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Census trying to fix history of undercounting minorities

2010 census missed 2.1 percent of African Americans, 1.5 percent of Hispanics and 4.9 percent of Native Americans on reservations

As Congress grapples with national changes to police policy and other systemic problems tied to race, another government process is struggling to include minority communities: the 2020 census.

Prior census efforts have undercounted minority populations, shortchanging them on the funds for programs that can help them find stable housing or employment training, changes that make them easier to count in the future, said Anna Gassman-Pines, a Duke University public policy professor.

“If you couple those things together, then that can accumulate over time and that can be part of the disparities we see in terms of race,” she said. “There are these structural problems that are compounded by more structural problems.”

In addition to helping to divide 435 congressional seats among the states, census results are used in some fashion to distribute more than $1.5 trillion in federal funds each year.

In 2010, the census missed 2.1 percent of African Americans, 1.5 percent of Hispanics and 4.9 percent of Native Americans on reservations. Meanwhile, a little less than 1 percent of white residents got counted twice.

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The Census Bureau has made changes this cycle intended to cut down on undercounts, including translating advertising, questionnaires and other materials into more languages than ever before. It also has teamed up with more than 370,000 local partners, libraries and schools nationwide to encourage participation. It also prepared a “mobile questionnaire assistance” program to be tapped at local community events.

However, the pandemic threw off agency plans, and Census Bureau officials delayed most of their counting efforts for months to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. In the meantime, the agency has encouraged self-response. Last week, it announced it had increased advertising buys in media outlets that target minority communities and restarted outreach events through its local partners.

A Government Accountability Office report issued last week noted the agency planned to increase its $500 million advertising campaign by at least $160 million. But the report expressed concern that existing advertising and outreach efforts may not reach hard-to-count populations.

[Census Bureau nears goal for 2020 count, but crucial areas lag]

Each past census that missed African American, Asian American or Hispanic residents potentially skewed the distribution of federal funds, according to George Washington University research professor Andrew Reamer. 

“If a community is undercounted, the money does not go back to the Treasury — it goes to another community,” he said.

More than 300 federal programs use census data in some way, Reamer said. Undercounts can especially throw off funding for programs like worker training, Community Development Block Grants and Title I education funding intended to help low-income students. Those programs alone accounted for more than $20 billion in spending in fiscal 2017, according to Reamer’s research.

“They’re all based entirely on census data, and they are sensitive to undercounts of particular populations,” Reamer said.

[Census Bureau to launch coronavirus survey]

Every person missed by the census results in funding that benefits someone else. That can have a serious impact within a community, said Whitney Tucker, acting policy director for NC Child. She pointed out that an estimated 25,000 children were missed in the 2010 count in North Carolina, where the child population is more racially and ethnically diverse than the adult one.

That put stress on efforts like the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Tucker said. After the 2010 census, the agency sought two waivers from the federal government to increase copays and cost sharing for enrollees.

“All of these things really play off of each other and create a sort of trap in poorly invested communities, and we can fight that through the census,” Tucker said.

If this year’s census misses parts of the Hispanic or African American populations, it could throw off efforts to assess disparities those groups face in health care, policing and other aspects of society, said Arturo Vargas, who heads the nonprofit NALEO Educational Fund. Without an accurate census, previously undercounted communities also aren’t likely to get the political representation they deserve or a good picture of the social and economic challenges they face.

“If you don’t start with that foundation of a fair and accurate census, then everything gets thrown off,” Vargas said.

NALEO has partnered with Telemundo to try to close the response rate gap between Hispanic communities and the country at large. On Wednesday, the two announced a census “day of action,” citing disproportionately lower response rates in counties with higher Latino populations in Nevada, Texas, Arizona, Massachusetts, Colorado, Florida, New York and the District of Columbia.

Members of Congress have pushed the Census Bureau to address shortfalls in its count. House Democrats passed a bill that extended the agency’s deadline to submit census results to the end of next March and gave another $300 million in funds, but the Senate has not acted yet on the legislation.

Last week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., pushed the agency to step up its efforts to reach hard-to-count people in the interim. In a letter last week to Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham, she asked the agency to increase spending on advertising for minority-oriented media and expand in-person counting efforts.

“Whenever possible, avoid using administrative records for enumeration, since such records are often unavailable or lack comprehensive information for many historically undercounted population groups,” Feinstein wrote.

Congressional members on both sides of the aisle have publicly promoted census participation. Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., the head of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said during a Facebook event Monday that Asian Americans face potential undercounts in the census because a large proportion of the population are young or immigrants.

“When [Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders] are missing from the census, we lose resources and political power that are critical to our community,” Chu said.

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