The Census Bureau has halved the time it has for combing through data from 2020 census results in a verification process that weeds out duplicate responses and finds people who never responded — a step experts say is key to an accurate count.
Under pressure from the Trump administration to end the count early, the agency will conclude all enumeration efforts on Sept. 30, and then comb through data before wrapping up the whole process by Dec. 31 — half the time the agency originally anticipated after delaying its initial schedule because of the pandemic.
Meghan Maury, a member of the agency’s National Advisory Committee, said the Census Bureau risks missing millions by shortening its timeline to meet the year-end statutory deadline.
“Both sides of the story are very important. Not counting people in the first place is obviously critically important, but then also not giving the bureau the time it needs to process the data is hugely problematic,” Maury said. “It really has a huge impact on whether or not that data is credible.”
Maury, a policy director for the National LGBTQ Task Force, said the Census Bureau’s data-combing process cuts down on overcounts of mostly white people who own multiple homes, or whose college-age children were counted both on campus and at home. It also helps track people from minority or other historically undercounted groups the agency missed initially.
The data-intensive process is meant to help get the most accurate count of the more than 300 million people living in the country. The results will be used to help distribute 435 House of Representatives seats among the states and more than $1.5 trillion in federal spending annually.
Earlier this year, amid the pandemic, the agency had requested an extension through the end of April 2021 to finish its work, but Congress failed to act on the request and administration officials eventually stopped pursuing the extension. Earlier this month, the Census Bureau announced it would end in-person counting efforts on Sept. 30 in order to meet the current Dec. 31 deadline.
Nationally, the response rate sits close to 72 percent, but it is much lower in rural areas and diverse urban communities. The early end to in-person counting efforts could mean missing millions of people across the country.
During the 2010 cycle, the Census Bureau had about six months to work through administrative records. The agency estimated it overcounted more than half a percent of homeowners, according to a report it issued. It also may have missed between 1 and 2 percent of renters, Black and Hispanic residents.
Census Bureau planning documents say the agency conducts several steps to complete its count, like combing through data to remove duplicate responses. It also uses administrative records like tax returns and other federal records to add in people who did not respond on their own.
In a Fox Business op-ed earlier this month, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross insisted the shortened time frame has not hurt census efforts. Ross said the agency has made several advances in the use of administrative records, including identifying vacant units more quickly, that will help the count.
“Additionally, the Census Bureau has leveraged existing sources of administrative records more than ever before and is using them more efficiently,” he said.
This year’s shortened schedule could leave many communities inconsistently counted — a problem the agency would have trouble fixing through administrative records, said former Census Bureau Director Kenneth Prewitt, who oversaw the 2000 census.
“When you have this enormous lumpiness, unevenness, it is going to move a lot of money,” he said. “Everybody above that average is going to get more of the money, that $1.5 trillion or whatever it is, than they should, and everyone who is below that average will get less.”
The agency also has other steps to count people who have not responded, including proxies — like interviewing a neighbor — and statistical imputation. There, the Census Bureau infers the count of people in a household based on the makeup of similar households.
Those efforts are sensitive to local undercounts, Prewitt said. The agency typically tries to ask a neighbor or use administrative records to impute the person based on what’s known about households around them.
“If a whole neighborhood hasn’t answered then you can’t ask the neighbor ‘Who lives next door?’ because the neighbor hasn’t answered yet,” Prewitt said.
That can have a disproportionate impact on minority communities that were already hard to count, said Robert Santos, vice president and chief methodologist at the Urban Institute. The response rates in Texas’ highly diverse Rio Grande Valley have lagged behind the rest of the state, meaning census workers will have to reach more people there to keep from falling back to the less-reliable statistical methods.
“Those communities will end up having to have a heavy burden of statistical imputation that will not occur in, say, the white suburbs of Dallas who are affluent or more middle class folks,” he said.
Santos pointed out the groups most likely to be counted with administrative records are among the easier to count, like homeowners and people with Internal Revenue Service records.
The shortened count has raised concerns from lawmakers about political interference, fears deepened last week after the administration added a third high-level appointee this year. Benjamin Overholt, now the Census Bureau’s deputy director for data, previously worked as a statistician at the U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Justice Department. Overholt will "support the Census Bureau in ensuring the 2020 Census data products are of the highest quality," the agency said on its website.
Democrats in Congress balked at the appointment, with House Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., calling it “unprecedented and counterproductive.” Maloney and others have criticized the administration for adding three political appointees this year to what’s generally considered a nonpartisan agency.
“The White House should be heeding the concerns of experienced career officials at the Census Bureau, not scheming about how to rig the process for political gain,” Maloney said in a statement.
The Commerce Department’s watchdog wants more details about the hiring, too. Inspector General Peggy Gustafson asked the agency last week for details about the creation of the position and Overholt’s duties. Census Bureau officials referred questions about Overholt’s appointment and role to the statement the agency released on Aug. 17.