Expect big undercount in truncated 2020 census

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Census Bureau is having a harder time counting all Americans. And its workers will be spending less time on the task to boot.

In August, the Trump administration announced plans to end the 2020 Census count a month early, on Sept. 30 instead of Oct. 31. With about a month left before that new end date, fewer than two-thirds of U.S. households have been counted so far.

The result will be the countng of fewer Black Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and Americans of Hispanic or Latino origin than actually live in the U.S. That will mean less public money for essential services in their communities and less representation for them by elected officials at the state and federal levels.

Some people — including people of color, lower incomes, more rural settings and lack of citizenship — are less likely to respond. In part, that’s because they have less convenient access to the necessary mail, telephone and online services.

In addition, some communities distrust the system. Among Japanese Americans, many are aware of how census data was used to round up Japanese Americans for internment during World War II.

The Census Bureau starts by asking Americans to respond themselves. But for those who don’t respond, there is a second phase of counting, in which census workers fan out across the country to knock on doors and help people include themselves in the national count.

For 2020, this second phase was originally planned to begin on May 13, but the pandemic delayed its start until Aug. 9. With the delayed start and early conclusion dates, they will have only 52 days to count the residents of more than one-third of all the estimated 120 million households in the U.S.

In 2010, those engaged in the in-person follow-up effort had 71 days to cover a smaller share of American households.

Even before the delayed beginning and the truncated second phase, the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, projected the census would systematically undercount racial minorities and people of Hispanic or Latino origin.

All communities of color were projected to be underrepresented in the count — meaning the Census Bureau would report fewer people of that racial or ethnic background than actually live in the U.S.

The biggest undercount projection was for Black Americans. The Urban Institute projected the census would fail to count 3.2%, or more than 1.5 million.

The census was expected to miss more than 1.7 million people of Hispanic and Latino origin, 2.8% of their real total. More than 1 in 100 people of Alaska Native or American Indian background would not be counted, and a similar share of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

But these detailed estimates of how many people the census might miss do not make it easier to somehow correct the count. The Census Bureau does extensive work to account for errors and missing people, but only after looking at the entire response and conducting additional research.

Complete census data also includes age, gender, housing status and racial or ethnic background. The smaller those errors are, the more accurate the data will be.

The shortened timeline will be especially hard on Alaska Native and American Indian peoples on tribal lands. They have historically low response rates anyway, in part because of longstanding distrust of the U.S. government, which has a history of violating treaties and imposing other injustices on them.

In 2010, only 29.4% of residents of Navajo Nation lands responded. And so far in 2020, it’s even lower.

As of Aug. 28, just 17.9% of Navajo Nation residents had responded, and only 3.6% used the internet to do so.

According to the latest government data, 14.1% of households on the Navajo Nation reservation lack telephone service and 71.5% lack internet service. That’s compared with 2.2% of all U.S. households lacking phone service and 14.7% lacking internet service.

Several other factors could also contribute to the low Navajo Nation response rate.

Many Navajo Nation households have no formal home address. Instead, they get their mail at post office boxes, which in some cases can be 70 miles from their homes.

That’s difficult and expensive to do, and may involve violating the Navajo Nation’s COVID-19 public health emergency curfew orders.

Census data is used to determine how many members of Congress a state should have, and to draw boundaries for congressional and state legislative districts. If the census records too few people in communities of color, those people will have fewer representatives in government and less power to choose them.

In addition, census data is used to allocate billions of dollars in public spending by states and the federal government. Communities that are larger than their official count registers will receive smaller amounts than they should of taxpayer money that supports, education, health care and transportation.

Communities that are home to Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are particularly sensitive to these effects because these groups are numerically small. So any one person not counted represents a larger proportion of the community as a whole, and a larger share of money and representation deserved but not received.

If these errors are allowed to happen — and made worse by a shortened timeline — the effects will last an entire decade. Rectification will have to await the 2030 census.

From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at https://theconversation.com/us. Used with permission.


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