Our National Count Remains Deeply Flawed

By Spencer Bowen

Next year, the United States will refresh our biggest and most important dataset. The Census is both a simple form (now online!) and a staggeringly big institution that shapes resources and political voice for generations. It also makes subtle statements about what – and whom – our nation values.

Article I, Section II, Clause III of the United States Constitution mandates a national “enumeration” every decade. Like many parts of a document written 230 years ago (Clause III spells out the three-fifths compromise), the Constitution leaves modern day America with room for interpretation and deserved evolution. Our nation continues to grapple with issues of equity, representation, and fairness stemming from this famously sparse document’s instructions as to how we should count all Americans.

Fundamental challenges to a complete and accurate count are baked into how we conduct the Census. We continue to undercount many of the individuals who benefit most from federally-funded programs. But let’s begin with the headline that dominated Census coverage this summer.

The Citizenship Question

The Trump Administration tried and, after an extended period of public and legal confusion, failed to add a question about citizenship status to the 2020 Census. Its presence would have had a massive impact. Matt Barreto’s excellent report models how the citizenship question would have created a 7-10% response drop off nationwide, a number that grows to 11-18% among immigrants and 14-16% among Latinx individuals. Even imputation – a clever statistical method employed by the Census Bureau to “fill in” gaps created by undercounting – would be ineffective, because Barreto demonstrates that nonrespondents would be systematically different from respondents on a massive scale. 

The Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS, formally known as the Long Form Census) already collects high-quality information about the undocumented population, fueling skepticism about why the Administration pushed to gather this information. The cognitive dissonance between Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ justification for the change – to better enforce the Voting Rights Act – and the question’s likely impact on people of color was more than just a hunch held by politicos who regularly check SCOTUSblog. This inconsistency was central to Chief Justice John Roberts’ Supreme Court opinion that effectively removed the question from the 2020 Census. Justice Roberts writes that there was “a significant mismatch between the decision the Secretary made and the rationale he provided,” calling Ross’ justification “contrived.” Somewhat salacious stories dripped out, suggesting that the move to include a citizenship question could be classified as questionable at best and motivated to perpetuate a white political majority at worst. The President’s push for citizenship information continues – just last week the Administration asked states to turn over drivers license data. Considering convincing evidence that our politics is increasingly refracted through racial group identities, the party that benefits most from white votes would do well to deny representation and resources to people of color and undocumented immigrants. 

Faith and trust in government institutions – currently in dire straits – have likely been further eroded by the Trump Administration’s public crusade for a citizenship question and the White House’s rhetoric about immigrant communities. Some commentators fear that the damage is “already done” even though the question will not appear on the 2020 Census. In July, National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund CEO Arturo Vargas said, “No doubt damage has been done (…) not only did [it] raise awareness that there will be a Census next year, but also raised anxiety about whether or not you should participate in the Census next year.” The Census hinges on trust between institutions and the people they govern, and the very public citizenship question debate likely further frayed that relationship for many Americans, documented or not. Despite laws prohibiting misuse of Census Bureau information, Census data helped the United States intern Japanese-Americans. The legacy of this type of misuse could fuel pervasive anxiety among immigrant communities, with or without a specific question about citizenship.

Even without the question, the 2020 Census faces enough roadblocks to a complete count that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) rates the Census itself as “high risk” of ineffective execution.

Chronic Issues

The Census consistently undercounts certain populations, systematically depriving these communities of representation and resources. Factors generally associated with being a “hard to count” area include:

  • A high percentage of people living in rental housing
  • A high percentage of people living in poverty
  • A high percentage of people with limited English proficiency
  • A high percentage of complex or crowded living situations
  • A high concentration of people of color
  • A high percentage of people without secondary education
  • A high concentration of young children

The specific reasons these indicators signal hard-to-count areas vary. But each community represented – those in poverty, people of color, non-homeowners, and more – share a history of marginalization and a lack of institutional resources. For example, the Census has undercounted black men by between 2 and 4% since 1960. This fuels a vicious cycle: programs like SNAP matter most for these already disadvantaged populations, and especially for young children. Yet we continuously undercount these communities, which then further deprives them of the resources that support these vulnerable groups.

In fact, young children (ages 0-5) are twice as likely to be missed as the next closest age group. An estimated 1 in 10 children were completely missed in the 2010 Census, with an overcount among children that tended to be white and wealthy, bringing the overall undercount closer to 5%. The 2010 undercount of young children resulted in a national loss of over $500 million annually for children’s programs, money that funds services like Medicaid and the Child Health Insurance Program, proven time and again to help kids thrive. These historic trends dovetail with new challenges unique to the 2020 Census.

Fresh Challenges

For the first time ever, Americans can complete the 2020 Census online. Despite giving households flexibility about how they complete the Census – they can now do it on paper, over the phone, or online – more options might also mean more confusion. In addition, the promise of digitization comes with new threats to data security. Like our elections and popular discourse, an increasingly online Census might make the count vulnerable to attacks from those who hope to undermine faith in our processes. Furthermore, rural and socioeconomically disadvantaged communities often lack reliable broadband access, increasing the chances that already marginalized and hard-to-count communities will be excluded from the 2020 Census. 

What’s more, an increasingly diverse nation will be enumerated by a national Census effort that is underfunded. Census funding supports analytic staff positions, outreach, door-to-door enumerators, questionnaire assistance centers, and other crucial pieces of the vast nationwide apparatus necessary to count all Americans. Some states have supplemented the Trump Administration’s underwhelming investment with “complete count” committees of their own – but these efforts are uneven and incomplete, leaving millions of Americans at risk of undercounting. 

The challenge is especially acute here in Alameda County, an area defined by many of the factors that tend to lead to undercounting. 74% of all babies born in Alameda County are children of color and 46% of households in Alameda County speak a language other than English. An Alameda County undercount of only 6% in 2020 would result in a loss of $1 billion in federal funding for support programs like housing assistance and Medicaid over the next decade. 

Our national enumeration has always suffered from issues that historically undercount and therefore exclude many Americans. Next year’s version – even without a citizenship question – remains at risk of perpetuating these flaws. We continue to miss populations that have historically been passed over by much more than a once-a-decade count. These communities have missed out on building wealth, accessing educational opportunity, and exercising political voice. Our collective inability to count the true population questions how much progress our nation has made in the centuries since the Framers met in Philadelphia. 

Spencer Bowen is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy and a Senior Editor of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.