THE UNDERMINING OF THE 2020 CENSUS

The 2020 Census is coming up soon and preparations for it are underway. You’ve probably heard about the controversy over the Trump administration’s effort to add a question on citizenship to the Census. Unfortunately, the politicization and undermining of the Census runs much deeper than just this question.

The Census is supposed to enumerate every person living in the U.S., regardless of whether they are a citizen or not. This is the Constitutional mandate of the Census. It’s used to determine boundaries for Congressional Districts and state legislative districts, as well as votes in the Electoral College (which, of course, elects the President). It’s also used every year to apportion $675 billion in federal funding for health care, schools, housing, and roads. Essentially every major U.S. institution uses Census data, from businesses analyzing markets to countless researchers analyzing demographics and driving policy decisions.

The 2010 Census was the most accurate one in history, but it over-counted white residents by almost 1% (e.g., people with more than one home) and under-counted Blacks by 2%, Hispanics by 1.5%, and Native Americans by 5% – failing to count 1.5 million residents of color. [1] The fairness and accuracy of the Census, as well as trust in it and its process, are essential elements of the core infrastructure of our democracy.

The undermining of an accurate count in the 2020 Census began in 2012 and has accelerated more recently. In 2012, Congress directed the Census Bureau, over the objections of the Obama White House, to spend less on the 2020 Census than it had on the 2010 Census, despite inflation and a population that was expected to grow by 25 million residents (about 8%). After Trump’s election in 2016, the Bureau’s budget was cut by another 10%, although some of that funding was just restored last month.

The Census Bureau’s Director resigned in June 2017 after Congressional budget cuts. The Deputy Director position was already vacant; however, the Trump administration has not yet nominated anyone to fill either of these posts. A rumored nominee was an academic without any Census experience who had supported racial and partisan gerrymandering of Congressional Districts. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has installed a “special adviser” at the Census Bureau who is from a partisan polling firm and who reports directly to the White House. These personnel issues undermine the Bureau’s ability to effectively run the 2020 Census.

Budget cuts have forced the Census Bureau to cancel crucial testing of the Census process. These tests are particularly important because for the first time the Census will be conducted primarily through on-line responses. Rather than mailing Census forms to every household, a postcard will be sent with instructions on how to fill out the on-line form. As in the past, Census workers, called enumerators, will visit households that don’t respond to the initial Census mailing to ensure the counting of those residents. Even though the initial response rate is likely to fall because of low-income or elders’ households that lack the technological capability to respond on-line, the number of enumerators has been cut by about 200,000, from 500,000 to 300,000. (Roughly a third of low-income households and a third of Black and Hispanic households lack Internet access and a computer.) The enumerators are also charged with finding and obtaining Census responses from residents who did not receive the mailing.

Budget cuts also forced the Census Bureau to cancel trial runs specifically designed to help it figure out how to reach hard-to-count populations. It also canceled two of three “dress rehearsals.” It has half as many field offices as it had in 2010. The development of the Bureau’s technology systems is behind schedule and the launch of its website is not scheduled until April 2020. Cybersecurity for the new on-line Census is a major concern as well. A group of 51 economists from across the country and across the political spectrum have written a letter to Congress supporting “robust funding of the 2020 Census sufficient to ensure a fair and accurate count of the U.S. population.” [2]

The budget cuts mean that the outreach and publicity the Census Bureau will do to encourage responding to the Census have been reduced substantially. Currently, the Bureau has only 40 employees working on outreach, compared with 120 at this point 10 years ago. States, cities, and private foundations are already working to fill this void, but they will be hard pressed to match the 2010 effort where the Census Bureau spent $340 million on promotional advertising.

As if these challenges to accurately counting every resident weren’t enough, the Trump administration recently announced its intention to add a question to the Census that would ask whether the respondent is a citizen. The Census Bureau was already concerned that the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant actions and rhetoric were going to make it harder to get an accurate count of immigrant residents, both documented and undocumented ones. A citizenship question will only exacerbate this challenge. Not only will non-citizens be less likely to respond to the Census, but citizens in the 16 million households with some undocumented members may refuse to respond out of fear of exposing their undocumented family members. [3]

The Trump administration says that getting citizenship data in the Census is necessary to enforce the Voting Rights Act and prevent discrimination against minorities. This claim would be laughable if its implications weren’t so serious. There hasn’t been a question on citizenship on the Census for 70 years. [4] Furthermore, the American Community Survey, which is done annually with a statistically accurate sample that consists of 3.5 million residents, does have a question on citizenship that provides the data needed to analyze issues where citizenship information is needed.

The opposition to adding a question on citizenship has been swift and broad. Six former Census Bureau Directors who served under both Republicans and Democrats wrote a letter in opposition. Two dozen states and cities have announced a lawsuit aimed at blocking the inclusion of this question. [5] Normally, adding a question to the Census is a careful process with testing to determine effects on response rate and other factors. In this case, there is no opportunity to test the effect of adding this question given that very limited field testing is being done and that it is already underway.

An under-count of immigrants and people of color would shift economic and political power to rural, white, conservative populations. These effects would last for at least the next 10 years until the 2030 Census. California estimates that each resident who is not counted will cost the state $1,900 in federal funding each year. It receives about $77 billion annually in federal funding and could lose about $2 billion each year for the next 10 years if its low-income and immigrant populations are significantly under-counted. This could also cost the state one or two seats in the House of Representatives and in the Electoral College.

A significant under-count in the 2020 Census would undermine the commitment of our democracy to treat each resident fairly. The Trump administration and the Republicans in Congress, by significantly under-funding the Census, by adding a question on citizenship, through their anti-immigrant actions and rhetoric, and by refusing to use more accurate statistical techniques, seem to be working hard to under-count hard-to-reach populations. Not surprisingly, these low-income, minority, young, and student populations are the same ones they are trying to keep from voting through ID requirements and other steps that make voting more difficult. They appear to be more than happy to undermine the 2020 Census and our democracy to achieve political goals.

The Census has an extraordinary reputation for counting all residents regardless of income, race, ethnicity, or immigrant status. Undermining confidence in the integrity of the Census by politicizing the process will erode trust that is essential to a functioning democracy. [6]

I urge you to contact your members of Congress and urge them to support adequate funding for the Census, to oppose a question on citizenship, and to strongly advocate for as accurate a count of all residents as is possible. You can find your US Representative’s name and contact information at: http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/. You can find your US Senators’ names and contact information at: http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

[1]      Berman, A., May/June 2018, “Hidden figures: How Donald Trump is rigging the Census,” Mother Jones (https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2018/03/donald-trump-rigging-2020-census-undercounting-minorities-1/#)

[2]      Economic Policy Institute, 4/2/18, “An open letter from 51 economists to Congress urging robust funding of the 2020 Census” (https://www.epi.org/publication/an-open-letter-from-51-economists-to-congress-urging-robust-funding-of-the-2020-census/)

[3]      Loth, R., 4/9/18, “Turning the apolitical Census into an anti-immigrant tool,” The Boston Globe

[4]      Cerbin, C. M., 3/27/18, “Citizenship question to be put back on the 2020 Census for first time in 70 years,” USA Today

[5]      Kamp, J., & Adamy, J., 4/13/18, “Citizenship question rankles in trial run of 2020 Census,” Wall Street Journal

[6]      Wines, M., 12/9/17, “With 2020 Census looming, worries about fairness and accuracy,” The New York Times

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