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Consider why we even have a decennial census. Then, take a look at how President Trump and his attorney general are messing with the coming count.

The U.S. Constitution requires a census every 10 years. The first was in 1790, conducted by U.S. marshals under authority of the secretary of state.

That first census asked only six questions of approximately 3.9 million people. Its primary purpose was to guide apportionment of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The job of counting the nation's inhabitants now falls to the U.S. Census Bureau, which reported the 2010 population at nearly 308.8 million.

Through the years, the forms used by enumerators have varied, collecting different information intended to tell us "who we are and where we are going as a nation." At least that's how the U.S. Census Bureau boils down the objective in the agency's online history.

The numbers are still gathered for that basic purpose of apportioning the present-day U.S. House into 435 districts of approximately equal population.

Census data collected within a state is similarly used to draw the lines for state legislative districts.

The whole country gets broken down into tiny enumeration districts with data collected on household income, how many adults and children live in any given place and more.

And that information, the Census Bureau explains, helps public and private decision-makers choose "where to build everything from schools to supermarkets, and from homes to hospitals."

Importantly, the numbers also guide the distribution of funds to states and localities. Population is factored into the formulas to send federal funds back to the states and to send state funds to cities and counties.

Every level of government must deal with population-driven challenges, and every community needs an accurate census count.

That's why so many people worry about President Trump's insistence on a citizenship question for the 2020 census.

The fear is that some people who are already jumpy about Trump administration immigration policy will avoid being counted if they or family members must identify themselves as being citizens or not.

It is a better-safe-than-sorry mentality, even if the data collected about individuals isn't supposed to be shared.

Keep in mind that an undocumented person has the same impact on population-driven decisions as any citizen born in this country or naturalized.

A civic leader in Northwest Arkansas, which has experienced decades of population growth, recently acknowledged shifting demographics in the region where, for example, some schools now have minority majorities.

"If you're going to embrace that change and fully account for it in your decisions, whether you're in business or planning, you need an accurate picture of who you are," said Nelson Peacock, president of Northwest Arkansas Council.

"You can't do that if there are people and you don't know they're here."

That's about as simple an explanation of the problem as is possible.

Peacock heads a group of business and community leaders who have been tackling regional issues in the state's northwest corner for more than 20 years.

They want to be sure the heavily populated region gets its fair share of federal and state money to meet ever-increasing demands.

Less-populated regions ought to have that same concern for their needs. Mistakes in the count in 2020 can affect the entire decade that follows. If immigrants or any other group of people are not counted, the communities where they live stand to lose critical funding.

To be certain, we don't know yet whether there will be a citizenship question in the 2020 census.

The U.S. Supreme Court late last month rejected what justices called a "contrived" Trump administration argument for including the citizenship question.

The justices left open the possibility for the administration to offer better justification. Nevertheless, Department of Justice attorneys who had handled the case accepted defeat. Time had run out to meet the deadline for printing the forms that Department of Justice had argued could not be missed.

Then the president tweeted that the fight would go on, even as those census forms were being printed.

On Monday, Attorney General William Barr asserted the administration can find a legal way around the court decision, although he declined to say how.

Meanwhile, the Department of Justice is replacing all of the attorneys on the case, stirring additional controversy within the department Barr heads.

Plenty more controversy will come.

The president wants the citizenship question asked and the attorney general obviously intends to see it done.

Pay attention. Nothing short of a constitutional crisis is brewing.

Commentary on 07/10/2019

Print Headline: Count on it

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