It is never a good day for democracy when the head of the national census bureau suddenly quits. Canadians learned that in 2010 when Statistics Canada’s chief statistician, Munir Sheikh, resigned after then-industry minister, Tony Clement, falsely stated that the decision to axe the long-form census came from within StatsCan. Sheikh later said continuing budget cuts undermined the agency’s credibility.
For Americans, that day arrived this week, when U.S. Census Bureau director John H. Thompson, who’d held the job since 2013 and was expected to stay through 2017, suddenly resigned. The back story remains a mystery. We do know the bureau, ramping up for the 2020 census was cash-strapped and under increasing political pressure. Months ago, insiders predicted a “train wreck” if the bureau didn’t get the resources it needed. Less than a week ago, Thompson stood before a combative congressional committee to request an extra $309 million for IT equipment.
Thompson’s exit, eclipsed by news of FBI director James Comey’s shocking firing the same day, didn’t get the coverage it warranted. Yet his departure signals as potentially as big a blow to democracy.
Since taking office, the Trump administration has shredded data and threatened scientific research with a discipline absent from the general chaos that characterizes the regime. The past is being systemically deleted: open data sets have been removed, Arctic climate research erased. Through it all, the president has engaged in 1984 double-speak: “Rigorous science is critical to my administration’s efforts to achieve the twin goals of economic growth and environmental protection,” he said on Earth Day.
This all will be déjà vu all over again for Canadians—a warp-speed version of the data erasure witnessed during the near-decade-long Conservative government lead by Stephen Harper. Government funding of scientific research shrank, libraries were closed, irreplaceable research tossed, government scientists silenced, the long-form census was eliminated and key statistical studies were stopped. (Lest Canadians feel smug now, problems are ongoing even after regime change: in September 2016, Chief Statistician Wayne Smith stepped down, frustrated that Shared Services Canada held effective veto over many of the agency’s operations.)
READ MORE: Vanishing Canada: why we’re all losers in Ottawa’s war on data
Like Canadian scientists before them, American researchers raced to save data before the government permanently removed it. U.S. scientists have taken to the streets in protest, as Canadian scientists and citizens did before them. In tiny ways, the backlash has been successful: in January, the Trump administration dialled back its plan to delete climate-change pages on the EPA website, at least for now.
Trump’s proposed budget announced in March, however, called for brutal dismantling of scientific research (a full budget due this month still has to pass through Congress). Cuts of $7 billion in funding are destined to impede research on climate change, energy and health (it included an 18 per cent cut to the National Institutes of Health). The census bureau was one of the only federal agencies outside the Pentagon to get an increase. The $100-million bump only honoured previous commitments, however. The bureau called it insufficient, asking for a 21 percent, or $290 million, increase in 2017.
That’s small change, relatively. A properly executed census is a keystone of democracy, the largest civic action a government undertakes. Data collected provides snapshot of a nation—counting its people, their ages, where they work and live, how much money they earn, whether they live alone or with family, their marital status. It provides a baseline to measure progress or decline, particularly among the most marginalized. The information is necessary for governments—helping them to to make informed, fiscally-prudent decisions about where to allocate resources for schools, law enforcement, transportation, housing, social service agencies, even political campaigns. It reveals where to build roads and bridges—the “infrastructure” that was such a beloved cornerstone of Trump’s presidential campaign.
Major fault lines in the U.S. census, undertaken every 10 years, were evident in January. The U.S. Government Accountability Office put it on the “high-risk” list. That month, a leaked draft executive order revealed the government proposed the Census Bureau include a question on immigration status on the “long-form” census, or American Community Survey (ACS). The spectre of the White House using the information gleaned from the ACS and census to track down and deport undocumented immigrants triggered concerns that immigrants would be discouraged from participating.
March brought news that the government wanted to remove the first-ever question concerning sexual orientation and gender identity; the LGBTQ community responded with accusations the government wanted to “erase” them. The fact the 2020 census will be the first conducted online has only ramped up cybersecurity concern amidst #Russiagate—and the need to reassure Americans that their private information will not be hacked.
If you want to thrust a nation into an autocracy, eliminating the data collection that allows it to see itself is a first step. For anyone else, including the business class of which the president remains an active member, it’s a disaster. Business depends on the census to determine where markets exist; where to step up operations and direct marketing. Business also depends on government-funded, pure-science research to stoke innovation.
“Our goal is a complete and accurate census,” Thompson said in March, when he was still director of the census bureau. Now he’s gone. Trump has the power to replace him. Given the explosive developments of the past week, many might see it as a low priority. It’s not. If you don’t measure a nation, its people no longer exist.