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States and Cities Need Accurate Census Count

 Although the decennial census is required by the U.S. Constitution, it’s not a topic that makes the heart go pit-a-pat. After doing a TV episode on a census issue, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin observed that the very word “census” put the audience asleep.


Nonetheless, the 2020 census will impact every state, city and county in the United States. That’s because population is a major factor in formulas used by the federal government to dispense $800 billion annually to states and local governments under 300 different programs. The largest by far of these programs is Medicaid, the federal-state program that provides health care for low-income persons and the disabled.


With so much money at stake, states, local governments and at least 21 non-profit groups are not depending on the Census Bureau alone for an accurate count. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) and the National League of Cities are doing extensive research and reporting.


Thirty states have now funded committees that seek a complete count of their populations. (See Bird’s Eye View in this issue). California is spending the most. It has devoted $100 million to the census count, and Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) is requesting another $54 million.


A primary concern of state and local governments is that census tabulators, relying on online responses for the first time, will fail to count millions of people who lack computers and for one reason or another do not return mailed census forms.


The Constitution calls for an “actual Enumeration” of each state’s population every 10 years, and the 14th Amendment stipulates that this enumeration should include “the whole number” of persons residing in the country, including non-citizens.


But there’s widespread concern that the 2020 census could wind up more of an approximation than an enumeration.


A principal reason is the inclusion in the census for the first time since 1950 of a citizenship question. Although the privacy of census responses is guaranteed by law, Latino groups worry that this question will scare both legal and unauthorized immigrants who are fearful of federal law enforcement.


Significantly, the Census Bureau’s own experts say the citizenship question could result in an undercount of 6.5 million people, more than the combined populations of Los Angeles and Chicago.


These Census Bureau experts did not propose the citizenship question. It was added to the questionnaire by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, reportedly after consultation with Steve Bannon, then President Donald Trump’s political strategist and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), a prominent hardliner on immigration issues.


More than two dozen states and cities have challenged the citizenship question in court, and federal judges in California, Maryland and New York agreed that Ross had violated the law by ignoring all available data on the subject.


The administration appealed these legal setbacks, and the inclusion of the citizenship question will be determined by the Supreme Court with a ruling expected by the end of June. Two versions of the 2020 Census—one with the citizenship question and one without—are ready to be printed as soon as the high court rules.


The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) has been conducting focus groups on census issues. Arturo Vargas, chief executive officer of NALEO, said participants in the focus groups expressed alarm at the citizenship question and also balked at completing census forms online.


“My mom’s 61 years old, and she’s not going to go on the computer,” said one respondent. “She’ll think it’s a trick.”


There are many reasons to be concerned about an undercount.


The Census Bureau’s booklet on “Hard to Count” (HTC) populations includes, in addition to unauthorized immigrants, young children, highly mobile persons, racial and ethnic minorities, non-English speakers, low income persons, the homeless, persons who distrust the government, LGBTQ persons and those with mental or physical disabilities.


Young children may be the most undercounted. The bureau’s analysis found a 4.6 percent undercount of young children in the 2010 census, especially missing children who live with grandparents or other relatives and children of minorities.


According to the Census Bureau, 95 percent of households will receive invitations in the mail next March asking them to participate in the census. They can respond online, by mail or by phone.


Invitations will be dropped off manually to about five percent of households. These will include households that use post office boxes or recently experienced natural disasters.


In a few cases — less than 1 percent of the total — households will be counted by a census taker instead of being asked to respond on their own. The bureau lists as examples “very remote areas like parts of northern Maine, remote Alaska, and in select American Indian areas that ask to be counted in person.”


Bureau officials will follow up the original mailing with postcards, mailed questionnaires and in-person visits.


“The goal of the 2020 Census is to count everyone once, only once, and in the right place,” said Steven Dillingham, director of the Census Bureau, in an April 1 unveiling of census plans at the National Press Club in Washington. “A year before the census is conducted, we are on track. We are confident that our early planning is going to pay off.”


The census has political ramifications. The U.S. House of Representatives and most state legislatures will be reapportioned in 2021 based on 2020 census figures.


According to the venerable demographic firm Polidata, 17 states could gain or lose House seats. These states and both parties share an interest in the best count possible if only to avoid prolonged litigation over the numbers, said Clark Bensen, a former Republican National Committee attorney and creator of Polidata.


Political analysts have observed that Republicans could benefit from an undercount of demographic groups, especially minorities that often vote Democratic.


But this narrow political concern is dwarfed by the costs of an undercount to states and cities as well as school districts funded on the basis of pupil enrollment.


For example, California stands to lose $1,100 in federal funds for each person who is not counted, according to the State Department of Finance. Alabama would lose $1,600 for each uncounted person, says Kenneth Boswell, who heads that state’s census committee.


Despite the many apprehensions about an undercount, there are two reasons for optimism about the 2020 Census. First of these is the professionalism of the career statisticians and scientists at the Census Bureau, which has self-critically analyzed previous censuses and identified shortcomings.


The bureau has developed a color-coded interactive map of all census tracts, available to anyone online, identifying those that are hardest to count.


The other reason for optimism is that states and local governments are increasingly focused and spending more than ever before in efforts to achieve a complete count.


“The decennial census is about geography, addresses and outreach,” Washington state demographer Yi Zhao told Wendy Underhill, director of elections and redistricting for NCSL. “You need to find the houses first and then make sure the people who live in those houses fill out the form.”


It’s a long-distance race. The Census Bureau will be hiring thousands of workers in advance of the official start of the census on April 1, 2020. Bureau offices will remain open for an estimated six months afterward.


The census may seem a boring topic, but hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake for the nation’s states, cities and schools. They deserve as complete a population count as possible.