed to meet hiring targets and establish local partnership critical to an accurate population count.
“The bureau is behind in its recruiting of applicants for upcoming operations,” the report states. “If the bureau does not recruit sufficient individuals, it may have difficulty hiring enough staff to complete its upcoming operations within scheduled time frames.”
Christopher Mihm, the GAO managing director for strategic issues, warned the committee that 202 out of the 248 Census Bureau offices missed February hiring targets.
Representative Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., said the Census Bureau hitting its hiring targets is critical to counting hard to reach communities.
“The numbers are telling the story,” Pressley said. “And it is a sobering one that stands to really devastatingly impact hard to count communities that already are under resourced and underserved.”
Dillingham meanwhile portrayed the GAO findings as outdated. Following initial door-to-door counts in Alaska last month, the survey goes live on April 1, and Dillingham assured the congresswoman that his office will be ready.
“This is the largest civilian mobilization since World War II due to the number of census workers and the enormous public engagement that happens during the decennial census,” the director said.
Mihm at the GAO conceded that Census Bureau recruitment rates are rising, but he warned that the upward trend in recent months does not indicate that the bureau will be properly staffed.
The 2020 census will be the first launched online, with the bureau planning to follow up with households that fail to respond to the digital survey.
Responding to Dillingham’s claims that the bureau is meeting its hiring targets, Mihm said 61 million households will require outreach from local census takers for the government to hit its 60.5% response rate goal.
“You can bleed through a recruitment base very, very quickly in hiring the enumerators for that,” the GAO official warned.
In a tense back and forth with Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-N.Y., the director also refused to tell the committee who is responsible for providing Congress with a complete list of local partners who will help distribute the census in hard to count communities.
The House Oversight Committee requested the data last year and the bureau missed the December production deadline.
“You know you were sworn in at the start of this hearing right?” Wasserman Schultz said.
She added later: “It really is hard to believe that you do not know who is responsible for reviewing the materials … You are the director of the census.”
Telling the congresswoman that the records were in review channels, Dillingham said he did not foresee a delay.
Wasserman Schultz called it outrageous, however, that the director could not tell her who is responsible for the review process and who is holding up the documents Congress requested.
“It’s a deliberate obstacle that you are throwing in the path of trying to make sure that we can get hard to count communities counted,” Wasserman Schultz said. “And that is obvious.”
The director denied the accusation but similarly failed to provide a direct answer to Representative Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who asked if the bureau can provide the records by the end of the week.
“That was a softball question,” Meadows said. Dillingham then committed to provide the list of local partners broken down by congressional district by Friday.
Representative Jim Jordan, the committee’s ranking Republican member, accused Democrats of ignoring their responsibility to ensure an effective census launch and said they were “needlessly” focused on the Trump administration’s push to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., raised concerns at the hearing over migrant communities who still expect the citizenship question to appear on the survey.
Dillingham firmly assured her that no citizenship question will appear on the 2020 census and that census data will, in compliance with federal law, not be passed on to immigration agencies.
The census director also committed to personally review a survey raised by Democrats that the Republican National Committee has mailed to households across the country, titled “2020 Congressional District Census” and asking recipients to respond within a week.
Representative Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat who chairs the committee, called the Republican mailer an abuse.
“This is outrageous,” she said. “It looks like an official document … and it is a campaign piece for the Republican National Committee.”
— By Megan Meneiro