INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana's years of work and apparent success at convincing residents from Illinois and elsewhere to relocate to the Hoosier State could all be for naught if turmoil at the U.S. Census Bureau leads to an inaccurate 2020 population count.
Census Director John Thompson recently announced he's retiring from the federal agency at the end of the month, instead of at the end of the year, leaving the Census unexpectedly leaderless at a time when it normally would be ramping up testing and finalizing plans for the upcoming nationwide tally.
There's so far been no indication when Republican President Donald Trump, who repeatedly has tweeted his skepticism of unemployment statistics and federal data generally, might nominate anyone to replace Thompson.
Indeed, the Census director is among more than 400 top federal positions requiring Senate confirmation for which Trump has yet to make an appointment.
The Census also may not have all the resources needed to carry out an effective count, especially as it seeks to move most of its data collection online and has to purchase equipment and software now, to do so.
The agency already has had to cancel some pre-testing activities after the April short-term budget deal provided less than half of its requested spending increase.
Going forward, Trump's proposed budget allocates only $100 million in new money for the Census in 2018, instead of the $250 million recommended by former President Barack Obama.
Census spending normally would continue growing through 2020 when the agency typically hires more than a half-million temporary workers to contact Americans who don't return their census forms.
But if Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress succeed in enacting their proposed tax cuts and spending reductions, there simply may not be enough cash available for an effective census, even though it is mandated by the U.S. Constitution.
Census results affect everything
The once-a-decade count of the nation's population is used for myriad purposes including the apportionment of federal and state legislative seats.
State Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, whose position on the House Elections Committee will put him at the center of Indiana's post-census redistricting, said without a good census the principle of one man-one vote is at risk.
"It's just really important to have good population counts," Soliday said. "Particularly up here in Northwest Indiana where we seem to have quite a bit of migration going on."
Many businesses use census results to help decide where to open new locations, which affects employment, real estate prices and economic development across the country.
Federal funding to cities, not to mention bragging rights, also are tied to the population tally.
In the 2010 census, Hammond surpassed Gary by 536 residents to become Northwest Indiana's largest municipality — an outcome that still bothers state Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary.
"I'm almost certain that we missed thousands of folks because a) they weren't aware of the process; and b) those that were aware were afraid to come out and say, 'Yes, I am here,' " Brown said.
He observed that even if residents aren't counted in the census they still may require city, state or federal services that are more difficult to provide when funding for those services is based on the population count.
"We could be very, very devastated by the loss of additional federal funds because of losing population on paper, when in actuality we haven't lost that amount of population," Brown said.
He's hopeful that even if the federal government's 2020 census effort is less than stellar, especially in communities with census-averse populations, Indiana will do everything it can to get every resident in every city counted across the Region and the state.
"If we lose, the state loses as well," Brown said. "We'll have to do a better job of getting the word out and allaying folks' fears about coming out of the shadows."