When U.S. Census Bureau Director John Thompson unexpectedly announced his resignation in May, alarm bells went off for health researchers across the country. What affect will Thomson’s departure have on the upcoming 2020 census? And what does he know that we don’t?

Here’s what we know so far.

Congress recently approved $1.47 billion for the bureau for the current fiscal year. President Trump’s budget blueprint has called for $1.5 billion for the
Census Bureau’s work on the 2020 Census. That’s a modest increase, but here’s the thing. Modest won’t cut it. It won’t even come close.

“The budget for the census is highly cyclical,” FiveThirtyEight explains. “Every 10 years, spending soars as the bureau hires hundreds of thousands of census takers to complete the constitutionally mandated population count….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.”

The decennial census is not just about counting people for the sake of counting them. The population data collected by the Census Bureau is used to accurately apportion and determine how state and federal political districts are drawn ensuring equal representation. If certain populations or demographics are undercounted, they are essentially invisible politically.

But the accuracy of the census has more than political ramifications. It can determine how federal dollars are spent. The federal government uses census data to allocate federal funding needed for social/human services, roads and infrastructure, education, and, yes, public health and research efforts.

In the research world, data is needed in order to be competitive for funding, but funding is needed to collect the data. This emphasis on evidence-based programs can put rural researchers at a disadvantage. With the ever shrinking availability of federal funding to support research, it is important that accurate population data is available for rural researchers competing for grant dollars.

Rural Healthy People 2020, published by the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Rural Public Health, serves as a guide for such efforts.

Some of the key areas identified by Rural Healthy People 2020 include: access to quality health services, diabetes, mental health and mental disorders, nutrition and weight status, heart disease and stroke, substance abuse, physical activity and health, older adults, cancer, maternal health , infant health, child health and educational and community-based programs. All of these priority areas require accurate population-based data, and that requires a successful U.S. Census.

President Trump has the power to nominate a new census director. We can only hope that Thompson’s replacement is able to convince Congress to do the right thing and give the American people the accurate census they need and deserve.

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