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White House Plan for Early Shutdown of 2020 Census Count Marks “Break-the-Glass Moment”


As many as 100 million Americans haven’t been counted by the 2020 Census yet, according to a Social Explorer analysis of responses. A plan by the Trump administration would ensure that millions of them would never be counted.

Already hampered by the global coronavirus pandemic in its effort to go door-to-door and count people who haven’t responded to online or mailed forms, the Census Bureau confirmed Monday that it will stop counting Americans by Sept. 30 – a full month sooner than previously scheduled – so it can deliver a formal population count to Congress by a Dec. 31 deadline.

“This is a break-the-glass moment,” said Andrew Beveridge, president and founder of Social Explorer, an award-winning demographics and mapping website. “If they stop counting at the end of next month like the Administration plans, it would lock in extra political power and federal funding for whites in the suburbs for a decade, and deprive whites in rural areas, everyone in cities, Native Americans, Blacks, LatinX and renters.  The effects go well beyond political manipulation to strike at who counts as an American.  Since 1790 the census has been a building block to our democracy, but locking in the undercount of Blacks and Native American harkens back to that first census, when enslaved people counted as 3/5 of a person, and Native Americans were not counted at all."

Unless Congress acts by extending the statutory December deadline into 2021, the altered plans set the nation up for a prolonged constitutional crisis and years of litigation. The U.S. Constitution requires a full count of the population every 10 years. The headcount is not only used to assign seats in the House of Representatives to each state (reapportionment), but also is the basis for redrawing legislative districts to account for population changes (redistricting). They are also used as the basis for 10 years of population estimates that help allocate $1.5 trillion per year, and serve as the base for all federal and many private surveys, as well as an integral part of the statistical system that helps create a whole range of economic statistics.  


The changed timetables make it likely that traditionally hard-to-count populations, such as Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and children, will be especially undercounted during the 2020 Census, and both the reapportionment and redistricting processes will run afoul of federal laws requiring fair representation.  The Social Explorer analysis found 47 percent of Native American households, 42.1 percent of Black households, and 40.4 percent of Hispanic households likely haven’t yet been counted. In addition, 37.5 percent of foreign-born people and 35.5 percent of poor Americans are missing from the count.  

As of July 31, half of the estimated population hadn’t been counted in 851 of the 3,144 U.S. counties;  one-third of the population remained uncounted in 2,469 counties, or 78.5 percent. Only four counties – all containing fewer than 4,000 people, and all in Alaska – reported 100 percent of residents had responded to the Census.


Census 2020 Response. Click here to explore further.


Although the highest percentages of people who haven’t been counted for the Census live in less-populated, majority-white areas, the greatest raw numbers of uncounted Americans are located in large, urban centers with large minority populations. The 100 counties with the highest percentages of uncounted Americans, led by Rich County, Utah (87.5 percent), include slightly fewer than 800,000 people, about 0.2 percent of the U.S. population. The 100 counties with the highest raw numbers of uncounted people, led by Los Angeles County (1.65 million uncounted, 40.8 percent of the total), include 58.6 million Americans, about 18 percent of the total.

“The people who respond to the Census are more affluent, white people,” said Ben Chevat, a former top aide to Rep. Carolyn Maloney, the New York Democrat who leads the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “The people who are hard to count are more low income, minority people.”

The accelerated schedule was immediately condemned by civil rights organizations. The Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights observed that Trump’s Republican Party would benefit politically from an undercount of minorities, who have traditionally supported Democratic candidates.

“Trump is again seeking to destroy the integrity and accuracy of the Census for partisan gain,” said Vanita Gupta, president and chief executive of the conference. “Trump must not be allowed to cheat people of color, people with disabilities, and other communities out of their right to participate in the 2020 Census and the health care, education, housing, and fair representation they deserve.”

The Trump administration claims the bureau will use “imputation,” or mathematical formulas to estimate populations at different geographic levels. The Census Bureau generally has used such methods sparingly because of the potential for error, especially at smaller geographies. Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., and former Georgia Rep. Stacey Abrams, also a Democrat, warned in a Washington Post op-ed on Monday that expanding imputation “could devastate communities of color – and Trump knows it.”

Although the historical focus of the Census has been on reapportionment and redistricting, it’s also become a primary tool for the distribution of federal funds. Data from the Census helps determine how roughly $1.5 trillion – almost one-third of the federal budget for the 2021 fiscal year – is spent annually, helping the government estimate programs that range from Medicare, the federal health insurance program for the disabled and elderly, to meals for elementary schoolchildren. The decennial Census is also used to create baseline population counts for the American Community Survey, an annual poll of 3.5 million U.S. households that not only shapes federal spending, but also provides businesses and researchers with insight into topics as diverse as commuting patterns, household income, geographic mobility, languages spoken at home, and family structure.

The Census Bureau’s announcement is the latest salvo in a decade-long Republican war on the Census Bureau, which began in earnest in 2012, when the GOP-controlled House voted to eliminate funding for the American Community Survey. Although the Senate prevented the program from being killed, the House tried again in 2014 to dismantle it by making participation voluntary; a diverse coalition that included the NAACP, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Home Builders, and American Association of University Women applied enough pressure to force them to cancel the plan.

Trump, who won election in 2016 on a nativist, anti-immigrant platform, announced in early 2018 that the decennial Census would include a question about citizenship. Although his administration claimed the results would be used to enforce the Voting Rights Act, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the question in a 2019 ruling, finding the White House’s explanation was “contrived” and likely designed to discourage Census participation by immigrants who tend to support Democratic candidates.

The White House also announced last month that it would exclude undocumented immigrants from the Census count, drawing an immediate angry response from Democrats and civil rights groups, who noted that the U.S. Constitution doesn’t make a distinction between citizens and non-citizens, and promised to fight the order in court. 

Maloney said last week that the Republicans “are demanding the American people finance their political manipulation of our democracy. Rushing the Census to completion means that Census workers will not have enough time to follow up on the non-responses, an essential operation designed to find and count the hardest to reach communities.”

Author: Frank Bass

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