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Census Bureau considering changes after minority undercounts

Census missed 5 percent of Hispanic and 3 percent of Black populations, agency reports

Census Bureau Director Robert Santos, shown at his Senate confirmation hearing last year, says the agency is considering changes following minority undercounts in the 2020 count.
Census Bureau Director Robert Santos, shown at his Senate confirmation hearing last year, says the agency is considering changes following minority undercounts in the 2020 count. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Census Bureau Director Robert Santos suggested changes the agency may take to the next decennial census after undercounts in minority communities worsened in the 2020 count amid the coronavirus pandemic and endemic mistrust in government.

To deal with misses before the 2030 census comes around, “we need to grab that by the horns,” Santos told the agency’s Scientific Advisory Committee at a meeting Thursday. A report released last week showed the agency missed almost one in 20 Latinos in the country as part of the decennial count that guides more than $1.5 trillion in federal spending annually. Advocates immediately called for fundamental changes to the process.

To avoid further misses, the Census Bureau is looking at more ways to engage minority communities and address mistrust they may have of the federal government, Santos said. The agency may also consider taking on so-called easier-to-count communities, such as homeowners, through cheaper methods like administrative records to free up funds for in-person counting efforts in minority groups.

“Unless we fundamentally change things, we’re gonna end up in a similar place, not necessarily exactly as we were last time, because our big country’s becoming more diverse,” Santos said.

The post-enumeration survey report the agency released last week showed that, overall, the census counted within 0.25 percent of the country’s estimated 331 million people.

But the agency missed almost 5 percent of the country’s Hispanic population, the largest miss for that 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 also missed about 3 percent of the Black population, also 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.

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 plans to release more detailed results from its post-enumeration survey in May.

Since the release of that report, advocates have called on the Census Bureau to rethink its approach to the census and consider changes that go beyond what Santos suggested.

Arturo Vargas, CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials Education Fund, said the agency should look at fundamentals of the census, such as the way it counts residents by household.

“This is the brief window of opportunity that the Bureau has to really consider new ways of doing the work. Because once we get further down the decades, then it becomes too late and 2030 will be upon us,” Vargas said.

Vargas, the National Congress of American Indians, the National Urban League and other advocates have long pushed the Census Bureau to change its approach to counting minority communities. In a statement following last week’s report, NCAI President Fawn Sharp said the undercounts “confirm our worst fears” for the census.

American Indians “living on reservation lands deserve to be counted and to receive their fair share of federal resources as a part of the federal trust responsibility,” Sharp said.

She said the agency did not do enough to bridge technology gaps for its new default internet response option or conduct enough outreach to counter the pandemic’s impact in the 2020 count.

Throughout history, the census has consistently undercounted parts of the country’s population, according to Mark Mather, associate vice president of U.S. programs at the Population Reference Bureau, a research institute.

That’s partly because households have become more complicated over the decades. Mather pointed out that a child who periodically lives in more than one relative’s home may end up counted in none of them, or a college student who lives a few months a year on campus could get missed.

The decennial census creates a basic “picture” of communities that federal agencies use to distribute billions of dollars in funds, Mather said. Undercounts can shortchange a community’s share of funds from programs like Title I funding for poor schools or Community Development Block Grants for housing, he said.

“For lots of groups, that picture gets distorted because we don’t have good data for them. And the farther you drill down into certain communities and for certain population groups, the picture gets more and more distorted,” Mather said.

Santos made his comments Thursday during a presentation about the agency’s long-term modernization plans. He said the agency is examining many aspects of its operations, ranging from how it updates its databases to the way it asks about race and ethnicity, as well as work and income.

“It’s not quite clear that those types of questions work the same as they did in the past. And maybe we should be thinking about that. And reassessing and thinking about other questions. What other questions do we ask? Given how our society has changed?” Santos said.

The comments went beyond a suggestion by Karen Battle, chief of the Census Bureau’s population division, at the meeting Thursday. There, she said the agency had a team researching how it could use the estimated undercounts to adjust the ongoing estimate of the country’s population that feeds into datasets used by most federal programs.

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