A woman holds a sign saying "Today We Count! Fill it Out, Mail it Back."
A census advocate holds a sign at a rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2010. Jason E. Miczek/AP

Budgetary issues have led to a host of other problems for the Census Bureau. Now, the NAACP is seeking to ensure that vulnerable populations aren't overlooked in 2020.

Come 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau will face a perfect storm of logistical nightmares: reduced funding, poor planning, and a climate of fear that may exacerbate the challenges of tabulating communities that have historically been hard to count.

Last week, the NAACP sued the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, for information about census preparation in an effort to ensure that America’s most-vulnerable communities will be accurately counted. This Thursday, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur L. Ross Jr. testified in front of the House Committee of Oversight and Government Reform about the agency’s methods and budget for the 2020 census, attempting to assuage concerns about costs and preparation. But some fear that it may already be too late to salvage one of America’s basic constitutional responsibilities.

The U.S. Census, which is taken every 10 years, shapes the way legislative districts are drawn, how funds are allocated, and how political representation is distributed. Over $600 billion in federal funds are distributed based on census data to programs like Head Start and Section 8 housing. “So many things that Americans need in their everyday life depend on these numbers,” says Khyla D. Craine, the Assistant General Counsel at the NAACP.

But the census is a pricey cornerstone of our democracy: it cost the government $13 billion in 2010. In 2012, Congress capped census funding, telling the bureau it could spend no more for 2020 than it spent on the previous census. “The prior administration provided Congress and the public with overly optimistic estimations,” Ross said. Meanwhile, the cost of conducting the tally has risen significantly in recent decades: According to the Government Accountability Office, the Census Bureau’s cost for counting each household quintupled from 1970 to 2010. The Commerce Department’s new cost estimate for the 2020 census is $15.6 billion, a $3.3 billion increase from the estimate put forward back in 2012. In the testimony, Ross said the proposed increase would also address “contingency funding to address potential risks and associated challenges such as natural disasters,” which displace residents and make counting harder.

Because of the funding cap, the agency has taken cost-cutting measures that have rung alarm bells at the NAACP, which sent the Commerce Department a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in June. The NAACP wanted to look over records about the agency’s plan to carry out the 2020 census, including implementation of the agency’s efforts to reach hard-to-count communities and digitizing the data collected. After requesting 12 items in total and receiving partial data for only two, the NAACP decided to take the issue to court.

One measure that particularly concerns the NAACP is the 2020 census’s focus on digitization. In 2016, the Census announced that it was trying to get 55 percent of American households to respond to the 2020 census digitally. But rural populations and poor communities in larger metropolitan areas—both groups that suffer from undercounting—are also less likely to have broadband access. According to the Census Bureau itself, the 2010 census had a 2.1 percent undercount of the black population, which amounted to over a million people or two legislative districts.

Normally, the census bureau performs “dress rehearsals” in different parts of the country to make sure that they are prepared for the real show. But after the Trump Administration released the 2018 budget, two of the three tests that were supposed to happen this year were cancelled. One, in Washington, was important because it was close to a Native American reservation; this demographic tends to be undercounted by about 5 percent. Another test run, in West Virginia, was in a mostly rural area. “If you’re not running those tests, how are you sure those people can fill out the census?” asked Erinma Kalu, a law student intern at the Yale Law School Rule of Law Clinic, which is assisting the NAACP in the case. “This is the first time [digitization] is happening, and you want to be testing it, advertising, making sure people know how to do this.”

In a statement to CityLab, Secretary Ross stressed that digital collection would just be one tool in the agency’s arsenal: “The 2020 census will add the availability of response by internet as a convenience for those who wish to use it,” he wrote. “It is not a substitute for mail, telephone or door-to-door enumerating. Everyone for whom we can find an address will be solicited by mail. Those who do not respond to any of these forms of solicitation will be solicited in person on multiple occasions.”

