The U.S. Census Bureau plans to include a controversial question on the 2020 Census asking whether you’re a citizen. But after 17 years of war, the questionnaire still won’t address military history.
Ignoring repeated calls by researchers over the last decade to include questions about veteran status, the bureau is still relying on smaller surveys disputed by experts to estimate the population. In doing so, the bureau hasn’t provided researchers or policymakers with a full head count since 2000. But better data on where veterans live, how much money they make, and, most importantly, how many live in the U.S., would help agencies like the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) better identify the needs of the population, experts said.
The lack of data has become more apparent since the War on Terror, which changed the size, age, and healthcare needs of the U.S. veteran population. The VA, for example, doesn’t have comprehensive data on the people who fought in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which were launched after September 11, 2001. Despite every census since 1840 including at least one question about veterans, the Census Bureau cut all references when the questionnaire was trimmed in 2010.
Randall Noller, a public affairs officer at the VA, wouldn’t discuss the impact of limited data on veterans but did note that the agency works with the Census Bureau to track demographic and socioeconomic statistics on the veteran population through its annual American Community Survey (ACS).
The survey, however, samples only about 3.5 million U.S. households — just 2.7 percent of the total number. That drastically undercounts the veteran population, according to a RAND Corporation study from 2014. Even the Census Bureau acknowledges the survey is “not to count every person in a community or town but rather to provide a portrait of the community’s characteristics.” U.S. Census Bureau public affairs officer Daniel Velez, however, told VICE News that “the responses we receive from the ACS provide a good deal of stats on veterans and their current status.”
“There’s an expectation that the U.S. government is able to track veterans."
Carrie Farmer, a senior policy researcher focusing on the military and veteran health policy at RAND, found that the American Community Survey undercounts veterans by about 2 million a year — “not an insignificant number,” as she described.
“It really affects our total understanding,” Farmer said. “There’s an expectation that the U.S. government is able to track veterans. [The lack of data] hinders the VA’s ability to understand the population they are trying to serve. “
For example, the RAND study found that the American Community Survey estimated the veteran population in 2013 to be roughly the same as it was in 2000. The report urged the Census Bureau to include even a single question about whether the respondent was a veteran or not.
“Given that the events of September 11, 2001, set off prolonged U.S. engagement in overseas conflict and changed the Department of Defense accession and personnel retention policies that affect the flow of service members from active duty to veteran status, it seems that the nation is overdue for an updated census of the veteran population,” the report stated.
Despite the criticism, government officials don’t appear concerned. A Census Scientific Advisory Committee meeting on Thursday covered cybersecurity threats to the census and statistical analysis — but made little mention of veterans. The panel also discussed the citizenship question, which Trump administration officials requested to help them track voter fraud. Several states have already sued over the administration over the decision.
The number of veterans who would benefit from better federal data has also increased in recent years. For example, enrollment in the VA healthcare system rose from 7.9 million to nearly 9 million from 2006 through 2016, according to the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan government watchdog.
In its latest report, the accountability office found “inadequate oversight and accountability” and “administrative weaknesses” at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The report also noted that “significant gaps remain between VA’s stated plans and its actual progress.” Veteran suicides, for example, have increased 32 percent since 2001 compared to a 23 percent increase among the U.S. adult civilian population, according to the VA.
It’s clear the VA already struggles to address the needs of the population the department serves. With the sudden ouster of secretary David Shulkin on Wednesday, what's not clear is how the agency will cope. Trump’s (and Obama’s) personal physician, Adm. Ronny Jackson, will now run the department. The Navy doctor is facing criticism for his lack of management experience.
Photo illustration by Leslie Xia