Census Remains a Sore Subject

Terry H. Schwadron

Aug. 16, 2020

Why bother with a laborious 2020 Census at all, if it can’t approach an accurate result?

Sure, the Constitution requires a decennial count, to lay out the basis for proper distribution of federal monies among the states and to provide the chassis for drawing congressional districts. But, to hear Donald Trump, nothing in the Constitution demands that the count be correct.

Indeed, the Trump administration’s order to end the count a month early guarantees inaccuracy, particularly in a time of coronavirus. And, at the same time, it threatens further underrepresentation for both rural and inner-city populations, undocumented immigrants, the homeless, nursing home residents, university populations and poorer residents. Trump has repeatedly called for the count to exclude undocumented people and count only citizens, a position that the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected.

So, Trump, a sore loser, had countered by overturning the Census chess table. Right now, we have Census returns from an estimated 63 percent of the country, and, apparently, the administration thinks that is good enough.

We have five weeks to reach four homes in 10, a logistical nightmare in a time of contagion, but an effort laden with political overtones. The Census results were already delayed in April until October.

Last week, four former directors of the Census Bureau warned that an earlier deadline would “result in seriously incomplete enumerations in many areas across our country,” and said Congress should assemble a body of experts to develop standards for assessing the quality of the bureau’s population totals. Much the same was heard among the network of agencies and nonprofit institutions that act as liaisons between the Census Bureau and state governments in using population data to make policies. And there is a new bill under consideration to delay the closing.

Funny, this is the same Donald Trump who rises to bay at the moon about the massive fraud we can expect from mail ballots or to threaten to delay elections altogether for coronavirus, but inaccuracies that will affect a decade of robbing the poor of money for food stamps or public health and immunization money, public safety, Head Start programs or even congressional seats seems not to matter.

Without doubt, this move to end the Census count rather than to extend the time for the count is a political move to disguise a changing understanding of national demographic.

Changing Demographics

There seems little debate that the nation is growing less white, and growing its various minority communities to the point where we are approaching a time when there is no majority ethnicity. That is a trend that should be reflected in how we draw our election districts and how we distribute federal money, as well as focus us on whole slates of policies that have underwritten structural racial biases.

Obviously, the Census is merely a tool for measurement in this, but its effects are not inconsequential. The actual count has always been fraught by the inconveniences forced by going house to house, apartment to apartment, and, historically, has led to structural undercounts in minority and inner-city areas in particular. To supplement the figures, the Census Bureau runs annual household polls and uses other measurements, but the decennial count is key.

As The New York Times noted, an end-of-year delivery of population figures could provide a different avenue for Trump to remove undocumented immigrants — by not counting them in the first place. Nevertheless, the earlier decision can backfire on Republicans, who will find that not counting undocumented immigrants in major Republican states like Texas and Florida probably would cause them to lose seats in the House in the next reapportionment.

It might be easier to accept the legitimacy of curtailing the Census count if the Trump administration hadn’t already engaged in such blatant sabotaging of the census, including the move to outright erase undocumented immigrants from the count. “The worry among Democrats is that that’s exactly the point and it will be historically underrepresented groups that will fall through the cracks, skewing America’s picture of itself, as well as a decade of political representation and federal funding that is derived from the constitutionally mandated count,” Slate reported.

Meeting a Deadline

Ending the data collection earlier might help the bureau meet its legal deadline of by the end of the year, but some officials have questioned whether that will be possible now given the setbacks already caused by the pandemic. Some senior census officials have been clear that they believe that timeline is not feasible.

In DeKalb County in Georgia, for example, there are 54 languages spoken and Michael Thurmond, the chief executive there, estimates that an undercount will put $1.6 billion at risk for a variety of social services.

The Census Bureau said in its announcement that it planned to mount “a robust field data collection operation” to meet the new deadline, and that it would be able to complete the 2020 census in a short time “without sacrificing completeness.” Beyond saying it would hire more people, it has offered few details.

Julie Menin, the census director for New York City, said in an interview that “There’s an intentional attempt here to basically steal the census — to politicize this census to gain Republican seats across the country.”

At the end of day, this is an issue about trust in government. Information in this case is just data, and we have another 10 years to decide what to do about the information about changing demographics.

We are failing that basic trust agreement between government and Americans.



Journalist, musician, community volunteer