The government will be flying blind with an inaccurate 2020 Census

The government will be flying blind with an inaccurate 2020 Census
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The government is flying blind without accurate information about the people they support. So why is the White House trying to throw a wrench in the 2020 Census?

In March, the Trump administration proposed adding a new census question about whether household members are U.S. citizens or not. On the face of it, this might provide more information about the U.S. population. But that’s only if people actually answer the question. Demographers and population scientists are very concerned that the presence of this question will decrease participation in the census. So we’ll end up knowing less than when we started.


Twenty years ago the anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes wrote about something she called “demography without numbers.” Her point was that many data sources that we rely on to understand the world are actually fairly inaccurate.


In northeast Brazil, her research found that high infant mortality rates and poverty combined to compel mothers not to record their children’s births and subsequent deaths. Fees were charged to record vital statistics, and they seemed beside the point if the child had already died. The effect of this absence in the official record was an artificially low infant mortality rate, that didn’t reflect the reality of northeast Brazil.

Professor Scheper-Hughes turned to other methods to attempt to figure out the infant mortality rate — her “demography without numbers” was composed of speaking with priests, pharmacists, hospital attendants, coffin makers, and gravediggers. Is this where we are headed?

When social and behavioral phenomena aren’t counted on purpose, it leaves those who want to tackle them at a loss. We saw a poignant example of this last month, when Canada’s Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology released a report about forced adoptions in Canada. That report offers a disconcerting example of just how much we don’t know when we don’t have accurate data. It stated “there is no official data of how many unmarried women were coerced into relinquishing their babies for adoption.” Canadian government statistics indicate that between 1945 and 1971, “almost 600,000 infants were born to unmarried women and were recorded as ‘illegitimate births.’” But there’s no way to know how many of those women were compelled to place their children in adoption and, according to the report, made to “just forget about their babies, to never speak of them again.”

And other examples abound — just to point to one, a May 2018 study from Harvard on the uncounted deaths in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria concluded that while the official death toll from the hurricane was 64, the actual number was “more than 70 times the official estimate.” Only last week did the government quietly increase the death toll.

If our 2020 Census is written in such a way that many people decline to answer — because they are already vulnerable and the question puts them on their guard — we will have gained nothing, but lost accuracy. The purpose of the Census isn’t to build a data wall between citizens and non-citizens. It’s constitutionally mandated in order to give us an accurate picture of who lives here — whether or not they are authorized to be here.

lawsuit against the question, filed by 17 states, is going forward as of last month.  It suggests that the citizenship question is meant to depress responses in “blue states” so that redistricting will shift representatives away from them, limiting their political efficacy. But the Census Bureau itself states many other routine purposes that census data is used for: “When you respond to the census, you help your community gets its fair share of the more than $675 billion per year in federal funds spent on schools, hospitals, roads, public works and other vital programs.” Looking the other way and not counting immigrants doesn’t mean they stop using roads, but it does mean that the funds to repair the roads won’t match their usage.  And these census counts are what we are counting on for the next 10 years.

comment period has just ended for weighing in on the proposed change to the census. With any luck, those comments or the lawsuit will stop the change in its tracks. If not, pretty soon we’re going to find ourselves doing demography without numbers — closing our eyes and hoping that public funds are fairly distributed even though we no longer will have a map to get there.  

Jessaca Leinaweaver is an anthropologist at Brown University, located in Providence County, where a 2020 census test has been conducted.