Concerns mount over 2020 census

Just a year before it begins the decennial count of every man, woman and child living in the United States, the Census Bureau is scrambling to finalize plans, open offices and hire what will become the nation’s largest temporary workforce.

But observers and partners working with the bureau say there are significant questions about the preparations that have been made and whether the Census Bureau is adequately prepared to tackle one of the most complicated — and important — functions of government.

ADVERTISEMENT

“I’m not confident they’re ready one year out. I’m very concerned. I’m concerned on where they are on their budget, I’m concerned on technology, I’m concerned on substance,” said Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyThe Hill's Morning Report - Is US weighing military action against Iran? The Hill's Morning Report - Is US weighing military action against Iran? Dems eye repeal of Justice rule barring presidential indictments MORE (D-Va.), who chairs the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, which includes the Census Bureau.

“They’re not meeting their own deadlines, and so what confidence does that give you that they’re going to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in 2020 when they actually conduct the census?” he added.

The concerns relate to new technologies the Census Bureau plans to use in its count, chronic underfunding that has forced the bureau to cancel planned tests — and even to the actual questions the bureau will ask Americans.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments later this month over a controversial proposal from the Trump administration to ask respondents whether they are citizens.

Two federal judges have already ruled against adding the question, which President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says 'Failing New York Times' should be held 'fully accountable' over Russia report Trump says 'Failing New York Times' should be held 'fully accountable' over Russia report Trump tweets ICE will begin removing 'millions' of undocumented migrants MORE has defended as necessary for an accurate count.

“Can you believe that the Radical Left Democrats want to do our new and very important Census Report without the all important Citizenship Question. Report would be meaningless and a waste of the $Billions (ridiculous) that it costs to put together!” Trump tweeted on Monday.

Civil rights groups and most census watchers believe adding such a question, which has not been asked since 1950, would lead to a substantial undercount in Hispanic and immigrant communities.

Six former directors of the Census Bureau sent a letter to their former agency opposing the question last year.

ADVERTISEMENT
“I’ve been watching the census since 1970, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a situation as problematic as this one,” said William O’Hare, a demographer and author who published a book this year studying past censuses. “It’s having a chilling effect on immigrant and Hispanic communities.”

The potential for an undercount is most acute for young children, the most chronically undercounted population in the country: About 1 in 5 children under the age of four lives in a household with an immigrant, according to O’Hare’s research.

“If the citizenship question stays in, then we face a very high rate of noncompliance, and that means you’re going to have to add on a number of enumerators who will [need] to go back physically and try to capture the information they didn’t get the first time around,” Connolly said.

What’s more, the Census Bureau will be asking Americans for information at a time when skepticism in government itself is near an all-time high. Those with experience working on and with the census say they are concerned that the final number will miss millions — potentially tens of millions — of people.

“It seems like the work that the bureau has done shows that unease with government is higher than it has been previously,” said John Thompson, who served as director of the Census Bureau before leaving in June 2017. “They’re going to do their best to get the best count that they can. But if there are concerns that they can’t overcome, the safety, the confidentiality of the information, there could be an undercount, and it could be bigger than it was.”

In a briefing with reporters on Monday, Thompson’s successor, Steven Dillingham, said the Census Bureau was prepared for its herculean task.

“We are on mission, on schedule, on budget and on course to complete the best census ever,” Dillingham said.

Albert Fontenot, who oversees the decennial count as the bureau’s associate director, said a recent end-to-end test of the system in Providence, R.I., showed new technologies were implemented smoothly and that response rates were 3 percentage points higher than the bureau’s goals.

The census is a crucial benchmark that ripples throughout the country long after the count is complete.

Initially, population results are used to apportion congressional districts, and several states hang on the brink of gaining or losing seats in the House of Representatives. Later, census data is used to allocate more than $880 billion in federal money each year through dozens of government programs.

To complete its count, the bureau will eventually hire about 2.3 million enumerators, at salaries of between $13.50 and $30 an hour, to tally those who do not return their census forms next year.

Six regional centers are already open, with about 600 workers each, and the bureau has signed leases on 248 local census offices around the country.

The bureau estimates that 60.5 percent of Americans will respond to mailings, and its enumerators will have to find the remaining 39.5 percent who do not respond.

Even with new internet and phone response options, the bureau anticipates receiving paper forms from 40 million households, which will be tallied at plants in Phoenix and Jeffersonville, Ind.

No census is perfect, and the bureau measures how many people it misses every decade in order to improve its measurements. The bureau identifies some areas that are particularly difficult to count, including Native American reservations, areas where single people congregate like college campuses and minority communities that can be reluctant to participate.

“Some of these reservations, you don’t have street names, you don’t have convenient ways of identifying households,” said Bill Anoatubby, governor of the Chickasaw Nation.

This year, census watchers say the threat of an undercount is even more grave because Congress has failed to appropriate the funds necessary for the most accurate count possible.

The bureau canceled two of three planned tests of its system, which now includes online and phone options by which to respond, including one in West Virginia, where the agency hoped to test itself in rural areas with hard-to-reach populations.

“Some of this is Congress’s fault because the Republican majority was unwilling to provide the resources they were told they needed, and we’re going to pay a price for that,” Connolly said.

Each decade’s census has such a long tail, and such far-reaching consequences, that mistakes can haunt an undercounted community for years.

“If those controls have a bias in them, like an undercount, that undercount will be carried forward for 10 years,” Thompson said.

For states on the brink of gaining or losing seats, the stakes are tremendous.

Kimball Brace, a demographer who runs Election Data Services, estimates that Rhode Island is about 20,525 residents short of retaining its second seat in Congress; Minnesota is 27,512 residents shy of keeping its eighth seat. A serious undercount could cost states like Alabama and California a seat each.

In advance of an underfunded census, and underscoring just how much is at stake, state and local governments have budgeted millions in programs aimed at encouraging their residents to be counted.

California legislators have appropriated more than $100 million to ensure a full count; an Illinois board has asked for $25 million; and states like Maryland, Georgia and Minnesota have budgeted millions. A measure in Colorado would allocate $12 million to a census outreach program.

“It’s part of a recognition of the difficulty the Census Bureau is going to have in getting a good count,” O’Hare said. “If other states are counted more accurately and they are counted less accurately, they will lose money. It’s a good return on investment.”