U.S. Census Bureau Director John Thompson Abruptly Resigns

May 11, 2017
Originally published on May 14, 2017 8:44 am
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Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is facing one of his first tests in the Trump administration. The Commerce Department is in charge of the Census Bureau, which is facing big budget cuts and just this week announced the resignation of its director - all as the 2020 census approaches. From member station WNYC, Andrea Bernstein reports.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: New York billionaire investor Wilbur Ross cultivates an image of being straightforward, business-like. Right off the bat at his confirmation hearing, he noted he's a numbers guy who's relied on data his whole career.


WILBUR ROSS: I may be the only nominee ever for commerce secretary who actually worked as a census taker.

BERNSTEIN: He said he wore a big, white belt, like a school crossing guard, as he talked his way into people's homes to get an accurate count.


ROSS: I've also been, over the years, a very large consumer of various forms of data put out by different departments of the Department of Commerce - census data.

BERNSTEIN: The census affects not only business but public spending on schools, health care, social services and how much political representation each state gets. Now, advocates worry proposed funding cuts threaten the integrity of the 2020 census. They say that's because President Trump's budget flatlined census spending right at the moment it needs to gear up for the 2020 count. Congress seems to be in no mood to be more generous with the bureau. Texas Republican Congressman John Culberson criticized the bureau's preparations for 2020.


JOHN CULBERSON: They're already expecting a $309 million cost overrun, and that just is - and that's in the IT system. And it's just a real source of concern.


JOHN THOMPSON: Although we've experienced a cost overrun, the technical...

BERNSTEIN: Census Bureau Director John Thompson trying to explain in a bureaucratic way that census costs always spike in the run-up to the census. Former census directors say the costs are especially high this year because they're testing a new online system, they argue, will cut costs in the long run. Congress wasn't buying it. Earlier this week, Thompson quit, creating a wave of concern. Notre Dame Professor Luis Fraga says a poorly run 2020 census could be particularly bad for poor people, immigrants, ethnic and racial minorities and those at risk of being undercounted.

LUIS FRAGA: That has direct implications for funding, for political representation and for, frankly, the country understanding its own future.

BERNSTEIN: This afternoon, the Commerce Department said it would be presenting its views to Congress on, quote, "funding requirements for a full and accurate count." For NPR News, I'm Andrea Bernstein. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.