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Congress, we can’t afford to let the Trump administration politicize the 2020 census

Ever wonder how Texas decides where to build that new highway?

What about the grocery store chain’s pick for its new location?

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Or even how the feds divvy up tax dollars for your neighborhood school?

The census, that’s how.

For most Americans, the census is a mere inconvenience that rolls around every 10 years. But for anyone who relies on the results — and there are many, from academic researchers to state legislatures drawing election maps, to federal officials divvying up $600 billion in spending — the accuracy of the census is more than a benefit.

It’s absolutely critical.

That’s why it’s alarming that the 2020 census is being threatened on two fronts: first, by Congress’ refusal to adequately fund it and, second, by a growing concern about the impact of President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and fears that his administration will try to politicize the count.

This country can’t afford for either to happen.

For generations, the census has been the gold standard when it comes to documenting demographic change in America. Without it, we wouldn’t know basic facts about the people who live here, such as their standards of living and housing conditions, and what health care programs are required to serve them.

We understand the desire to rein in costs; getting an accurate nationwide headcount costs billions. But the census is worth paying for, especially since it will be conducted online for the first time instead of by mail. The online method is projected to cost $1.5 billion less than the $17 billion officials said it would have cost doing it the old way.

Already, a $200 million cut through the 2017 fiscal year has meant scrapping two of three dry runs of the new system and plans for smartphone canvassing in group living quarters.

Then there’s Trump’s crackdown on immigration — including a suggestion to ask about immigration status on the census. It’s helping fuel larger concerns that minorities — legal and undocumented — will be even harder to count.

Equally troubling is the White House’s reported interest in University of Texas at Dallas professor Thomas Brunell for deputy director of the Census Bureau. Here’s a guy who testified on behalf of partisan defendants in gerrymandering cases who argues against the benefits of having a mix of Democrats and Republicans in voting districts.

Allowing politics to seep into what is supposed to be a nonpartisan count will erode public trust that the 2020 count will be fair and accurate.

The census is the only reliable way to measure many changes in our communities, from poverty rates and racial makeup to educational attainment and income levels. An undercount would be a devastating blow, particularly to fast-growing and racially diverse states.

We urge Congress to give the Census Bureau the funds it needs to do it right.

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Bungling it could have dire consequences.

— The Dallas Morning News