45 House Democrats call on Census Bureau to address 2020 undercount

A group of House Democrats are calling on the Commerce Department and the Census Bureau to lay out a plan to address undercounts in the 2020 census, which could malapportion billions of dollars in federal funding over the next decade.

In a letter led by Reps. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) and Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), the lawmakers asked Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Census Bureau Director Robert Santos to assess exactly how the faulty data will affect communities, and to create plans to mitigate that damage.

“We rely on the Census to not only provide an accurate picture of America, but also to allocate federal funding and give every citizen an equal voice in their elections,” said Sánchez.

The 2020 census was marred by the pandemic and unorthodox moves by the Trump administration that further complicated a difficult process. 

At the top of the list was an attempt to include a citizenship question, an initiative that was shot down in court.

“The previous administration was determined to sabotage the 2020 census, and because of that we saw unprecedented undercounts of Latino, Black, American Indian, and Alaska Native populations,” said Gallego.

In their letter, the lawmakers recognized the Bureau’s efforts to conduct a census in difficult circumstances, but expressed concerns about how the undercounts of ethnic and racial groups will affect federal programs over the next decade.

“We commend the work of career Census Bureau staff to address these challenges and safeguard the quality and integrity of census data, as well as the tireless efforts of all staff who had to nimbly adapt the Bureau’s operations in an unpredictable and ever-changing public health environment,” they wrote.

“However, the net undercount revealed by the PES is alarming, and the severely detrimental consequences could extend throughout this entire decade.” 

In March, the Census Bureau’s Post-Enumeration Survey (PES), an official quality check of the census, showed that the overall count of people in the United States was fairly accurate, but communities of color were disproportionately undercounted.

The results of the census are used as a benchmark to distribute federal funding that goes to states and localities, as well as to apportion seats in the House of Representatives and to draw local legislative districts.

While the census has historically had trouble reaching communities of color, the PES found that undercounts of Black and Hispanic individuals rose in 2020 compared to the previous census.

In 2020, Hispanic individuals were undercounted by 4.99 percent, compared to 1.54 percent in 2010. Black individuals were undercounted by 3.3 percent, nearly twice the rate of the previous exercise.

The communities most affected by the 2020 undercount were American Indian and Alaska Native populations, who were undercounted by 5.64 percent.

“The 2020 Census undercount is concerning because the Census helps determine the funding formula for over 300 federal programs, which means undercounted communities will get less than their fair share. This is especially problematic for Indian Country, which already faces a history of chronic underfunding from the federal government,” said Gallego.

“For decades, the federal government has failed to keep up its end of the bargain when it comes to the federal trust responsibility, and as a result many Native communities lack access to quality health care and schools, to physical and broadband infrastructure, and even to running water,” he added.

And the large undercount of Hispanics in the United States, if unaddressed, is all but certain to negatively affect socioeconomic outcomes for chronically underserved communities.

“With Latinos being the second-largest population group in our country, this undercount could have severe consequences for the prosperity of our community and our nation as a whole,” said Sánchez.

The lawmakers called on Raimondo and Santos both to quantify the extent of the potential damage, and to inform them about efforts to adjust federal spending plans to account for the undercounts.

“We believe the results of the PES, together with evolving social, public health, technological and statistical analysis trends indicate that the Bureau should consider making fundamental changes to its traditional methods of enumerating the nation’s population,” they wrote.

They also called on the Census Bureau to release any data on the factors that contributed to the undercount.

Last month, 22 Democratic senators made a similar plea to Raimondo and Santos.

 “With the unsettling results of the PES, we urge the Census Bureau to take immediate action to ameliorate the 2020 undercount of Latinos and other communities and work to prevent future undercounts,” said Arturo Vargas, CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund.

Tags Gina Raimondo Robert Santos Ruben Gallego US Census

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