Census Bureau to lay out potential misses in 2020 count

Undercounted areas could mean loss of federal funds, representation

Census Bureau Director Robert L. Santos at his  confirmation hearing last July. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Census Bureau Director Robert L. Santos at his confirmation hearing last July. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 8, 2022 at 9:00am

An upcoming Census Bureau report on the accuracy of its 2020 count, and whether it missed tens of thousands of people in pockets all over the country, could escalate numerous battles over millions of federal dollars.

An outside analysis already estimates the enumeration missed more than 30,000 people in 10 Detroit neighborhoods, potentially shortchanging majority-Black communities that rely on federal funds. 

“There’s less Title I funds being given to your elementary and secondary schools. We know that funding for housing and senior citizens, the money that we put into the communities, the community block grant money — [they’re] built upon the data that we get from the census,” said Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., whose district includes Detroit.

On Thursday, the Census Bureau will release official overcount and undercount rates, giving the entire country an idea of who was missed in a counting process hampered by the coronavirus pandemic and a series of decisions by the Trump administration.  

Census results are used to determine redistricting and a decade’s worth of congressional apportionment. They also guide more than $1.5 trillion in federal spending annually, according to research from George Washington University professor Andrew Reamer.

While most federal programs do not directly use decennial census data for funding decisions, they do rely on dozens of different datasets the Census Bureau or other agencies create using the decennial count as a baseline.

Reamer’s research shows that more than 300 federal programs use census data in some way. Some programs are especially sensitive to an undercount. The Department of Education provides Title I grants, for example, on a sliding scale based on the number of low-income children in a given school. Funding decisions for Section 8 housing vouchers and Transportation Department highways also rely on community data.

That means undercounts can result in less financial support for programs with a direct impact on underrepresented communities. 

Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director for the immigrant and civil rights advocacy group Voces de la Frontera, which helped organize get-out-the-count efforts in Wisconsin, suspects there was an undercount of the growing Latino neighborhoods in the southern part of Milwaukee. That factored into smaller gains than the Latino community had hoped for in the city’s local political redistricting. While about 20 percent of the population identified as Latino in the census, the city has two majority-Latino council districts out of 15 seats.

An undercount also would mean fewer resources for programs such as English as a second language, or ESL, because local officials won’t have the data on the children who need it, Neumann-Ortiz said. The growing working-class communities in the city also have different needs that may not be reflected in the census numbers.

“They’ve been fighting for those programs for a long time. GEDs, citizenship classes, ESL — they’re kind of our slice of the pie,” she said.

Research released last year by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research organization, estimated that the 2020 count missed more than 1.5 million people, primarily people of color, and double-counted many white residents.

That research came from a comparison of 2020 census results to other datasets, like the American Community Survey and the Census Bureau’s own estimate of the population in 2020. But the Bureau report being released Thursday comes from its post-enumeration survey. The agency sends questionnaires to millions of people asking them about demographic information, as well as whether they responded to the 2020 census.

Last decade, the survey showed the agency missed more than 1 million members of minority communities in the 2010 census, including nearly 5 percent of Native Americans on reservations. The agency has missed even larger parts of minority populations in earlier counts.

Advocates in communities across the country have raised concerns about a potential undercount from the 2020 census in Detroit and elsewhere. Additionally, a coalition of Texas Democrats expressed similar concerns to the Census Bureau about a potential undercount of communities in the Rio Grande Valley and other spots along the U.S. southern border.

During the 2020 count itself and afterward, Democrats from Massachusetts protested problems with counting college towns after campuses cleared out because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Pandemic woes, Trump decisions

Census officials said they faced “unprecedented” challenges in conducting the count during the first year of the pandemic.

The agency suspended in-person counting efforts for months and scrambled to deal with changes like tracking the millions of college students who left campus to quarantine at home. That pushed the door-to-door effort later in the year — during a record wildfire and hurricane season. Experts and community advocates said those problems were exacerbated by Trump administration decisions, including a failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the count. 

Trump administration officials also ordered the agency to end the count early as part of an effort to exclude undocumented immigrants from apportionment.

“We lived under an administration who actively undermined the Census count,” Lawrence said.

In the last few days of the enumeration, particularly in hurricane-stricken places like Louisiana, the Census Bureau used a larger portion than usual of administrative records to count people. Research and demographic experts say those records are less accurate than those reflecting residents who responded to the count on their own or to questions from a door-knocker.

Mayra Hidalgo Salazar, deputy executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, said the effort to add a question to the count hurt the task force’s attempts to increase the participation of undocumented immigrants, who she feels have not been adequately represented in government data.

“So much of the disinformation spread by that administration around the citizenship question really deterred undocumented immigrants from coming forward and being counted, and that includes LGBTQ people within the undocumented immigrant community,” Salazar said.

A poll conducted by the National Association of Latino Elected Officials Education Fund, taken before the 2020 count started, found that 75 percent of Latinos were concerned that the Trump administration would use census responses against people. Nearly half the respondents believed the census would ask about citizenship.

The Census Bureau has a process for updating its data to account for undercounts. The Count Question Resolution allows a locality like Detroit to challenge an undercount in hopes the agency will adjust the numbers for datasets used by federal agencies.

That process does not alter the data used for reapportionment or redistricting, though. The agency has announced that it will finalize potential challenges from places like Detroit and elsewhere by next fall.