“Counting people isn’t always the sexiest thing to do, but it has broad implications for programs throughout the country,” says Tina Thomas, an an attorney who volunteers her time doing redistricting reform work alongside former Attorney General Eric Holder. “It affects a whole slew of programs and funds allocated throughout the country: government funds, federal assistance, and even the private sector.” According to an estimate by Andrew Reamer, a research professor at George Washington University, since 2010 the state of California has lost $1,145 in federal funding per year for each resident not counted by the census.

In addition to decreasing federal and state funding, undercounting also robs communities of their political power. “If you’re in a place like Detroit [with a large black population] and you undercount, then you lose a whole district,” says Craine. According to testimony given by Vanita Gupta, the president and CEO of The Leadership Council of Human and Civil Rights, 65 percent of Detroit residents live in neighborhoods that have been historically difficult to track. “Michigan has lost a congressional seat for each of the two census cycles, which has a direct relation to their strength in casting their electoral college votes,” Craine says. Without accurate data, legislators will find it difficult to draw maps that create equitable districts. Political representation is based on the number of people in a state, not the number of voters, so census data is crucial for determining the number of seat appointments in the House of Representatives and votes in the Electoral College a state will receive for the next decade.

Not all populations are undercounted. The non-Hispanic white population was over counted by 0.8 percent in the 2010 census and 1.1 percent in 2000. “That is the crux of the problem,” says Terri Ann Lowenthal, a census expert who served for nearly a decade as the staff director of the census oversight subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives. “The distribution of political representation as well as the allocation of government resources is skewed because too many people are counted in one area and not enough people are counted in another.”

Outreach to undercounted groups thus accounts for the largest part of the census budget. Information about hiring practices for field workers is a key part of the NAACP lawsuit. The NAACP argues that people from those demographics must be hired to spread the word among those who will trust them—especially at a time when many are less likely than ever to volunteer information to the government. In 2016, the U.S. Commerce Department paid $15 million to settle a lawsuit involving an estimated 450,000 African Americans and Latinos who were potentially passed over for jobs due to the Census Bureau’s background-check recruiting practices. The agreement also stipulated that the bureau was obligated to work—at its own cost—with outside consultants to develop new hiring criteria for the 2020 census.

“I’m very concerned that the accuracy of the 2020 census is at risk in part because of an unprecedented climate of fear,” says Lowenthal, who oversaw the Census Bureau as part of President Obama’s 2008 transition team. “I’m concerned that many immigrant households, including those persons who have legal status but may live with others who don’t, will avoid participating in this census because of anti-immigrant rhetoric and proposals coming from the current administration.” She notes that some lawmakers have proposed adding questions about citizenship and legal status, “which would derail seven years’ worth of planning and research testing, and likely reduce response rates significantly.”

On Thursday, different House members shared their concerns about the future of the 2020 census. Representatives voiced doubts about everything from the technology used to tabulate the census to the scope of the communications budget. “Congress appropriated even less than the census requested in every year since 2012,” said Representative Elijah Cummings, a Democrat from Maryland. “[The budget] is too low, especially given the number of tests cancelled and new hires [needed] at the moment. We have a responsibility under the Constitution of the United States to ensure that the census is funded adequately and that the bureau has the resources it needs to conduct a fair and accurate census.”

When Representative Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York, asked about the agency’s provisions for funding education and advertising, Secretary Ross responded that, adjusting for inflation, the proposed communications budget for 2020 would be an $80 million increase over the 2010 budget. He also said that there will be more language training, including telephone call centers operating in 10 languages. In a statement to CityLab, Ross wrote: “Census will also be working with community groups to provide accurate information to local communities, encourage greater response rates by community group members and to recruit enumerators who are familiar with the local area.”                                

Lowenthal worries that the window of opportunity for truly fixing the 2020 census may have already closed. No amount of additional funding can purchase lost time. “If the new budget estimate provides for greater funding for vital outreach and promotion, that’s encouraging,” she says, “but the Census Bureau will need to catch up on the months of work it has missed already.”

“I think we are facing an unprecedented confluence of factors that could lead to a perfect storm in 2020, and therefore a failed census,” Lowenthal adds. “The census can’t wait. It cannot be pushed back. And there are no do-overs.”

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