Civil rights groups worry that inadequate preparations are being made for the upcoming 2020 Census.
A fumbled census could have rippling effects on issues such as funding levels for education and health care, redistricting and the implementation of the Voting Rights Act, as census data is used to make determinations about how to distribute billions of dollars of federal funds to local municipalities and the number of seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Constitution mandates a national census every 10 years, but civil rights leaders and census experts have cited several ongoing policy decisions that could put the 2020 Census at risk.
In 2015, The District received $3 billion ($4,500 per capita) in federal funds from 16 census-guided programs, according to a recent George Washington University study. Maryland received $10.1 billion (1,800 per capita) and Virginia received $10.9 billion ($1,200 per capita).
On a national press call, census experts named a number of variables “out of the [U.S. Census Bureau’s] control” that put the 2020 Census in jeopardy, such as lack of sufficient funding from Congress for on-time census planning and preparations, and the need for a highly qualified and widely respected professional to serve as the next Senate-confirmed director of the bureau.
“A cost-effective census is always a worthwhile goal … but cost considerations can never outweigh efforts to achieve an accurate count in all communities,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House Census and Population Subcommittee and a consultant to The Leadership Conference Education Fund. “A good census is an investment in everything we hold dear in this country: a representative democracy; government that is accountable to the people; business and industry investment to drive economic growth, good jobs and innovation.”
After the 2010 Census, Congress set the first-ever cap on census costs, directing the bureau to spend no more on the 2020 Census than it did on the 2010 Census, but later decided to give the 2020 Census even less funding than in 2010.
In 2017, Congress did not allocate sufficient funds and the Trump administration has requested less funding in 2018 than the Census Bureau needs, Lowenthal said, adding that, at current funding levels, there will be less than half as many temporary census takers as the last census.
The civil rights community expressed concern about the growing harmful consequences of the budget shortfalls.
“We’re increasingly worried that the administration and Congress have not prioritized support for a fair and accurate census, and that ill-advised decisions in the next few months will further erode the chance” for success, said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
The census has historically undercounted large numbers of people of color, low-income households in urban and rural areas, immigrants and children, especially black and Latino.
Civil rights groups say that plans to eliminate undercounting must be built into the census process now.
“The Census Bureau cannot afford to delay preparations for the 2020 Census any longer,” Gupta said. “The health and well-being, as well as the political power of all of the diverse communities in America, rests on a fair and accurate count.”
Preparations such as hiring and updating address lists are already being made for next year’s dry run of the 2020 Census. But so far, the Census Bureau has failed to complete a Spanish-language test census planned for Puerto Rico, failed to test methods for more accurately counting people in remote and rural areas and delayed work on its communications campaign, according to Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund.
John C. Yang, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said any gap in testing would have the greatest impact on vulnerable communities.