Census 2020: Dispute over LGBT questions is really about federal spending

The U.S. Constitution requires a census be taken every ten years. And while the Founders may have had great foresight, it’s doubtful they saw this simple command—mostly to determine representation in Congress—would become mired in controversy over sexual politics.

Throughout the years, as the nation became more complex, so did the census form, adding questions, for example, about race, ancestry, education, health and housing.

But never before have there been questions about sexual orientation and gender identity. In fact, not so long ago, the LGBT community probably would have seen such inquiries as an invasion of privacy.

But during the Obama era, a number of federal agencies, as well as congressional Democrats, wanted to add such questions. And a preliminary draft for the 2020 Census released earlier this week suggested there might be some.

The final draft sent to Congress from the Census Bureau did not feature such questions. John Thompson, head of the Census Bureau—which is part of the Department of Commerce--explained in a letter that they’d investigated if there was a “legislative mandate” to collect such data and determined there was “no federal data need to change the planned census.”

This started a firestorm of protest.

More than 60 congressional Democrats—led by Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Representatives Raúl Grijalva of Arizona and Adam Schiff of California—sent a letter to the Trump administration insisting the census look into how many LGBT people are in the United States.

The Democratic lawmakers claim that there’s little known “about the social and economic circumstances of the LGBT population” and that they’re “at greater risk of being victimized by violence,” among other things. Thus there’s a need for “expanded data collection” to help identify “the needs of these communities so they can be better served.”

Meghan Maury, criminal and economic justice project director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, spoke more forcefully: “Today, the Trump administration has taken yet another step to deny LGBTQ people freedom, justice, and equity, by choosing to exclude us from the 2020 Census...”

She also noted that federal agencies “can’t make the right choices about how to allocate [...] resources if they don’t have a sense of what the LGBTQ community looks like.”

And that, ultimately, may be what this dispute is really about.  Not about numbers in the census, but the number of federal dollars—a lot of them.  As John Thompson noted in his letter, the U.S. Census helps determine how the government will  “distribute more than $400 billion in federal funds annually.”

This has Scott Shackford, an editor at Reason magazine—and a gay man himself--troubled.  Writing on the issue, he notes “rights and freedom are not based on head counts or a demographic analysis of where people live.  This isn’t about rights, it’s about money. This is about organizations and activists who are hoping to use this demographic data to get a bigger slice of federal funding.  And that’s infuriating.”

Despite complaints from the Democrats, the White House determines how the census will be run, and—as President Obama famously noted--elections have consequences.  Still, the debate over the census will continue.  You can count on it.