With billions of dollars on the line, state and local governments are gearing up for the 2020 census, but experts say that there will almost certainly be an undercount despite these efforts.
The decennial census, a constitutionally mandated count of every person in the country, is always hard to pull off. It requires a large-scale marshaling of resources and people power to — in some cases — literally knock on doors and get people to fill out forms that describe their age, race and other demographic data.
The results are used to apportion seats in the House of Representatives, divide up roughly $880 billion annually in federal funding and inform statistics that are essential to the functioning of the United States.
While this task is always difficult, the 2020 census has a number of factors stacked against it, which, experts say, will almost certainly result in an undercount of marginalized populations and an overcount of richer, Whiter, older people.
Some of these problems are self-inflicted. A new white paper from the Census Bureau predicts that a potential question about citizenship introduced by the Trump administration could decrease the number of self-reports by as much as 8 percent in households with at least one non-citizen, impacting the entire census by as much as 2.2 percent.
Others are just the luck of the draw — the U.S. economy was in freefall in 2010 when the last census was conducted and the project was funded through President Barack Obama’s stimulus package. The current economy is at full employment, meaning there are far fewer people available to do the legwork it takes to complete a census.
And, this year, the census is employing new techniques, including online forms that, to the minds at the Urban Institute, a think tank, work against people without steady access to the internet.
All told, Washington alone might undercount by as many as 75,000 people and the national count could be off by millions, said Robert Santos, vice president and chief methodologist at the Urban Institute’s Statistical Methods Group.
“Sixteen million were undercounted in 2010 and we believe that number is going to be far larger this time around because of all of the threats,” Santos said.
For the most part, the undercounted tend to be people of color, homeless people, renters, young children and immigrants, mainly because they are often harder to contact. People living on tribal lands may not have postal addresses — the federal government uses satellite imagery to locate households from the air and then sends out census workers to contact them, Santos said.
The state undergoes a massive effort each year just to update administrative records with the new apartment buildings that have been constructed in vibrant cities like Seattle, and the government has to send out workers to deal directly with the elderly, the infirm and other individuals who may not be able to fill forms out on their own.
Locally, organizations are putting boots on the ground to try to contact hard-to-reach populations and inform them about the importance of participating in the census. Under the umbrella group called the Washington Census Alliance, organizations like the Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) have been working to contact clients in culturally and linguistically appropriate ways.
The first step was to lobby the state government for additional resources, said Michael Byun, executive director of ACRS. The Legislature secured $15 million to support community organizations in educational and outreach efforts.
“Now, the hard part begins,” Byun said.
To some degree, the damage has been done — even rumors of a citizenship question, which is already asked annually on the American Community Survey, have reportedly frightened people away from the census. It’s not just the question, Byun said. It’s also the anti-immigrant rhetoric that is stoking fear.
There are limited ways in which census data can be used, and employees are under a lifetime oath not to disclose sensitive information, Santos said.
Community partners want to be honest with the risks while still underlying the importance of filling out the census, said City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who helps lead Seattle’s Census Task Force.
“If we don’t have a full, accurate census count, we will not be able to serve our communities,” Mosqueda said.
As damaging as the addition of a citizenship question is for some communities, the lack of a question on gender identity will hurt another.
Information on gender identity and sexual orientation will not appear on the census form in 2020, outside of a binary male/female option. That lack of statistical information makes it harder for advocates to fight for the rights of people who identify as anything other than male or female, said Tobi Hill-Meyer, co-executive director of Gender Justice League.
“It’s frustrating that questions about sexual orientation and gender identity were removed from the census because every time we ask for resources for our community, the government almost always demands statistics showing the need. But they are the ones refusing to count us,” Hill-Meyer said.
People who serve people experiencing homelessness deal directly with the Census Bureau to assist with that count. So far, no one from the Census Bureau has reached out, said Daniel Malone, executive director of DESC, one of the largest homeless services providers in the county.
“I expect at some point we’re going to hear from the Census Bureau and they’re going to let us know … what they understand our program sites to be and any special approach they want to take to those,” Malone said.
Counting people who are sleeping outside is a huge challenge for the Census Bureau. Although communities like Seattle and King County conduct a rough count of homeless people for the Department of Housing and Urban Development at the end of January, those numbers aren’t sufficient for the decennial census.
Ensuring that the count is as accurate as possible is actually critical to helping end the homelessness crisis, said Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness (skcch).
Some of that federal money goes toward the creation of housing, the proven way to combat homelessness. That becomes more difficult as sweeps of people experiencing homelessness continue, displacing people from areas where they are known to sleep and making it harder to find them
“It is everyone’s responsibility, including the mayor of Seattle, to ensure the people who are homeless outside are not swept and are connected so they too can be counted,” Eisinger said.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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