By Peter White
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) says the Census Bureau could fail to accurately count the U.S. population in 2020. In February, the GAO put the 2020 Census on its list of 34 high-risk federal programs vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement.
The census was added to the list because the costs have risen a lot and fewer people are returning census questionnaires. The average cost of counting a household has risen from $16 in 1970 to $92 in 2010. When people don’t fill out the questionnaires and return them, the bureau sends out field workers as many as seven times to a single address to gather data. That trend has led to significantly higher costs to conduct an accurate count.
Congress has not increased funding to the Census Bureau to prepare for the 2020 census and the Trump administration’s 2017 budget does not call for an increase. A number of Civil Rights groups are worried the bureau won’t have the resources it needs to do the job well and ensure that all communities are counted accurately.
“Too much is at stake for the nation and being undercounted deprives already vulnerable communities fair representation and vital resources,” said Wade Henderson, President of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Henderson said census data helps identify emerging needs and helps national and local leaders make decisions about allocating resources. A fair and accurate census is a top priority for his coalition of more than 200 civil rights groups because it not only is used to redraw voting districts but also determines access to housing, education, healthcare, and jobs for all sectors of society.
Immigrants and young children from low-income families are often missed by the census. Being black or Native American or Asian and not being counted in the census means those people are officially invisible and those communities have historically been undercounted and underrepresented at all levels of government.
“I am increasingly worried that Congress and now the Trump administration are setting the stage for a less accurate count in many communities,” said Teri Ann Lowenthal, former staff director of the House Census and Population Subcommittee.
Lowenthal said the lack of funding to make the census better in historically undercounted communities with targeted advertising, language assistance, and more door to door polling in poor neighborhoods, will doom the bureau’s efforts to get an accurate count in 2020.
She also noted that heightened fear and mistrust of authorities among immigrants, Muslims, and in places like Chicago and Ferguson, Missouri, where relationships with local law enforcement are strained, are likely to keep people from answering questions about who they are and where they live.
“The President has questioned the integrity of federal statistics. He made unsubstantiated charges that millions of people voted fraudulently in the last election,” she said. “It is not a stretch to imagine an unfounded allegation of bogus counts in communities that he doesn’t think are friendly to him or his party.”
“One errant tweet that shakes public confidence in the process could depress participation and could undermine faith in the results,” she said.
Lowenthal said Congress should provide funding to ramp up for the census in the 2017 budget bill that it will pass next month and she said Congress should set aside the administration’s proposal for 2018 that she called inadequate.
“It is disappointing, unrealistic, and too low,” she said.
“Our priorities help insure that the historic undercount of millions of Latinos is not repeated in 2020,” said Arturo Vargas, Executive Director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO).
“The persistent undercount of the nation’s second largest population group has become a civil rights issue for our community. The undercount is not evenly distributed. We know that 1 million very young children were missed in the 2010 census and 400,000 of them were Latino children,” Vargas said.
He noted that the 2020 census plan is much different than earlier ones. It will rely heavily on Internet responses. Lack of Internet access could cause a drop in participation and less accurate census results.
“The plan changes can help modernize changes for our high tech society or introduce even more barriers to a full count,” Vargas said.
The 2020 Census will operate at the same level of funding used in Census 2010 but in 2010 dollars and that means the bureau needs to save $5 billion dollars and Vargas says that is “placing the accuracy and success of the 2020 census at serious risk”.
The Census Bureau has cancelled on site tests this year in Puerto Rico and on two Indian reservations to help evaluate the methods used for counting historically undercounted communities. Because of lack of funding from Congress, the bureau has already cut back on its dress rehearsal of its radically different plan it wants to test in 2018 before the actual count in 2020.
Using on line questionnaires instead of paper could save money. Mail response rates declined from 78 percent in 1970 to 63 percent in 2010. As a result the 2010 census cost $12.3 billion, 31 percent higher than the 2000 Census, which totaled $9.4 billion. The GAO reports the follow-up by census workers to interview people in person is by far the bureau’s largest and costliest field operation. And the bureau has had to invest more and more resources every ten years to get the same results of prior counts.
Since 2014, GAO has made 30 recommendations to the Census Bureau but only 6 have been fully implemented. The reason has a lot to do with a lack of funding.