2020 census undercounted Black people, Latinos, Native Americans

Latinos left out in 2020 at rate higher than previous decades

The pandemic and Trump-era decisions had an impact on the 2020 census.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The pandemic and Trump-era decisions had an impact on the 2020 census. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 10, 2022 at 11:55am

The 2020 census missed about one in every 20 Hispanic people in the country, according to estimates the Census Bureau released Thursday, following a count rocked by the coronavirus pandemic and Trump administration decisions.

Black, Hispanic and Native American residents as well as young children also were undercounted in the census, which double counted the white population, the Census Bureau found through its post-enumeration survey. Experts have said census misses will impact the distribution of the more than $1.5 trillion federal funds distributed annually that use census results.

Overall, the census counted within 0.25 percent of the country’s estimated 331 million people.

Census Bureau Director Robert Santos said many communities faced significant challenges due to the pandemic. Former President Donald Trump’s effort to add a citizenship question to the form also may have affected the count, he said.

“All of the publicity surrounding the efforts to place it on [the form] may well have had an impact, and so I am personally not surprised to see the results that we see today,” Santos said during a news conference Thursday.

Santos argued that despite the inaccuracies highlighted by agency reports released Thursday, the data was still fit for many uses — such as determining redistricting and congressional seats. He said the overall population count was “robust and consistent” with past counts.

Santos, who identifies as Latino, is the agency’s first director from a minority community. He was confirmed as director last year.

Outside experts and the agency’s own research previously raised concerns about accurately counting the Hispanic population after Trump tried for years to add the citizenship question. He later cut counting short as part of an effort to exclude undocumented immigrants from apportionment results.

Several states with high Hispanic populations, including Texas, Florida and Arizona, received fewer congressional districts in apportionment than projected.

During the news conference, Arturo Vargas, CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials Education Fund, called it the worst undercount he had seen in 30 years of working on census issues.

“I can’t even find the right word. I’m just upset about the extent of the undercount that has been confirmed by the post-enumeration survey,” Vargas said. “This is a major step backward on this.”

National Urban League President Marc Morial called the undercount a “tragedy” in a call with reporters and said it reflected decisions by the Trump administration.

“The impact that learning and progress will have on the distribution of formula funding by our national government and many states is potentially devastating because these numbers are baked in for a 10-year period,” Morial said.

Local community officials who believe the Census Bureau undercounted their populations can petition to have it adjusted through the Count Question Resolution program, Santos said. The agency also has a responsibility to build better partnerships with minority communities to help future counts, he added.

Karen Battle, chief of the Census Bureau’s population division, said the agency would research the possibility of using the estimated census misses to adjust the population base in dozens of data sets federal agencies use to steer federal funds.

Addressing undercounts

The Census Bureau released two reports Thursday — a post-enumeration survey and a demographic analysis estimate.

For the 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. Agency officials then compare those responses to census results to help estimate how many people it missed in 2020.

According to those results, the Census Bureau missed about 0.25 percent of the population, mostly from minority communities, renters and the homeless population. On the other side of the ledger, the agency estimates it overcounted the Asian population by 2.6 percent, the white population by 1.6 percent and homeowners by 0.4 percent.

The agency missed almost 5 percent of the country’s Hispanic population, the largest miss for that population group in decades. In 2010, the agency missed about 1.5 percent of that population, less than 1 percent in 2000, and almost 5 percent in 1990.

The 2020 census missed about 3 percent of the Black population, the highest such undercount in decades. In 2010, it missed 2 percent of that population, less than 2 percent in 2000 and 4.5 percent in 1990.

Yvette Roubideaux, director of the Policy Research Center at the National Congress of American Indians, expressed alarm about the undercount of Native Americans on reservations, which was more than 5.6 percent.

“With the loss of potential resources and funding, I know our communities are very concerned,” Roubideaux said.

The agency plans to provide more results from the post-enumeration survey, including state-level estimates, later this year.

Demographic analysis

The demographic analysis estimate is a separate tool used to come up with a guess of the country’s overall population. There, the agency uses birth, death and immigration records to construct a rough picture of the country. That estimate does not include Hispanic or Latino ethnicity for much of the population as states did not begin recording that in birth records until 1990.

Using that method, the agency estimated the country’s population at between 330 million and 335 million.

During the news conference Thursday, Santos noted the “unprecedented” challenges the agency faced during the 2020 count. Before the enumeration kicked off, Santos worked at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research organization where he authored a report raising concerns about potential undercounts.

“Many of you, including myself, voiced concerns [about the count]. How could anyone not be concerned?” he said. “Today’s findings will put some of those concerns to rest and leave others for further exploration.”

When the coronavirus pandemic began, 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.

Demographic experts and community advocates said those problems were exacerbated by Trump administration decisions, such as the failed attempt to add a citizenship question. Trump officials also ordered the agency to end the count early as part of an effort to exclude undocumented immigrants from apportionment.

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

Those misses contributed to New York losing a congressional seat to Minnesota by the smallest margin in history of 87 people, according to the Urban report. That research came from a comparison of 2020 census results to other data sets, like the American Community Survey and the Census Bureau’s own estimate of the population in 2020.

Last decade, the post-enumeration survey showed the agency had 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.